Sunday 31 May 2020

The Rosie Duffield Affair

There is always a tweet. During last week's furore over Dominic Cummings, Opposition whip and Labour MP for Canterbury got on her high horse about social distancing. Little did anyone know that she herself was being somewhat economical with the actualité of the rules. Well, thanks to the Mail on Sunday we now know their letter and their spirit mattered as much to her as the niceties of Catholicism do to Sicilian mob bosses. Caught red-handed, at least she did the decent thing and resigned her shadcab role, turning what could have been an embarrassing story for Labour into a strength. If Rosie can fall on her sword, why can't Dom?

A couple of things about this affair about an affair. Like the case of Prof Neal Ferguson, the author of the lockdown strategy who broke his own rules for a knee trembler, the Mail now as the Telegraph then cultivated salacious gratification from talking up the married lover angle, as if the matrimonial arrangements of Ferguson's and Duffield's significant other has any bearing whatsoever. A reminder of the Tory press using sexual morality to defame their opponents while turning a blind eye to the extra-marital dalliances rife among the government benches. While most don't care about whom is bed hopping with whom, it does matter to a small and important social conservative section of the Tory base. It wasn't that long ago when ministers used to resign as a matter of course if they were caught with their trousers down, and in the 1990s scandal after adulterous scandal helped compound the sense of sleaze clinging to John Major's government. While the vast majority of the Tory base were prepared to overlook everything to get their precious Brexit done, that weapon will not be available in 2024. If trust becomes as an issue, as it clearly has now thanks to the Cummings crisis, reports of Tory infidelities can only contribute to its draining away and staying at home. Don't expect any more stories about Boris Johnson's colourful "innovations" in his private life between now and election day.

On resignation, sundry Tories on Twitter have tried to fool themselves into thinking there is complete equivalence between Rosie Duffield and Dominic Cummings, that the left are complete hypocrites for demanding action against the latter while ignoring the former. Well, Rosie has resigned. Aha, say the Tories, but she hasn't resigned her seat! Well, they've got us. What a gotcha. Of course, if we're abiding by the logic of their argument seeing as Cummings hasn't resigned neither should Rosie. Second, when Ferguson stepped back from his official role with the government he didn't resign his academic job as well. Considering Rosie is far more peripheral to the government's mishandling of the crisis than Ferguson or Cummings, it's ridiculous to expect her to pay a heavier price for breaking the rules. And third, while Ferguson's work informed the Tory quarantine strategy Dominic Cummings is the one figure in Downing Street more responsible than any other for its formulation and messaging. If the law maker can't be, refuses to be a law taker, their position is utterly untenable.

Overall, the Mail on Sunday's splash on Rosie Duffield might be counterproductive from the point of view of defending the government. They have fired the starting gun on other papers scrutinising the comings and goings of other MPs, including Tory MPs. Will the Conservatives be helped by more stories of salacious lockdown breaking? I doubt it.

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Saturday 30 May 2020

The Sick Man of Europe

It's hard to recall now, but there was a time the UK looked on top of Coronavirus. In the very early days as the outbreak was raging in Wuhan, Iran, and northern Italy, we were treated to a reassuring show of covid-19 victims getting tracked down and carted off to hospital. The people they had been in contact with were traced, tested, and told to stay put. For once, the Tories were on the edge of ... doing the right thing. As the rest of Italy succumbed and Spain fell under its pall, there was a smidgen of possibility the UK might weather the storm with fewer infections and fewer deaths than the countries across the Channel. Two months is a long time in epidemiology these days, and here we are at the end of May leading Europe with the highest incidence of disease and the greatest number of dead. And we take this grisly trophy for one reason. Despite their best efforts at trying to blame the public for not obeying lockdown rules, the Tories' tardiness at implementing the measures necessary to save tens of thousands of lives is responsible. This disaster is on them. There is no one else to carry the can.

Yet, as with all political things, fortune contrived to smile kindly on the Tories. With the initial shock of people being forced to stay home, combined with record job losses, significant cuts to the income of millions of others, and the fear covid-19 has struck into our collective hearts, this sheer incompetence wasn't much noticed. Labour's new leadership also fought shy of trying to highlight it fearful of Keir Starmer being seen playing politics with a life-or-death crisis. Therefore, many were prepared to forgive the government their innumerable sins because we needed them to get it right and, well, no one had been in this situation before. See, the Tories are lucky. The wrong choices could be put down to exceptionalism.

Nothing lasts forever, not even polling honeymoons facilitated by a deadly disease. In this last fortnight, the Tories have appeared determined to do everything to take their immense advantage and throw it around like non-functioning testing kits. We saw the imbecility of forcing open the schools while picking fights with teachers and their unions, retreats on ending furlough early and on NHS charges for foreign-born NHS workers, and a collapse in support thanks to the eternal Dominic Cummings crisis. And the government's response to this state of affairs couldn't be worse. Mindful of the u-turn-if-you-want-to nostalgia of the Tory imaginary, and the barrelling approach to Brexit, they've decided to hunker down and go through with school openings and further lockdown relaxations, with arbitrary dates set for the resumption of sports and opening of non-essential shops. This despite infections and death rates standing many times higher than the next worst afflicted European country. That's what they think of the science they're supposedly led by.

Over the coming decades the awful decisions of this government are sure to be pored over. They're going to be a factor at the general election in four years time and be scrutinised with a fine tooth comb at the upcoming round of trials. Well, you can't blame a guy for dreaming. But what is the root of this bloody-minded idiocy? We know Johnson is lazy and would know a brief if one came to get him out of jail, but it's more than having a personality indifferent to the suffering of others. Remember, this is someone entirely driven by self and the desire for popularity - you couldn't find a politician more appropriate to the age of the attention economy. The government's psychopathy isn't thanks to the personality traits of its Prime Minister and chief adviser, it's the collective property of the dominant wing of the Tories. Before the fall out of Dominic Cummings forced the right wing press to reflect the anger of its readers they were strongly agitating for lockdown restrictions to be eased. Whence does this will-to-psychosis come?

There are two intertwining aspects to understanding the Tories here. The first barely needs much rehearsing because it will be familiar with anyone reading anything to the left of the liberal press: class politics. The history of the Tory party is of its being the preferred, but not sole, arena for the political articulation of ruling class interests, for organising those interests, and representing these sectional interests as if they're identical with those of the country/people. The Tories' hesitation over implementing quarantine measures, their being forced by the measures already taken by the public was, transparently, about keeping the UK's stagnating economy from seizing up. How they've supported people through the crisis by tying subsistence to employers, keeping Universal Credit low, propping up landlords and issuing loans to businesses demonstrated their first concern was maintaining the disciplinary complex underpinning waged labour and market competition. No matter how many old people are shipped back into coronavirus-riddled care homes to die, no capitalist relations of production will be harmed by the pandemic. Even if some changes to the workplace are accelerating. Therefore the lifting of the lockdown is about putting profits before people, reasserting employer authority over employee, and starting the bounce back from the viral depression.

The second is about authoritarianism, which has been the ingrained common sense of British state craft since Thatcher. This is different to what we see in Russia, Hungary, the US, and elsewhere but is driven by the same sorts of processes. As Andrew Gamble observed in his 1988 book, The Free Economy and the Strong State, Thatcher's roll back of the post-war social order was not possible without the state tooling up. Famously it did so to see off the labour movement in the key disputes of the 1980s, but the authoritarianism ran deeper than handing the police more powers and carte blanche to do as they pleased. The Thatcher project was about positioning the government as the absolute authority within the state system. Her attacks on the civil service, the restructuring of education and health, the gutting of local government, and her overall disdain for expert knowledge (except when it was in accordance with her prejudices) reinforced Downing Street as the seat of command to which all other institutions cleaved. Tony Blair settled very well into this practice of government - the rows with the BBC, enforcing more marketisation on public services, and so on. Ditto for Dave's lash up with the LibDems and their programme of austerity in defiance of economic sense, and doubly so with Johnson first on Brexit and now with coronavirus. The parading of SAGE is just there for show - Johnson has no intention of abiding by their advice not because he thinks they're wrong and he's right, but because it goes against the entirety of his political socialisation. There cannot be room for alternative bases of authority in government if, crucially, the Thatcherite settlement within the state apparatus is to be maintained. I therefore fully expect the government to declare victory over the virus some point this summer while infections head toward a second peak and deaths accumulate at a greater rate than present.

I doubt Johnson consciously see things this way. His modus operandi is opportunism, not ideology or an appreciation of the interests of his class. As such, he's also well suited to the government machine bequeathed him by his predecessors. He doesn't have to be held to account, no one in the civil service is going to say no, experts and critics are rubbished as activists with political axes to grind, and they have zero authority in the state system anyway. Whether an active authoritarian like Thatcher or a couch potato authoritarian like Johnson, they want to maintain government privilege - hence also the outright refusal to sack Cummings, even at the risk of diving poll ratings.

In the 1970s, right wing columnists and rent-a-quote Tory MPs used to regularly describe Britain as the sick man of Europe because of rising inflation, sclerotic growth, strikes, inflation, and a generalised malaise. With an unenviable record and a rate of transmission higher now than when we entered quarantine, more people are going to be getting ill, getting incapacitated, and dying as other European countries start easing things and begin the slow journey back to something approximating the normal. Our continued morbidity contrasts unfavourably with their recovery. But our sickness is deeper - the illness of the social body is exacerbated by a disease of the mind, of a governing party and a Prime Minister prepared to sacrifice the many to conserve the profits and power of the few, and a practice of government that encourages him to do so.

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Thursday 28 May 2020

Capitalism and the Death of the Office

Famously, Karl Marx didn't have a lot to say about the future. He certainly plotted trends and made perceptive forecasts, but what the new society would look like was left blank - a matter for the generations to come to determine. Yet someone with his literary sensibility could not avoid the odd flourish, and one of his most famous addressed what might pass as working life in a world after capitalism:
For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. (Private Property and Communism, The German Ideology)
This is work but not as we know it, of labour reimagined as pleasurable activity or, to be more accurate, work divorced from necessity. By necessity we mean economic compulsion, the brute reality of having to sell our time to work under the direction of someone else to buy the means of life. While there will always be work in the sense of productive activity, it does not have to assume exploitative forms nor be organised by tyrannies of unaccountable power. It can be different, but that requires a necessity of its own - an economic life beyond capitalism.

This is why material pumped out by sundry capitalists and managerial cadres about the workplace of the future is so interesting. Not just because they summarise contemporary trends, but because of their contortions around and erasure of exploitation and power. Even when their account is sprinkled with empowerment and messages that might, in isolation, be considered progressive.

A recent example of this comes from the tablet of Brianne Kimmel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist by way of The Graun. Her article boldly announces the obsolescence of the office and the coming of a world that is more communal and, crucially, more productive. The coronavirus crisis has certainly compressed about a decade's worth of trends into an incredibly short space of time - for instance, teaching at our place and the rest of its administrative work moved online pretty seamlessly because, like most other organisations, digital mediation was already embedded in the culture. And thanks to the likes of Zoom and, in our case, Microsoft Teams the never ending rounds of meetings made the jump too - for good and ill. With bosses across the world noting the same thing without an appreciable drop in productivity, they're eyeing up their estates for big cuts.

In her reflection on the death of the office, Kimmel reads more like a critical sociologist of work than an investor. She argues the attachment to the workplace cannot simply be replaced by an online toolkit, the problem is work culture itself. I'm listening. She says the attachment to work as the source of our identities, the expectation we sacrifice so much for it, and move to be near it is toxic (or "degenerative" as she puts it). And how one is perceived by co-workers depends not on the quality of what is done but their visibility in the office - what they refer to in the US as face time. But much of it is an illusion, a simulacra of work. How much office time is spent looking at stuff on the internet that isn't work?

Face time is also the axis around this workplace oppression can turn. It upholds certain expectations about appearance and attitudes based on them, which can slide easily into racism and sexual harassment. One of the advantages of going digital is these standards change. The Teams meeting with its webcam windows of varying quality is a great leveller. Therefore, if work is proceeding without the face time culture then surely the office should become an optional place of work, allowing the rest of us more time for what really matters. As she puts it, "A world where the office is obsolete is more positive, more communal and more productive. It’s one that reconnects us with our neighbours nearby and grounds us in personal principles rather than professional achievements."

Welcome aboard the the struggle to end struggles, comrade venture capitalists? Not quite. Kimmel's critique reaches into the tradition of what Ralph Fevre calls sentimental individualism, a tradition complementary with but often opposed to cognitive, or rational choice/economic individualism whose credo informs the propagation of neoliberal selfhood. Why then is she and the strata of capital Kimmel is from happy to see the upending of traditional patterns of work? It's about the class interest, stupid.

The death of the office is accelerating the disarticulation problem Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri identified in their Empire trilogy. That is throughout the history of capitalism, the production of surplus value and, therefore, profits has depended not just on the compulsion of economic necessity but of bringing workers to a place of production where their labour can be supervised and directed by the owner of capital and/or their representatives. The emergence of immaterial labour and its becoming increasingly dominant erodes traditional management practices because, for one, the basic force of immaterial production is the knowledge and social aptitudes congealed in human brains. It doesn't own it, which means it becomes increasingly difficult for capital to control it. Hence practices like face time, performance reviews, laborious inductions, and the vast scale of social (subjectivity) engineering workplaces and our societies more generally engage in.

But Kimmel and friends want to blow all that up. Where do they come into things? The vectors of their profit making course through circuits of exploitation that doesn't hold back but facilitates new avenues of social production. Consider her own position as a so-called "angel investor", someone who will invest in the kinds of projects few others are prepared to touch. They stump up the capital and, in return, usually take a stake in the nascent start up. So far, so standard. However, the sorts of businesses Kimmel finds attractive - as you can see from her website - are tech and the social media adjacent. And they, in turn, run according to rentier models. They provide the space, bits of infrastructure, and new ways of analysing data and make their money - sometimes at quite a remove - from the users who flow through the applications, websites, and social media platforms they service. And this, in turn, is dependent on advertising. Therefore, the more people abandon the traditional office and move online, the larger the market to provide tools to make that experience easier, and the more time for casual browsing - face time is replaced by internet time, and the greater the overall trove of data capture from both for fine grained advertising. The content we provide then, the very stuff of our lives is mined and chopped up. We get to use their services for "free", and in return they harvest huge agglomerations of data for massive profits. The escape from the office means the axis of exploitation shifts. The digital imprint of our soul stuff is up for rummaging.

This emergent form of capitalism, variously described as platform or cognitive capitalism has accelerated during the coronavirus crisis, and what might emerge at the end is a formally freer, less overtly exploitative, and more convivial capitalism, but capitalism nevertheless with its rich and poor, its old and new configurations of alienation, and the same crap repackaged. The social media giants grow larger, the dependence of the social on the digital as essential infrastructure grows, and the economic power and reach of the tech savvy bourgeoisie, to borrow one of their favourite phrases, scales up. The end of the office is certainly a revolution of sorts, but falls far short of a real leap to freedom.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Will there be a Tory Rebellion?

What was one of the enduring lessons of Theresa May's premiership when it entered into crisis following the 2017 general election? And what did we learn from the chaos in parliament last Autumn? Repeat after me: there is no such thing as a Tory rebel. Or at least a consistent one. With inglorious recent history in mind, how does this bear on recent events? It's now obvious Dominic Cummings isn't about to go willingly, and Boris Johnson has decided to cling on to him for dear life. Even if it means dynamiting essential public health messaging and exposing people to needless risk. Where does this leave the Tories?

Most MPs are at their lickspittle best, trotting out identical tweets and writing messages cut and pasted from whips' office circulars. But an increasing number have poked their heads above the parapet. Conservative Home stopped their rolling list when 36 names broke cover. Throughout the day and following Johnson's half-arsed appearance in front of the select committee chairs this afternoon, this has now mushroomed to somewhere in the region of 50. And, apparently, there are eight cabinet members who've indicated to the lobby hacks they're unhappy and think Cummings should go. With the exception of Penny Mordaunt, who has publicly criticised Cummings, the rest have stated their opposition from the consequence-free cloak of anonymity.

Readers might recall George Freeman from the Brexit wars, the soft-spoken but loquacious member for mid-Norfolk and victim of February's cabinet clear-out, which also saw the departure of Sajid Javid. His call for Cummings's resignation summates the views of his disgruntled colleagues. In his letter to the Prime Minister, he writes about his postbag and describes the moods as a "scale of depth and of the anger felt by constituents is like nothing I have seen in ten years." And remember, we have lived through the polarising fun that was Brexit. He goes on to note the multiple breaches of the rules, which Cummings brazenly owned up to and tried claiming they were nothing of the sort, before moving on to the killer punch: Cummings's behaviour and refusal to even apologise (or even issue a politician's non-apology) has fatally undermined the public health strategy and trust in the government at the very moment the rules are changing and become more complicated. Exactly right. Proof even a Tory is right about politics twice a day.

50 MPs for whom public health comes before the Johnson/Cummings project, but what are they going to do about it? As plenty of Westminster watchers have noted, it's one of those occasions where absences say a great deal more than who has signed up. Apart from Freeman, the very Brexity Steve Baker, and a few names who rebelled for remain reasons in the Autumn, those coming forward thus far are hardly A-listers. Where are the big names? Jeremy Hunt is about the only front rank Tory to have cast aspersions on Cummings. The others have so far kept quiet, though understandably in Javid's case any complaints could/would be spun as sour grapes. Yet the longer these oppositionists, and I use that term advisedly, are out in the open and enjoying the backing of the Tory press the greater the damage. If more senior members come out the more acute the crisis becomes.

And yet, in all truth, provided disgruntled Tories write letters and give critical interviews, from a party management point of view Johnson and Cummings can tough it out. This isn't like Theresa May after June 2017, when she was assailed from all sides by would-be leaders who lacked the strength to depose her and carry the party, there are no contenders to give Johnson the heave ho. Despite his manifest laziness, he has proven his electability as far as they're concerned. And, well, in the middle of a crisis that has killed more Britons than the Blitz launching any kind of leadership bid is hardly the best of looks. Political suicide just about covers the consequences. And so the anti-Cummings tendency are stuck. They're not going to put Johnson on notice. They're not going to start rebelling against his legislative programme. They're not going to do anything.

While it is true one should take Tory rebellions with a pinch of salt, in this case it's not lack of spine that's stymieing them but the balance of forces in the parliamentary party and the national crisis. As they're not going to move neither is the situation. The Cummings wound remains open and, too late, has introduced sepsis into the Tory body politic, destroying its poll standing and the government's legitimacy as the custodian of public health. Boris Johnson has shown he'd rather protect the career of his indispensable advisor than the health of the tens of thousands likely to get infected as others feel free to play fast and loose with the distancing regulations. The Cummings hubris has paved the way for nemesis, but it's us - our relatives, our friends, maybe ourselves - who might be called upon to pay the ultimate price.

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Monday 25 May 2020

In the Rose Garden

After keeping the TV schedules waiting for half an hour, did Dominic Cummings do enough to save his bacon? It's doubtful his presentation in the Downing Street rose garden changed anyone's mind. If you're prepared to defend the government and Cummings after the weekend's revelations you're going to carry on doing so. After all, for the likes of Dan Hodges and Guidelet-at-large Tom Haywood the truth is a firm second to media profile - even if it means eating shit on the government's behalf. And if you're angry because Cummings flouted lockdown rules, you're still going to be angry.

In an impressive display of doublethink, Cummings said he did nothing wrong. And then admitted to the assembled pressers all the times he disobeyed the rules he helped write:

1. Concerning the events of 27th March, Cummings admitted he went home, discovered his wife was ill, and then returned to work at Downing Street. The rules, of course, were very clear. He should have immediately self-isolated as a member of his household was ill. Now, Cummings has attempted to get round this by arguing Mary Wakefield did not have a cough. If he didn't suspect this was Coronavirus, then why did he leg it back from Downing Street and drive all the way up to Durham to self-isolate? Hmmm.

2. The actual relocation itself was against the rules. If you or a member of your household were displaying symptoms or otherwise suspected of having the disease, you are supposed to stay put. As it happens, the common sense argument Cummings makes in his defence is one, I'm sure, most people would sympathise with. If you had an alternative bolt hole that was even more isolated and you could travel to it without risking exposing anyone else, then why not? Except, again, the rules have been very clear. In the early part of the lockdown there were repeated complaints of our more affluent citizens fleeing London for their holiday homes in the arse end of nowhere. Readers might recall Neil Gaiman had to publicly apologise for heading to Skye for the duration. Cummings has also tried justifying this in terms of "exceptional circumstances", but when tens if not hundreds of thousands of parents have been placed into a similar position and abided by the rules then his situation isn't exceptional at all.

3. You couldn't make it up. He said he stayed on his family's land in a cottage/nissan hut. After having recovered somewhat following a couple of days in bed, he felt his eyesight had been adversely affected. So to see if his eyes were up to driving, he packed everyone into his car and drove 30 miles to Barnard Castle - a 60 mile round-trip in total. I'm sure you would agree this is an entirely normal thing to do. Again, the rules were clear. You were supposed to stay put, and go out once a day in your locality for exercise. Cummings did not. Instead, he was one of those awful people the likes of Derbyshire plod and the Daily Mail were moaning about for travelling into the countryside. Also, entirely coincidentally, the Cummings/Wakefield visit to Bernard Castle was on the occasion of her birthday.

Asked about issuing an apology, Cummings repeated he'd done nothing wrong. Asked about whether he had considered resigning, he said no. Instead, he tried turning it around to the press and blame them for the furore. Perhaps if the Scottish chief medical officer and the author of the lockdown strategy hadn't lost their jobs and the right wing press hadn't demanded their heads - a certain Tom Haywood among them - this would be a non-story worth a shrug and a couple of column inches in Private Eye.

And so he's dug his heels in, and Boris Johnson is backing him to the hilt. Their fates are now tied - they stand together or they full together. And are they going to? There is a real split among Tory ranks on this, if Conservative Home is anything to go by - props to the contributor arguing driving with impaired insight is exactly what you should do). And so far 21 Tory MPs have called for Cummings to resign. However the bulk of the right wing media are also against Cummings, reflecting the anger of their thinning readership. And Tory MPs generally are reportedly in a flap, with their WhatsApp groups buzzing with complaints and those worried by the growing pile of hostile letters from constituents. Good, let them feel the heat.

The question is will it matter? I guess we won't know until we see the first clutch of polls, but it feels like it does. The government were starting to look a bit shaky anyway, and doubling down on the nothing to see here defence is hardly helpful for keeping popular confidence on side. Could this be Boris Johnson's Black Wednesday, the moment when speculation forced the pound out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 and afflicted a blow on John Major's government from which it could never recover - despite being fewer than six months on from a famous general election victory? The parallels are there. With widespread doubts over the return to school and return to work strategies, there's nothing like a case of brazen hypocrisy on the part of a self-styled people's government to provoke anger and collapse confidence along with popular support. Whatever the case, the story isn't about to go away. Because of Cummings, the whereabouts and movements of other senior officials and the cabinet itself comes under the spotlight and other examples or rule-breaking are sure to be uncovered.

Cummings has always been fancied as something of a chaos agent, a tsunami of terror that would roll in and sweep way the corrupt establishment that has held back British politics for so long. After today's press conference, it's looking like he'll meet this happy objective.

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Sunday 24 May 2020

Thatcherism and the Poll Tax

For no reason apart from the fact I've just finished writing a short piece about the Poll Tax for the book, here's a "charming" party political broadcast from the Tories back in the day. It's useful not just because they were happy to indulge openly homophobic propaganda (1988 is the year of Section 28, after all) but because it lays bare the neoliberal logics underpinning Thatcher's justification of the tax. A logic, sadly, that survived its abolition by John Major and persists to this day in the Council Tax.

Saturday 23 May 2020

Cummings and Goings

If you have Coronavirus symptoms, the government's rules are very clear. You should self-isolate for a fortnight. No ifs, no buts, unless there is an obvious risk to life. Why then did Dominic Cummings, the "mastermind" behind the government's complacent and disastrous response to the covid-19 emergency, drive from London to Durham to drop his kids off when, by his own admission, he was showing all the signs of the disease? We know why. He drove there for the same reasons why Catherine Calderwood, Scotland's chief medical officer visited her second home, and why Neal Ferguson, author of the lockdown strategy, broke the rules to get his leg over. They did it because they could. They did it because the quarantine measures they proffered for others do not apply to them.

News of course for the rest of us. Those parents who were ill with children at home, people banned from the bedside of family members, the bereaved having to grieve in absentia because distancing rules applied to funerals, these sacrifices - which Boris Johnson has the habit of patronisingly congratulating us for - are for the likes of us, not the likes of them. Even when it means pointing people in harm's way, which is exactly what Cummings did. Cummings and his partner were both obviously ill with the bug, but thought nothing of dumping the sprog on the elderly parents. At least his lack of regard for the safety of the old is consistent. Still, given the opportunity to pick a side between the many and the few, true to form senior Tories have marched out to defend Cummings. Michael Gove said "caring for your wife and child is not a crime." Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab said it was a justifiable action, and condemned political point scoring. At the daily press conference, Grant Shapps went as far to suggest Durham Police were lying about speaking to Cummings's family about the matter. You can find other ministers, MPs, and their social media satraps doing the same. Though, strangely, not our frequently absent Prime Minister.

Speaking outside his house Saturday morning, Cummings told the assembled press pack it wasn't about what "looks good", but "doing the right thing." He added it didn't matter what the journos thought. Typical of him, he's brazening it out. He's wagering that this is a media confection that will bother the usual excitables on Twitter, while out in the country people will see it as a fuss over nothing. Well, he's neglected two things. First is the anti-elite narrative he has carefully crafted since rocking up at Downing Street. Drawing on decades of right wing fulmination against experts and so-called liberal elites, it was easy to weave a story about privileged remoaners when they acted like spoiled brats who simply wanted to set aside the referendum. The problem is when an anti-elitist starts acting like the elite they affect to despise, and do so in the full glare of publicity.

And the second thing? Ho, ho. Pippa Crerar was sitting on a follow-up story about the other time Cummings had broken the lockdown. After a full day of senior Tories making up excuses for "Dom" and trying to pretend anyone interested in the truth had anti-Tory axes to grind, the behaviour of Johnson's essential familiar savages them, Pennywise-style, in the backside. This has led Sophy Ridge to take the extraordinary step of giving Shapps, her Sunday guest, the questions she's going to ask in advance so we can get some proper answers.

This Cummings scandal couldn't come at a more delicate time. Facing sustained criticism over plans to ease the lockdown, the government have blundered into an unnecessary confrontation with teachers which has formed up devolved authorities, metro mayors, and local government behind them. With the plan unravelling, they were forced to concede waiving NHS surcharges for foreign-born staff to try and keep the main objective front and centre. And now the Cummings revelations have wrecked that, and made the government look like complete idiots. Does it matter? Well, yes. It's sure to help speed up the slow erosion of the Tory poll lead, but one shouldn't underestimate the potentially deadly consequences of Cummings's irresponsibility. If the government's spad-in-chief can get away flouting the law and not be seen to suffer any consequences, why shouldn't everyone else drive here, there, and everywhere to have meetings with family and friends. It sends absolutely the wrong message, but the government haven't got a leg to stand on for as long as Cummings resides in Downing Street.

Friday 22 May 2020

Some Rules for a Militant Political Science

Political science is a weird term. When you think about politics with its shifting alliances, shock results, splitting and merging parties, the rise and fall of careers, and the interests that work through and find voice among this mess, making head or tail of it is a laborious process indeed. And even having the right analysis doesn't mean the guarantee of success. It's for this reason Lenin considered politics more an art than a science. But when you look at actually-existing political science, the stuff filling up the journals bearing that moniker and that takes home the academic prizes, it couldn't be further away from politics. Open any introduction to political science or work self-consciously identifying itself as such and what you get are acres of tables, an obsession with quantification and the occasional mathematical modelling, a preoccupation with conceptual clarity, and a set of unthought presuppositions informed (some might say damned) by empiricism, functionalism, and rational choice. If that wasn't bad enough, the focus - the theoretical object if you want to be a bit Althusserian - is entirely the trappings of official politics: parties, voting behaviour, electoral systems and how they behave, the character of party systems, and what have you. On occasion political science has drawn attention to wider processes that might be driving political change, such as the cleavage structures underpinning political conflict, or cultural change as the driver of transformation. Given the empiricism underpinning political science, it's not surprising these forays into political sociology hardly piqued the attention of sociologists and other social science disciplines.

What's prompted this return to political science. Hadn't this blog settled accounts with it a long time ago? Well, yes. But there was a question Tom Gann of the New Socialist posed earlier. Imagining a huge cash money advance, he fantasised about writing a book in which a militant political science could be worked out. But what might it look like? Well, nothing like established political science except in the most superficial of senses.

The difference between the academic and militant kinds is that between description and explanation. For instance, in the book I'm writing about the Tories there are elements you would find in any traditional work of political science, such as descriptions of the party's performance, the character of its institutions and rules, membership demographics, the alliances formed with other parties, and so on. However, it goes beyond political science by explaining strategy in terms other than parliamentary/vote catching concerns. In other words, the first thing a militant political science must do is abandon the naivete of the autonomy of the political and put it in its proper place. Politicians make decisions, parties discharge strategies, but they're conditioned not just by their own ideas and prejudices acquired through a career of political socialisation but by the assumptions and pressures conditioning politics. And these pressures come in two flavours - from above or from below.

Consider the pickle Boris Johnson finds himself in presently, by way of a quick case study. He is being pressured by business, his backbenchers, his chums, and the Tory press to ease the lockdown and restore a semblance of normality. Why? Partly because British business is losing money hand over fist because workers aren't working - an acute demonstration of who the real wealth creators are. But also because of a relaxation of the disciplining effects of work. There is a concern it will be more difficult for managers to exert their authority after all this is over. And consider the pressures on Johnson not to liberalise the lockdown. He's going to have a tough time forcing more teachers back to work in the absence of proper checks when the public are broadly supportive, and local councils and the devolved administrations are not on the same mad Tory page. Walking this tightrope means he's prone to the gusts from side issues, hence his U-turn on health care fees for NHS staff and care workers from abroad.

The job of a political science worthy of the name is to understand and get a grip on the cohesion of these relationships and interests, and understand they proceed at a number of levels encompassing surveillance and discipline, population management, cultural politics, lawmaking, the street, the point of production. This is where we encounter the ever-vexatious issue of the state. In this picture, it's not good enough to blandly assert capitalist states automatically serve the (collective) capitalist interest. The state itself is a field of forces, a system of more or less extensive, more or less autonomous institutions that exist in tension to one another and are always subject to struggle, be it the petty empire building of ambitious bureaucrats to employer/employee confrontations, to being the site of contestation over wider issues. Likewise the government's relationship with different parts of the state is not one of straightforward domination, though the further the social distance from the environs of Number 10 the greater the autonomy and, possibly, propensity to resist diktat. Therefore the state as guarantor or private property and class relations does not, itself, have a final guarantee. It is maintained by the messy inertia of its operation, the networks of its personnel, and the coalition of forces condensed in the governing party. To all intents and purposes then political parties, or to be more precise the parties of government, are part of the state.

The state then is neither a simple expression of capital, as per crude Marxism, nor a neutral party as fancied by social democracy and Labourism - it is much more complex. And at any given juncture, analysis is about unravelling these relations to get a picture of the balance of forces arrayed against us. Therefore, referring to our above/below shorthand to get a handle on bourgeois politics we have to pay attention to their alliances and relationships, their networks, friendships, and back-scratching arrangements, how they come together inside and outside of parliament as movements to meet their objectives, and how these are replicated and reproduced across parties and institutions. These are dynamic and shifting processes, but are entirely observable because they come into public view primarily in the machinations of the Tory party - but also occasionally in the Labour Party. Under Blair, the New Labour project did represent an attempt to cohere the party as the primary axis of ruling class politics, and it worked for a time. Recall the many money scandals that plagued New Labour - the cash for honours, the dodgy loans, the relaxation of tobacco sponsorship for F1. More recently the final collapse of the Blairist contingent of right wing Labour, the Change UK split, and the funnelling of huge quantities of money and personnel (and rivalries) into the remain movement offered a glimpse into the doings of what our non-Tory sections of the bourgeois class were up to now Labour was (temporarily, as it turned out) no longer amenable to them.

Militant political science is sensitive to the machinations of our rulers and how they come together episodically and over the long-term around communities of interest. Yet it must also be open to the idea of ruling class failure. One of the reasons why crude Marxism reads like conspiracy theory is because it always assumes the representatives and agents of capital always know their interests. They have perfect information, and so whatever happens in politics, domestic or international, reflects the interests of capital/imperialism. This is wrong, and not just because their power always abuts and begets resistance. Contrary to what we might call rational choice Marxism (not to be confused with the old edited collection of the same name), capital does get it wrong. Businesses fail. They invest in the wrong product or expand into the wrong market. They introduce policies that hamper the productivity of their workers, or launch attacks on them that backfire spectacularly. And they can support parties and politics inimical to their interests. During the 1980s, there were plenty of manufacturing concerns that lined up behind Thatcher. And now, you have big business like JCB and Dyson happily lining up behind Brexit - even though, you would think, their commercial interests are best served by having unfettered access to the world's largest market. Bourgeois politicians make mistakes too. They take chances and gamble, just as Boris Johnson did with pushing his hard Brexit against all comers. And how a certain unlamented Tory leader bet his career on the EU referendum, and lost.

Naturally, militant political science pays attention to resistance. Or, to be more accurate, the problematic of movement (and party) building. Taking its cue from Deleuze and Guattari, and the approach to social movements pioneered by Alberto Melucci, a militant political science does not reify the working class, or women, or minority sexualities and people of colour as a category with a structural imperative to overthrow capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy but as a multitudinous complex of billions always in the process of formation. By virtue of wage labour and its development over five centuries, including how it is foisted upon the great mass of humanity and has in turn been reconfigured and continually subverted by resistance, in this regard militant political science is no different from Marxism, feminism, anti-racism and LGBTQ liberation politics. It looks where resistance is, analyses the dynamics and power relations in play, the organisation of resistance in its formal and informal aspects and draws out the necessary lessons. But unlike establishment political science, with its formalism and divorce from political practice militant political science is fundamentally open. It seeks audiences at the coal face of struggle, wherever it is, bringing insights, histories, and concepts synthesised from other struggles and presents itself as tools to be used, wherever appropriate, to make sense of the event as it happens and the opportunities and dangers unfolding from it. Militant political science is an informed imaginary, the collective product of millions that itself is in a process of becoming - a diffuse and collective enterprise that acts as a great organiser, attempting to pull politicised order out of the multitudinous chaos. A radical commonwealth or, to use another favourite Althusser phrase, the class struggle in theory.

Is any of this new? Absolutely not. A militant political science exists in a peculiar process of becoming. It is always developing, always learning, always shifting in nuance and focus with every struggle enriching it and every mind coming into contact with it. And yet, unlike other processes of becoming, it does have an end point: its own abolition. It is no different to existing revolutionary politics and theory because it is the struggle to end struggle. It wants to become so it can finish. Its heart desire is to be nothing more than the narrative of humanity's pre-history, of being a tale of what was that would horrify but inspire future generations fortunate enough to live in a society in which the old crap of class and capital, of oppression and hatred is done with. For us though, militant political science opens the way to the freedoms of the future by struggling for them in the present. It is open and inclusive vs the closed and exclusionary social system limiting us, exploiting us, oppressing us, and murdering us. It shows the world as it so we can make what it might be. Therefore, unlike the dessicated tundra of bourgeois political science, with its frozen categories and assumptions mired in permafrost, militant political science is warm, living, and exciting.

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Tuesday 19 May 2020

The Barney with Barnier

Dissimulation, double think, craven idiocy, lies. I could be talking about the internal life of the Labour Party, but on this occasion we're revisiting our old friend: Brexit. Keeping the issue alive is not only about pushing right wing identity politics, but a way of keeping the Tories' excitable Brexit-obsessed flank on side. The aftermath of the coronavirus crisis will be bad enough without getting menaced by a resurrected Brexit Party. So snoringly predictable I could drop off. What's going on now, then. What's on the bored, Miss Fored?

In today's grandstanding, the government have published its approach to the negotiations. You know things aren't going well for the UK's position when the Telegraph splashes with the claim Michel Barnier is "losing the argument", and the ever-dependable Daily Express cheerleads remarks made by David Frost, the UK chief negotiator, that what the EU is offering a "low quality trade deal." Sounds like fighting talk and one sure to warm the cockles of Brexity hearts.

Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, Michael Gove blamed the EU for "holding up talks" with its "ideological approach." What could this mean? The EU's position is guided by high-minded and airy-fairy principles? No. The government have published 13 documents comprising a series of separate agreements that tie together as an overall deal. The EU reject this "copy and paste" approach based on past deals and want something different. So, yes. Um, very ideological. This was underpinned by a sharply worded letter to Barnier from Frost in which he moaned about the unprecedented expectations the EU was placing on the UK, which amounted to no quid pro quo. I.e. The idea the EU has access to some UK resource, like fisheries, without some reciprocal arrangement elsewhere. You can't simply have cake and eat cake, as David Davis's briefing notes once eloquently put it. What does the EU have to say?

Well, we read from Barnier's Friday communique that negotiations were partially hampered because the UK hadn't yet published its legal documentation. For clarity, the EU published theirs in March. Also, far from the EU refusing to play the reciprocity game it is the UK who did not want to "engage in real discussion." For instance, on the single governance framework for adjudicating disputes in the putative common trading area, it reported no progress. It's one thing to moan about how the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice shouldn't apply to Britain under the new deal without bothering to talk about an alternative. Furthermore, the UK are refusing to provide any guarantees on human rights matters - refusing to abide by agreements made in October, and is asking the EU to dump its rules on data protection for a lower threshold - which seems to be one of the UK's vaunted divergences from the EU mainstream.

What is striking about the Barnier note is how on Friday it replies to the arguments made by Gove this Tuesday. The EU's ambition is a no-tariff deal, which would be the first in its history with a non-member precisely because of the UK's special status as an ex-member. Therefore the past deals the Tories hark back to with other countries are not appropriate to the current situation. And, contrary to what Gove and Frost are saying, it is the UK who are insisting on access to European markets while keeping bits of the UK closed to EU business. It is almost as if the Tories have pored over Barnier's document, assumed all of his positions as the UK's and repackaged them for a domestic audience to make the EU look unreasonable. For instance, of the thorny fishing issue Barnier writes, "Why would we seek to give favourable market access conditions to certain British professionals when our European fishermen would be excluded from British waters and risk losing their livelihoods?" Quite.

Naturally, Barnier is not acting out of charitable motives. He wants a good deal for the EU and is hard-headed about getting one. 45 years of economic integration has closely bound together markets across the channel. In the best of times, EU businesses would therefore be damaged in the event of a no deal exit at the end of this year. Under the catastrophic impact of coronavirus, the wreckage is set to be even more extensive. To use the old language, he's looking out for the interests of capital in France, Germany and the Low Countries by ensuring as little disruption and the continuance of as many existing relationships as practicable. In contrast, none of this is focusing the UK's mind. Instead the Tories now think the covid downturn can mask the fall out of no deal, which in turn means they're not approaching these negotiations at all seriously. Unfortunately, they have the precedent of last Autumn to fall back on where the UK went in to crunch talks with the same light minded approach and came out with a new deal. Which, of course, bore a resemblance most uncanny to Theresa May's thrice-damned deal. With the June deadline and nothing happening, the Tories are hoping the EU will blink first. That's not going to happen.

What is the point of all this, then? When it comes down to it, the only bourgeois interest the Tories have consistently supported are those of the City. Or, to be more accurate, have done what they think are best for its collective health. And right now they are aligned with that section which sees its future working as a global hub for brokerage, trading, and hot money. The model is not Singapore, but the City of London as it has been for centuries. The Tories also believe they have leverage, because the EU is also dependent on its markets for raising capital and selling bonds, despite the conscious effort to develop alternatives in Frankfurt and, to a lesser extent, Paris. That the City is in a co-dependent relationship with the EU thanks to the volumes of trade EU customers bring into the square mile is overlooked. So what if some firms take a hit, their destruction will be more than compensated by the creation of new markets and new business flowing into a City free from the EU's stringent regulations. This is the vision that has captivated the big capital interests who have and continue to pour money into the Tories. And this, ultimately, is why they can live with no deal and are content to play games with Barnier's team. The City will out, come what may, and all the rest be damned. And if coronavirus expedites this bleak conclusion to the Brexit saga, so be it.

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Monday 18 May 2020

Yvette Cooper's Miserable Capitulation

Compromise and deal making is the DNA of Labourism. Rooted in the day-to-day practice of the workers' movement, the reason why many trade unionists have proved effective and adept politicians, regardless of their politics, is the culture of negotiation, brinkmanship, persuasion and, some might say, accommodation is the way the House of Commons is set up too. When, a wee while back, Laura Pidcock caused a stir by ruling out cross-bench friendships with Tory MPs it was because she shone a light on the essential similarities of the politics of the boss party and the politics of the labour movement's political wing. This is what we must bear in mind as we attend to today's comments in parliament by Yvette Cooper.

In case you haven't followed proceedings, and who can blame you, she indicated she is minded to vote for the government's new immigration bill - a bit of a coup considering her seniority in the PLP, buttressed by her chairing the Home Affairs Select Committee. The government's plans involve the introduction of the much-vaunted points-based system. It's likely points will be awarded for language proficiency, education level, holding a job offer, and (whisper it) assets. Priti Patel herself has stated this is explicitly aimed at keeping out unskilled workers, hence a proposed salary threshold of around £25k. As the new shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds rightly noted in reply to the debate "those who clapped on Thursday are only too happy to vote through a bill that will send a powerful message to those same people - that they are not considered by this government to be skilled workers." Not only that, unless the rules are flexible the UK will see a sharp deficit where recruitment to care and the NHS is concerned. This according to the ever-objectionable Patel is "laying the foundation of a high wage, high skill productive economy." Yes, because tightening the mobility of Labour will automatically put rocket boosters under an already stagnant economy and blast us to the altitude of double-digit growth. It's complete codswallop.

The reason the government are going hard on this is governed entirely by the interests of the Tory party. Their paltry manifesto didn't promise much, but this was one of the pledges in there. But in the strange days of the Coronavirus crisis, bulldozing this through assumes some importance. To say their handling of the lockdown has been uncertain is perhaps the most euphemistic characterisation you can come up with. When this incompetence is compounded by alarm among important layers of Tory support, the greater the compulsion to ensure the core programme - immigration controls plus Brexit - is wrapped up. It also delivers on the promise Johnson made to the conditional, wobbly-handed Tory voters who supported him in December, and becalms the yellowing grassroots.

Therefore, you have to ask what the hell Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP and frequenter of what-might-have-been dreams for the beer mat collecting anoraks of the Labour right, is doing helping the Conservatives meet key political objectives. And jokers from this wing of the party think they're serious about power and winning. The Tories don't need her charity thanks to their majority, which makes her going out on a limb even more puzzling. In her contribution to the Commons this afternoon, she said she wanted to meet the Home Secretary "in cross-party spirit", and amend the legislation with a view to arriving at a consensus. These amendments? Who the hell knows what's she's suggesting, but given her willingness to support the government they're not about to disagree with the substance of the legislation. Perhaps we'll see a few extra points added for nursing and caring jobs, but to all intents and purposes her "effective opposition" is a capitulation of the most miserable kind.

What then is her game? There are two strategies in play here. The first is the eye on the old constituency. In 2019 her seat went from super safe to marginal, with only 1,200 votes separating her from the Tories. She was hit by a modest uptick in Tory support, a creditable performance from the Brexit Party and a not insignificant increase in LibDem support, all more or less at Labour's expense. Like the (mostly) unlamented Labour leavers, she believes making a song and dance about a topic close to the heart of a large number of voters in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford will get her noticed and build up local support. Because it worked so well for Caroline Flint. No doubt Yvette thinks this is leadership, but there's another word for this: pandering. The second is potentially more serious. Labour have applied a three-line whip vote against the government bill, so breaking party discipline will not be without consequence. But politically, Yvette is saying she has zero confidence in Labour's position and, by extension, the ability of our snazzy new leader to hang on to her seat. That, or she feels her nose was put out of joint by not getting anything in the new round of shadcab appointments. Given her seniority, it must grate to know no marks and idiots got promoted ahead of her.

Many times have the left forecast that the right would move to undermine Keir Starmer, but this has come as a bit of a surprise. The favoured method under the last three Labour leaders was the snarky briefing and leaking of documents. For Yvette to come into the open is either a clumsy attempt to bounce the party into her way of thinking because she thinks she's teflon, or doesn't care for the consequences because, once the crisis is over, she's off to do Strictly or something. Whatever the case, here we have a Labour MP who wants to chuck members of our class under the proverbial to help the Tories. This is what it boils down to, and these baldly stated facts condemn her.

Sunday 17 May 2020

Operation Wolf for the Sinclair Spectrum

Call it a moment of pre-teen triumph. The scene was the tiny amusement arcade at Grenada Studios in Manchester. Among the push penny machines, Double Dragons I and II, and the huge cabinet for Afterburner sat Taito's Operation Wolf. For those not au fait with arcade machines, it stood out because it mounted a great strapping Uzi 9mm. It looked cool af. At this point we didn't have a home computer or console of any kind - the hand-me-down of my cousin's rubber keyed 48K Spectrum was still about four or five months away. As a consequence, my gaming skills were not as sharp and came across mob-handed when I got to play with my mates' top end machines. Anyway, we duly gathered around Op Wolf and a self-described good gamer from among our coterie slipped in his 50p. He grasped the Uzi and within a couple of minutes it was all over. Another so-called gaming addict had a go and his arse was duly handed him. With nothing else to spend my 50p on I gave it a go and much to my amazement I blazed my way through to the second level, a rare moment of triumph for a penniless gaming novice versus my spoiled compadres. And for this reason, I've always had a soft spot for Op Wolf, which made its addition to my eventual Speccie gaming library a necessity.

For those not in the know, Operation Wolf was a light gun game released to arcades in 1987 and converted to practically every home machine going shortly thereafter. The premise is you're a commando dropped into the jungle to do over the bad guys and rescue the hostages. A set up not unlike Predator, but minus the hulking alien nemesis. Indeed, you could describe the game as a first-person Arnold Schwarzenegger simulator. The screen force scrolls to the left or right, depending on the level, and an array of enemy soldiers, helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, and gunboats assail you with bullets, knives and grenades. And your simple aim is to kill them all. Literally - there's a counter on the left side of the screen displaying how many ne'er do wells are left. And when they're offed, it's to the next level with you which encompass jungle settings, a concentration camp, and an airport. However, as tempting as it is just to keep your finger on the trigger pressed you have to conserve ammunition and your own grenades, as well as top up on your energy levels. Thankfully potions, bombs, and magazines of bullets fall from the sky and can be picked up by shooting them. Also stilling the itchy finger are hostages and medical staff who decide wandering around a battlefield is a good idea - mow them down and the energy bar takes a hit.

Like a number of Ocean's arcade conversions to the humble Spectrum, they pulled off a technical marvel. You could play Op Wolf by light gun if you had the 128K Action Pack version which, in all honesty, wasn't much cop thanks to the decidedly inaccurate technology on offer. But the standard version supporting joystick and keyboard controls was a sharp delight. With a paltry seven colours to play with the developers wisely ditched any attempt at colourising the graphics and ended up with a crisply detailed monochromatic affair that closely resembled the arcade. And the numbers of sprites packed onto the screen are a sight to behold. Yes, at times it slows down when there's a dozen or so enemies blazing away at you but there is such a satisfying pay off if you can line them up and and hose them down - and with the added benefit of the Z80 breathing a sigh of relief. The fact you don't have the arcade's Uzi to hand doesn't matter, the gameplay and the speed is faithfully replicated. And, amazingly, it was entirely playable with keyboard controls too. I know, that's how I managed to complete it.

Like so many of the most beloved action titles of the 1980s, to say Operation Wolf was ideologically suspect is a matter of stating the obvious. In line with so many hypermasculine flicks of the time, it was the digital sublimation of violent and entirely asocial desires. A celebration of over the top martial prowess against some explicitly anti-American other. Here, it seems you're cast into the Latin American jungle against some awful narco-dictatorship. But as the lead-in tune the Speccie plays before the action begins, there is a certain oriental cast to it. The South East Asian jungle beloved of Rambo II then? It was no coincidence then its sequel, Operation Thunderbolt (whose USP was strapping two Uzis onto the cabinet for two-player co-op) had obviously Arab terrorists as your enemy. But what it also conferred was the super human sense of invulnerability you find in all contemporary first person shooters. The enemies fold as soon as a bullet hits them, including the occasional Arnie look a like who tries getting up close and personal with you. Yet providing you keep shooting those turkeys and potions, can rise above the hail of bullets. Naturally, the individuation of the player, the positioning of them as different to and superior to in-game baddies has been a staple of video games since, well, video games, and embraces all action genres and RPGs from the most primitive systems to today's behemoths. It's only a hop, skip, and a jump from this to the neoliberal commonplaces that even more explicitly crop up in contemporary games.

Is Operation Wolf on the Spectrum worth firing up an emulator for? Or, even better, if you still have an old machine knocking about? Other readers might prefer the versions on alternate machines, particularly if they grew up with the C64 or Master System offering, but for in-your-face frenetic action for the rubber keyed wonder it doesn't come any better than this.

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Saturday 16 May 2020

An Apologia for Racism

Every conspiracy theory is on the lookout for idiots to hoodwink. And the latest, linking 5G to Coronavirus and, by extension, covid-19 isn't as debilitating as the government says has found a (relatively) high profile martyr in the gullibility of Piers Corbyn. He was among a handful of others to have attended anti-lockdown protests in Hyde Park this afternoon, and got carted off by the fuzz for his pains. An outrage right? Well, not really when social distancing exists to prevent the spread of a potentially lethal pathogen. And there is the small matter of his latching on to the so-called Freedom Movement, a cabal of far right fantasists and Third Reich cosplayers who called these protests from the self-isolating comfort of their social media accounts. But Piers is mentally ill, Phil. Quite, but as a rule mental illness doesn't predispose one to going on fascist-inspired protests.

It's easy to dismiss the UK Freedom Movement and the paltry numbers it turned out at its "mass mobilisations" today, but should we? In his recent interview on Politics Theory Other, Philip Mirowski cautioned the (American) left against letting anti-lockdown protests slide. What they represented was the next phase of reactionary street politics on behest of the Koch family and their cabal of semi-fascistic billionaires. The left ignores these movements at their peril. But that is there and this is here, so do the same arguments apply?

Britain's fascist movement is a far cry from what it once was, though sadly less to do with their being smashed to pieces by the left and more their agenda getting gobbled up by UKIP first, and then the Conservative Party. However, the political problem doesn't lie, for the moment, in a new far right street movement tearing up city centres. The danger resides in the spread of their conspiracy theory.

The Coronavirus/5G theory, having inspired a spate of attacks on phone masts, is particularly worrying not because we've grown attached to decent mobile coverage, but because of racism. Sanctified by the moron in the White House, the more catastrophic Trump's handling of the pandemic becomes obvious the more he and his allies will keep blaming China. And in an election year, he's got to rescue those tumbling poll ratings among older voters somehow. Here in the UK, there are Tory MPs and right wing commentators only too happy to jump on the anti-China bandwagon. They might sidestep the ravings about the "Wuhan virus" and its disproven narrative of having got concocted in a laboratory, but the "genuine concerns" argument provides a nice bridge to the demonisation of an alien other. A new spectre to frighten the Tory faithful with. But this is not without consequence. From the moment Coronavirus became global news, racist attacks on Chinese and East Asians went up. Racists don't care about the minutiae of nationality and the truth. As long as there's a group that can be identified and othered, cut off from the rest of society, and victimised with minimum social cost they're up for it.

Can criticisms be made of China's handling of the virus? Of course. And there's plenty to have a go at our own government about too. But the truth is the lockdown is there to save lives. It was insisted upon by the public and continues to enjoy mass support, especially now when its relaxation has already seen an uptick in infection. There is no grand conspiracy to destroy our liberties. Apart from curtain twitchers and overreaching coppers, a Johnson-led dictatorship is not in the process of formation. If anything, it's the tardiness the government showed and its continued willingness to put people in harm's way that's the real scandal. This is where the focus of criticism should be. Anything else is distraction and, as per the pathetic Freedom Movement, can lead to an apologia for racism.

The Best Eurovision Songs Ever

Among the devil's work wreaked by Coronavirus is the unhappy but necessary cancellation of this year's Eurovision Song Contest. Painful. And doubly so because the BC household were part of last year's boycott. In its stead, the BBC are offering three (count 'em) shows of Eurovision goodness taking us from early evening right into the middle of the night. Colour me excited. Among the offerings is its competition to determine the ultimate Eurovision song, as voted by the Great British public. Recent history has shown democratic exercises in this country have led to less than optimal outcomes for anyone desiring a better world, but the expert-compiled shortlist isn't too bad. Abba were compulsory I suppose, and Bucks Fizz were inevitable, but encouraging was the fact nine of the 19-strong list are from the last decade. This is not just a case of familiarity, because the competition since 2008 has been consistently excellent. It is true to say we're living through a Eurovision golden age. But naturally, this list will not do so here are some of my not-at-all exhaustive picks that jostle for the title of best ever.

Johnny Logan, eh? Not at all consistent with my carefully crafted image but 1980's winner is a well-crafted pop ballad perfect for lounge suites and conversation pits. And one of the best entries ever, hence its featuring on this here list.

Euroband! Back in 2008 this really gripped me and, I'm sorry to say, was the first Eurovision tune getting the repeat play treatment from me. The trancey/eurodisco vibe and powerful vocals put this head and shoulders above the rest of the field and it is a shame, a crying shame, it didn't do better.

Who doesn't enjoy a cheesy duet with sham piano riffs? Another great pop tune from Romania, who are one of the more consistent countries in the contest. How they haven't carried home the Eurovision trophy yet beats me.

Romania again. Falsetto vampire meets dancey beats and a dubstep interlude. Again, the Eurovision juries and televoting public must have had their earplugs in when this was on. One of the greatest Eurovision ditties ever.

Eurovision does Bond. Conchita Wurst could easily have got dismissed as a drag queen novelty act but Rise Like a Phoenix is a soaring, cinematic ballad that is generally accepted as one of the greatest performances the show has ever seen. Amazing.

How to follow Conchita? Well, how about the greatest stage show in Eurovision history? Sergey Lazarev isn't here because of Moscow gold (I am open to negotiations) but because this is a damn fine pop song, in a year in which was arguably the strongest of the last decade. Even the UK entry was good!

A criminally overlooked masterpiece from 2018 where it did everything but the voting business. A terrible let down because for emotional power and shivers down your spine stuff, this is on a par with 2014's winner. To listen to it is to love it.

And last of all, one of the greatest Eurovision songs ever wasn't even an entry. 2016's Love Love Peace Peace is a perfect fusion of pisstake and homage, and condenses everything that is golden about the competition's golden age. It never gets tired.

What are your favourites? Nil points for anyone saying Jemini.