Monday, 31 August 2020

Stoke Council's Conservative Coup d'etat

Don't write about Stoke for ages and two local politics stories come along at once. Last night, preparations were nearing their climax. Tanks were assembling and reliable infantry units were radioed into place. And then, as the August Bank Holiday got underway, the coup! An email from Council Leader Abi Brown charged into Deputy Council Leader (and City Independent group leader) Ann James's inbox informing her with immediate effect that she was sacked. Cllr Joanne Powell-Beckett, also of the CIndies, was out too. In a rousing show of defiance not seen since Salvador Allende defended the presidential palace gun-in-hand, Cllr James said "We don't have any cabinet members now, so as far as I'm concerned the coalition is over." Note the words as far as I'm concerned because for two of her colleagues, it isn't. Former BNP councillor Melanie Baddeley and the outgoing racist Lord Mayor Jackie Barnes hang on as City Indy councillors pocketing an extra six grand as "cabinet support" members. Curious how Stoke Tories have moved from staying silent about racism to awarding it.

This isn't the first time the Tory leader has made her erstwhile allies look like the grasping fools they are. Save for the BNP and UKIP, nothing speaks of Stoke-on-Trent's civic decay better than the City Independents. United only by a shared animosity toward Labour and a penchant for the most backward, white-washed nostalgia, they couldn't wait to get into bed with the Tories after the 2015 local elections. Despite promising in a rather eccentric and extravagant manifesto they wouldn't countenance going into coalition with anyone, this promise took all of two minutes before the memory hole claimed it. And, straight away, as senior partners to the Tories they telegraphed their stupidity to the world by giving them all the most glamorous, media-facing posts in the cabinet enabling them to front up every good news story about x jobs created, y buildings built, and z public amenities given a lick of paint and smartened up. Then council leader, the incoherent bag of potatoes David Conway, was so unsuited to the job that officers quickly realised they had to go to Cllr Brown to get anything done. It wasn't too difficult then for her to appoint herself the public face of Stoke's City of Culture bid, which was unsuccessful, but gave her the sort of profile any half-decent council leader would beg for. Which says everything you need to know about Conway's political instincts.

Deservedly, Labour's David Williams removed him from the council chamber in an otherwise poor night in the 2019 locals, while the Tories gained eight councillors. The coalition resumed with the Tories having the upperhand, and Cllr James, the new CIndie leader, assuming the deputyship. And since the election, matters haven't been as smooth. Back in March the coalition suffered a major upset and were forced to climb down over attempts to immolate working conditions for the Council's lowest paid employees. They were defeated partly thanks to the refusal of six CIndies to go along with the scheme, including the Deputy Leader herself. With unreliables like this on your team and with terms and conditions to savage, the clock was ticking on the governing coalition. But for how long? Last Saturday gave us the answer with the defection of three CIndies and one Labour councillor. To be honest given the politics of Baddeley, Barnes, and Powell-Beckett it's a wonder they didn't hop on the Tory gravy train too.

Now with 19 councillors the Tories are the biggest party on the council, but are three short of an effective majority. Keeping the racists on the payroll confers them a voting bloc of 21. Arrayed against them are Labour's 14 councillors - former group leader Mohammed Pervez resigned abruptly in May. There are then the six non-payroll CIndies, and then two non-aligned councillors. The Tories have calculated, rightly, that given James's threat to pay Brown back for the ruthless filleting she received by, erm, promising to vote on motions on a case-by-case basis, and the non-aligned propensity to go here, there, and everywhere bar collaborating with Labour, the chances of pulling together a coherent opposition to Tory schemes are slim. It requires Labour shows as much nous as Abi Brown has to get the Tories into this position of dominance.

As with any moment of triumph, the seeds of downfall are also present. The first is gifting two cabinet posts to two of the turncoats. Why should loyal councillors who've gone out and done the leaflet rounds and photo opps, and who stuck with the party during the fallow times between 2011 and 2015 miss out on a £12k post for someone who was describing herself as a socialist as little as a fortnight ago and would go elsewhere if she received a better offer? If Labour were daft enough to offer her a clear run in either Central or North, she'd be back in the fold like a shot. And speaking of seats there is the question of Stoke-on-Trent Central, which went Conservative last December. It's the worst kept secret that local Tories are less than impressed with our new MP, Jo Gideon, who much prefers tending to her hedgerows in Kent than her constituents in Stoke. One can only wonder at what skulduggery and shenanigans might go on behind the scenes should she refuse to shape up. And the scramble for the seat if she's "helped" into deciding one term is enough. Would all the local Tories be tickety-boo to see a dishonest shyster like Cllr Ally Simcock or an unprincipled opportunist like Cllr Janine Bridges scoop their chance for parliamentary glory? One suspects not.

All that is for another time. For now, Abi Brown can take a moment and survey her achievements. The largest party on the City Council with it almost under her complete control, and the three city Westminster seats complementing the Tory clean sweep of the rest of Staffordshire. Enjoy it while you can Stoke Tories, for nothing in politics lasts forever.

Image Credit

Sunday, 30 August 2020

1945 Berlin in Colour

Just some colour footage from Berlin in July 1945. Apart from the ruins and the soldiers and the Stalin portrait, it's striking how mundane it all is in its everyday-ness.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

The Moral Turpitude of Cllr Ally Simcock

Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives have got much to be cheery about. A full roster of three MPs (well, two if you discount the always-absent Jo Gideon), the City Council's leadership, and four new councillors. That's right, Stoke's Tories announced yesterday that four have crossed the floor - three (former) City Independents and one from the Labour Party. Eh, what?

Let's look at these councillors more closely. The first two from the CIndies were no surprise. In fact, it was more a case of why it took them so long. Shaun Bennett is a former Tory who was deselected by his party as a council candidate for publicly opposing the 2010-11 grand council coalition the Tories then participated in. He's also happy to defend homophobes, but this is all bygones as far as the local Tory machine is concerned. The other is Janine Bridges, one of the more unprincipled chancers to have taken a seat in the chamber. This is the second time she has left the CIndies, and previously served as a cabinet member in the last Labour administration. Noted then for her right wing views on social security and the NHS, it says everything about the poverty of the local Labour Party that she was allowed to ascend to this level before jumping ship back in 2015. Ho hum. The third councillor, Lesley Adams, is someone I know less about. Loads of grey blurs in the council chamber and only enough hours in the day.

And then there is our fourth turncoat. Councillor Ally Simcock was elected for Sandford Hill for the first time last May on a Labour ticket, but not just any old Labour ticket. Unlike your usual clutch of careerists and place seekers, Cllr Simcock made a big play of her socialist credentials. She apparently gave good interview to the local government panel and spoke convincingly about her Labour and socialist values. Indeed, moving with the Corbynist times she had the pose most appropriate to the situation. She talked up her mining origins and how her late Dad was out in 1984-5 for the full stretch. Indeed, as recently as 16th August this year she wrote on Twitter, "Standing on the picket line aged seven with my dad, fighting for miners around the country and living on the breadline for a year, all to stand up in solidarity against pit closures ... that is what ignited my activism." Funnily enough, that tweet is now deleted. Curiously, despite tweeting on every topic under the sun since yesterday's announcement she's neglected to say anything about her new found friends. If I had dumped on the politics, the values, and the heritage one claims to be proud of, I'd be a bit sheepish too.

Why then? According to the pre-prepared statement given to The Sentinel it's because the local Tories are "doing stuff" and "divisions" in the local Labour Party. It might surprise readers to learn Stoke Labour in 2020 is a becalmed oasis compared to the fun and hi-jinks of recent years. The Labour Group are about to elect a new leader, but the debate can hardly be described as acrimonious. And in all the party is settling into the long haul of winning the city back. In other words, there is no principled reason for her departure. Some local comrades have speculated about the pieces of silver a committee chair or a cabinet position Council Leader Abi Brown must have dangled in front of her eyes to secure Simcock's defection. I'm afraid to say the situation is likely to be worse than that.

Anyone coming into mainstream politics with half a critical brain can't avoid recoiling at the sycophancy and slavish deference some councillors and members show senior people, regional officials and (especially) MPs. All it would have taken for someone like Simcock to cross the floor were the regular cosy chats with the two Tory members, a bit of flattery and ego massage from the council leader, and the chance to hang out in public with these "important people" to bask in their glow. As far as Cllr Simcock is concerned, trading in her "socialism" for the Tories was no more bother than switching a selfie filter. They made her feel good, and ultimately that's all that matters. What the Tories are actually doing to the city's most vulnerable people is something, I strongly suspect, she has given zero consideration to.

It might be tempting to bash Stoke Labour over this, but defecting councillors are a fact of political life. They afflict all parties and happen for all kinds of reasons. Even our old friends the Socialist Workers Party once had a direct defection of a councillor to the Tories, and any mitigation parties can take against unscrupulous peddlers is limited. Considering this particular case, as Simcock was professing left wing politics she hardly ever bothered with actual meetings of the party. And for all the nice things she said about miners' heritage, she was not involved in trade unionism at all. Warning signs? After the fact, yes. But then again there are other councillors everywhere who fit very similar profiles and stick around for years.

For once, this is not a symptom of Stoke Labour's collective failure. Opportunists happen, and Cllr Simcock thinks there are more opportunities to be the Big I Am in the local Tory party. But here's the real kicker, as she will find out soon enough. The flattery will stop and the texts and phone calls will cease. Quickly, life as voting fodder for cuts and ridiculous vanity schemes are going to get routine. She'll never be a prominent face nor, for that matter, fully trusted by her new confederates. Once a scab always a scab, and not a few Tory backbenchers and members are going to be wondering when she'll do the dirty on them. I will not be at all surprised if in three year's time we hear on the grapevine she's been in touch with such-and-such a councillor begging for re-admittance to the Labour Party. It's happened before, and contrary to what the MPs and the Council Leader have told her, she's no one special. Here's then to the next three years before she loses her seat and fades from the memory.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

The Rise of Ed Davey

From my vantage of viewing the Liberal Democrat leadership contest askance, Layla Moran certainly had the momentum. She was a fresh face, of sorts, young, and fairly radical in the twee manner liberalism occasionally gets. The endorsements piled up on social media, and even The Sun decided to run a hit piece on her last night. There was wind in her sails, and, and ... she lost. Instead two-thirds of voting LibDem members went for Ed Davey, the very personification of dull, uninspiring politics. But is this what the traditional third party of Westminster politics needs?

Davey's victory speech was so painfully conventional, Ian Murray could have written it. Thanks folks for the vote of confidence, but you're all shit and we need to listen to the electorate more. Well, given Ed's Orange Book background and time served in the Coalition government of old, the LibDems have pronounced a certain direction of travel based on what all the data has told them. And, interestingly, it's one that could be helpful to Labour.

A Layla Moran-led outfit might have presented Labour a few problems. The dropping of some Corbynist policies as Keir Starmer shifted the party in pursuit of the mythical centrist voter would have given her licence to go after Labour's left flank. Whether this would have proven successful is something we will never find out, but it might have given the leadership pause when it came to ditching left wing positions. Remember, triangulation ain't what it used to be. Ed Davey's yellow neoliberalism suggests this threat has retreated somewhat. However, a Moran leadership would have presented her party with some problems of her own: how does a more radical liberal party go down in the areas it can win next time? In the 20 seats the LibDems came closest in 2019, 18 of them are Tory-held. In the 91 seats where they were the runner up, only 11 did not return a Conservative MP. One might suggest the LibDems;s future electoral prospects dodged a bullet by going with Davey.

Hold on a moment. Jo Swinson's ill-fated leadership was many things, but left-wing certainly wasn't one of them. As Davey is from the same wing of the party, won't he also have as grim a time of it by taking them to the right? Possibly, but more likely not. Under Tim Farron and, to an extent, Uncle Vince, the thinking was Labour's socialist turn under Corbyn had opened up political space on the centre left. Well-meaning bleeding heart types for whom the red party were too red could instead turn the new social justice friendly LibDems in their millions. It was a bad misreading of the politics and the party did worse in vote terms in 2017 than 2015. But the LibDem bigwigs didn't need a pipeline to a certain left-wing blog that was saying they were on a hiding to nothing at the time - they just had to pay attention to what their council by-election results which were telling them. Time after time, the Tories were proving more vulnerable to LibDem challenges and so it made sense to go after them instead of concentrating their fire on Labour.

From the perspective of now, Jo Swinson appears something of a transitional leader. On the centre right of the party, her instincts about where the political profits lay accorded with the data. On this point she was much more astute than Uncle Vince, but she was waylaid by the immediate gains that could be made from the crisis in the Labour Party. There was the opportunity of rapidly expanding the parliamentary party by first going hard on Corbynism, and then pitching the LibDems as the party of Remain. The latter helped clean up in the EU elections and destroy any possible space for our friends Change UK, and then induced them to split with a handful of its MPs hopping aboard a Liberal Democrats now appearing to go somewhere. Then Swinson made the catastrophic decision to adopt the Revocation of Article 50 as the selling point of the manifesto. Not for the first time, she mistook Westminster as the only place where politics happens. Her Commons strategy became the election strategy. This mistake was an authoritarian move. And, as recently confirmed, helped alienate a swathe of voters her party needed to win over. If that wasn't bad enough, she echoed Tory attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and alienated remain-minded progressive voters by putting stopping Corbyn before stopping Brexit. And we won't mention the narcissistic campaign cribbed from Hillary Clinton's leftovers.

Swinson was formally targeting the right, but aped them by punching left and luxuriating in the spotlight parliamentary arithmetic afforded. The vote went up but the seats didn't, and she took her leave from parliament at the hands of the SNP. Hubris and Nemesis, eh? At this early stage, Davey isn't offering Swinsonism without Swinson, but something more plodding. As his last article prior to the results shows, his target is the Tories. There's no residual EUphilia, or the temptation to have a go at Labour, and a cult of the personality is an obvious non-starter. Indeed, his dullness might lead some to think few things separate Sir Ed from Sir Keir, but they do share a community of interest. To tackle the Tories and disrupt their base, both have to concentrate on them and not each other. Think the arrangement like the de facto understanding between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown prior to 1997. In that sense, despite Davey's awful politics, his election might just have made his party more competitive in a swathe of Conservative-held seats. And so, for this very narrow reason, the Tories can sleep a little less soundly tonight.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Rule Britannia and Tory Culture Wars

Coming in more tedious than the centrist-right obsession with Jeremy Corbyn has been the entirely contrived controversy over the Last Night at the Proms. If your news sources are The Express, The Sun, and other fonts of Tory talking points, you might have suffered palpitations thanks to the BBC's decision to ban Rule Britannia. Cue "it's political correctness gawn mad" takes from the very worst people paid to have opinions. It doesn't matter that the truth is the banning of all singing thanks to Covid-19 restrictions. The right saw an opportunity to whip up Britain's victim status, and they ran with it.

One should never pass up an opportunity to get a dig in at the Buggers Broadcasting Communism and delegitimise the BBC that little bit more, but you'd think some of the pushers of the latest lie in the Tory culture war might show a bit of decorum. Andrew Neil built his reputation as TV's toughest politics interviewer on, you guessed it, the BBC. Isabel Oakeshott became a personality on the right thanks to repeated guesting on Sunday morning politics shows. And who would have heard of Nigel Farage had BBC not given him his safest seat of all: a regular slot on the Question Time panel. Such ingrates. And yet, perversely, those on the the receiving end of (wilfully) distorted BBC reporting tend to be those who are duty bound to defend it as an example of pubic broadcasting, however degenerate it may be. Funny old world.

The Rule Britannia outbreak, like all other outbreaks of right wing hysteria, do have political consequences. And those stoking the fires are fully conscious of what they're doing. This is the big picture: Brexit is presently holding the Tories' pensioner-dominated electoral coalition together for reasons discussed many times round these parts. For people who predominantly occupy a fundamentally insecure location, their anxieties sublimate into scapegoat condensers of their fears and totems of uncertainty, such as the young, wider culture, technology, etc. Brexit offers illusion and delusion as a means of finding a passage to a more secure, fixed past they find comfortable and knowable: a place they more readily see themselves in than the confusing, seething, unknowable mess they watch (but crucially, tend not to directly experience) on the television or read in the papers.

The problem the Tories have is Brexit can't last forever. Time's up at the end of this year and we can look forward to the future and a new and less-than-optimal relationship with the UK's largest trading partners. Where do the Tories go then? How do they keep their people together? Being seen as a reforming, activist government is actively positioned for by the very top of the Johnson government, but this can only go so far. Spreadsheets and tractor production figures might have cut it with Tory voters in 2015, but faced with the sheer incompetence and deliberate cruelty of these people party strategists and what passes for its "intellectuals" are casting around for the special sauce that can maintain the polling lead. The only thing that makes sense is something nationalistic, but dripping with victimhood, a new populism (looking a lot like the previous populism) opposing the good honest folks of the United Kingdom England to evil elites and ne'er do wells who want to ban Britishness. In other words, expect a constant barrage of poor little Britain moaning and whingeing.

What are the chances of keeping their coalition together? These efforts will carry on motivating the core components of Toryism, but what about the fringes who voted "tactically" last December to see Brexit done? Will they too fall down the rabbit hole into a wonderland brimming over with Benny Hill, oversized Wagon Wheels, and fantasies of empire? It's unlikely. Brexit populism made sense because there were elites determined to stop it, and nullify people's votes. But a sing-a-long called off because of Coronavirus? Panics about Marxism taught on every university degree apart from Maths and Computing? The danger of face masks? They might have a certain potency now, but with Brexit off the table and the people's will seen to be done, their urgency and vitality could drain away with culture war investments offering only ever-decreasing returns. Could.

Under these circumstances, it behoves the left to properly understand the interplay of right wing rhetoric and the cohering effects it has on its intended audience. And it's down to us to come up with strategies that can disrupt their messaging, make their clarity fuzzy, and present compelling stories and critiques of our own so we intersect better with the lived experiences and concerns of older workers and retirees. Easier said then done, but them's the breaks. No one's going to do it for us.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Acid Communism on The Cosmic Right

Reaction comes in many strange forms, and undoubtedly among its weirdest manifestations is the strength of conspiracy theories on the right. Consider for a moment the spread of QAnon, which now has an anti-paedophile protest outside Buckingham Palace among its first UK success. Conspiracy theory, however, isn't entirely the property of the fringe. In its more mainstream forms, the idea of shadowy people manipulating events is part of the conservative framing of the left and, particularly, their explanation for the young's receptivity to social liberalism and radical, anti-establishment ideas.

In this episode of ACFM courtesy of Novara Media, comrades Nadia Idle, Keir Milburn, and Jem Gilbert look at the crossing over of these right wing conspiratorial trains of thought into new age spirituality and the discourses of "wellness" and wellbeing. We've certainly seen (clumsy) attempts by the right to politicise face masks as harbingers of totalitarianism, and so we can see how it might insinuate into anti-medical establishment "alternative" medicine and associated practices.

Anyway, that's enough from me. Enjoy.


Monday, 24 August 2020

The Hack Obsession with Corbyn

Okay, so there's a national crisis and everything but the Westminster calendar remains stubbornly fixed. Instead of, I don't know, taking the government to task for economic failure, their cronyism, and openly practising corruption in full view, our so-called politics journalists are more interested in having their silly season fun.

Exercising the court stenographers this weekend were extracts from the forthcoming book on Jeremy Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire. Have they unearthed new information about HQ under Corbyn? Documentary evidence to better assist an understanding of this fraught time? More scabby skulduggery that undermined the project? Well, no. Expecting journalists to do journalism is too much to ask for. Instead we learn, horror of horrors, that on a visit to Stoke Laura Alvarez threw a strop because she couldn't have honey with her oatcake. Then came allegations Jeremy Corbyn refused to meet with families affected by last Autumn's floods, and that he threw a tantrum because Jo Swinson had an electric battle bus and Labour didn't. All of it is a pack of lies, and folks can pick through the debris of Twitter if you're moved to find the refutations.

What's interesting are the dynamics driving this continued obsessive focus on matters Corbyn, despite having sat on the backbenches for the last four months. Some comrades locate it in a generalised campaign against socialist politics - discredit Corbyn, discredit the ideas. Well, yes. And that's why the Tory press can always find space to put the boot in, but in the age of the attention economy and social media, it's not solely driven from the editorial offices.

Having spent five years writing about Corbyn and Corbynism, I know posting something on this very topic helps get the numbers in. Likewise, tweet something positive or negative and invariably the old mentions will light up. There is a big audience, which explains why there's already a burgeoning library from all corners of politics on the former Labour leader. And so, in the first place, if you're a right wing hack there's a real incentive to misreport, distort, and lie outrageously about Corbyn because it gets attention. It's not the right kind of attention, but profile is profile and, besides, it comes with its own reward. Left wing clicks on articles or left wing purchases of books are still clicks and purchases, a game the right wing media twigged a long time ago. And according to the attention logics of social media, if someone is upsetting "the lefties" this will invariably attract support and a following of right wingers too - therefore comrades making a fuss does them a favour.

Not all right wingers are conscious of the game, though. There are plenty of occasions when a simpering fool like Matt Chorley, for example, cries about all the nasty critical Corbyn supporters he's upset. So for them, and by extension centrist scribblers who do the same, there's a visceral enjoyment to be had winding up their collective nemesis. There's a resentment randoms on the internet don't afford them the respect they feel is due, or bow down to their ever-so-correct opinions. And there is fear. They may mock, affect enjoyment, and bond with each other over stories of how they magnificently pwned some troll with 20 followers, but the criticism they see cluttering up their feeds reveals a vision of their futures: their newspapers are in long-term decline, and their politics are likewise threatened. In other words, disdain now prefaces irrelevance later. And deep down, they know.

This is the condition of establishment journalism in our period of crisis. Attention gives them incentive to bang on about Corbyn, their experience of social media gives them incentive to bang on about Corbyn, and their pooled anxieties give them incentive to bang on about Corbyn.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Disclosure feat. Mary J. Blige - F For You

No time for writerly nonsense this evening. Instead, a tune!

Friday, 21 August 2020

John McDonnell: Be Nice to Keir

The ever awful Daily Express were crowing Friday morning about "Corbynistas at war" because ... John McDonnell had said nice things about Keir Starmer. Speaking on Times Radio, Big John said the Labour leader has got his approach to the government during the crisis "exactly right". Taking a constructive tone to opposition while pointing out Tory failure is helpful for getting "much wider leeway" in the media. "We’re on the same page. Sometimes I’ll want the party to be a bit more vociferous on some of these things, but that’s a matter of style. As long as we get the point across." If only the so-called rebels of the last five years were as graceful when they had the chance, eh?

What to make of this? Capitulation? Selling out? From his long-time reputation as the hard bastard of the parliamentary left, in recent years John has affected a more emollient figure. Last October, John became a magnet for criticism as he sat down with Alastair Campbell to talk politics. An attempt at olive branching and bridging the fissures after years of infighting and scabbing, it was entirely understandable and, in my view, supportable. Especially with an election in view. Then again, I think we should take an instrumentalist approach if opponents offer the left and Labour an opening, as The Mail on Sunday did last weekend for Keir Starmer.

We can't begin to think about it in isolation from the strategic direction of the Labour left after our greatest triumph and biggest defeat. After leading the party, changing the direction of political travel in this country and even, as John rightly said, supplying the Tories with the policies (albeit subsequently watered down) that has kept most people going during the crisis, where does the Labour left go from here? Trying again outside of Labour is a non-starter for the bulk of the Labour left, though I can understand why some hold out hope of building something. Seeing Rebecca Long-Bailey getting shafted and grovelling in court to a bunch of toerags is hard to stomach, and then there are the issues with Keir himself. Yet this is nothing. The Miliband years were markedly worse and before that, well, it was somewhat south of awful. This isn't to fetishise staying power as a virtue, but to gain a sense of proportion. Despite everything, the left are still much stronger in the party now than at any time between the early 80s and 2015. The question is what do we do with it, how should the left build influence, push its agenda and carry on struggling to get the party back and the Tories out.

Shouting about Keir Starmer on Twitter might be cathartic but it's not going to build the left. Bearing in mind a lot of Corbyn supporters voted for Keir in the first place, winning internal elections and getting more leftwingers selected for local government, the devolved administrations, and Westminster, and making sure we win the policy arguments itself partly relies on building soft power. When you look at what John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have done since leaving the leadership, they have concentrated on attacking the government from the left. This is not picked up by mainstream outlets or comprises talking points on Newsnight any more, but they are still listened to by Labour's membership and can find tens, if not hundred of thousands of sympathetic ears there. In other words, this is an attempt to build a constant pressure on the leader's office - if the party can be bounced from the right, the same happening from the left is a live possibility - especially when on a raft of issues the left is closer to where the electorate are at than centrism and right wing Labour. If the left are engaging constructively with "Starmerism", and are seeing to be doing so, the thinking goes it puts the left in a stronger position to defend the policy heritage it bequeathed the party. Again, it's worth remembering a lot of former Corbyn supporters voted Keir in the hope he would offer some sort of Corbynism without Corbyn, and winning them over in the future is something that cannot be avoided.

Comrades might disagree with how John and Jeremy are positioning the Socialist Campaign Group. Their overtures to Keir do run the risk of letting the Labour leadership off the hook - Keir's preoccupation of returning kids to school and people to work even though Covid-19 carries on its debilitating and deadly work needs criticising openly, for example. Or does Labour want to cede these concerns to the Liberal Democrats? Yet their thinking is strategic and has the position of the Labour left now and in the immediate future in mind. If there are alternative strategies for taking back the party or building an alternative, let's hear them.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Cheering State Thuggery in Belarus

The uprising in Belarus stands on a knife's edge. Following huge demonstrations and strike action that has brought industry to a juddering halt, it's looking like the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko is on its last legs. Popular consent has evaporated following his rigged election, and there has been some drift from the army and security services away from the state and toward the protest movement. Having got shouted down in mass meetings - he should be lucky that's all he's had to deal with - Lukashenko is looking to redouble repressive efforts, with riot police back on the streets rounding people up and administering beatings. By upping state intimidation and violence now, the president is hoping to ward people off from assembling this weekend in the sorts of numbers we saw last Sunday.

On Wednesday, the EU met and agreed to impose targeted sanctions on key regime figures, has resolved to put out a statement of solidarity with the protest while refusing to recognise the disputed election result, and offered its services as mediator between government and opposition to affect a peaceful transfer of power. The Coordination Council, set up by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania following her de facto expulsion after the rigged election leaves a lot to be desired, politically speaking. Initially calling for people to stop protesting, she has pleaded with the EU to back the movement and has agitated for fresh elections. For the EU, and especially the Baltic states and Poland, ever-weary of Russian revanchism, the removal of Lukashenko and his on again, off again love-in with Vladimir Putin for a dependably friendly government would be most welcome - hence its efforts at steering the opposition and, it hopes, the uprising in a pro-EU direction. For those interested in such things, the UK is following the EU line.

In these sorts of situations, sympathy, support, and solidarity goes to those risking life and limb. If Belarusian leftists are on the streets with the movement and fighting the dictatorship, the very least those of us sat comfortably in rich liberal democracies can do is listen to what they say and amplify their voices. Unfortunately, this is not the case among some who style themselves "anti-imperialist". Having seen what happened in Ukraine all those years ago, and Libya before that, in their imaginations the fundamentally open process of revolt has already been closed down. Because the EU are working to take advantage and bring any successor regime into its orbit, this is the inevitable consequence - if not the essential characteristic of the movement already. It leads to the absurd situation of a nationwide movement pigeon holed as reactionary whereas Lukashenko's disgusting gangster regime is more "progressive", and apparently socialist thanks to the still-sizeable presence of state industry. What can you say, some people are easily impressed.

I suppose it's unsurprising. Coming out of a period where revolts and mass movements were infrequent or easily derailed, and preceded by another stamped by the geopolitics of the cold war, so there are those who see mass mobilisations in countries not seen full in with Western governments as creatures of state-led subversion efforts. It's a fundamentally defeatist attitude assuming a priori the standpoint of proletarian passivity and multitudinous calm while according supernatural agency to our states, up to and including turning the repressed citizens of Europe's last dictatorship into their unwitting dupes. Often times these counsellors of despair and apologists for state terror mistake themselves for revolutionaries when, in fact, they're fundamentally conservative. If we're properly guided by a militant political science instead of tankie nostalgics, then no leftist would be in the position of defending a creature like Lukashenko from a popular revolt. And if you can do that there, think about the strange political contortions that might result here. Such as Britain's most prominent admirer of Stalin looking to cut deals with Nigel Farage and now, a scabby alliance with Scottish Tories.

Thankfully, such people are at the margins of the labour movement and the socialist left. They should stay there.

Image Credit

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Dido Harding: A Case of Failing Upwards

The longer this government is in office, the more egregiously corrupt are its dealings. And we're not even 10 months into this parliament, yet. Appalling mismanagement and cruel politics is one thing, but handing out nice contracts and plumb jobs to your mates is something else. Which brings us to the case of Dido Harding. As Rachael catalogues, prior to Harding's promotion to the head of the new National Institute for Health Protection to replace the abolished Public Health England (the Tories do love their scapegoats), she oversaw the £10bn failure to develop a Coronavirus app at NHS Test and Trace. Before that she was chair of NHS Improvement - a managerial body that provides "leadership" (something we'll return to shortly). And this was preceded by a "celebrated" stint at TalkTalk overseeing a massive security breach that saw 15,000 customers' bank details compromised and costing the company some £60m. Given the litany of incompetence, it's a mild surprise to learn she had nothing to do with the Ofqual grades fiasco.

Her Tory connections are so well known and out in the open that even the BBC felt moved to mention them. She was good mates with Dave and sat the same classes together back in Oxford. He elevated her to the Lords, presumably for the boon she provided Britain's internet security industry, and also happens to be good pals with our friend Matt Hancock thanks to a shared love for the nags and questions of more murkiness, and more failure. One last thing, the government's anti-corruption champion is one John Penrose. Who happens to be Mr Dido Harding.

A few things worth reflecting on apart from the obvious cronyism. The first thing is the Tories have a doctrinal justification, in as far as it exists, that can justify this. Going back to Thatcher and working its way through to the fevered thoughts of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove is the idea the state is antithetical to the sorts of interests they champion. This might be difficult to conceive if you've ever got kettled by the police, suffered the indignity of social security hoop jumping, or witnessed favours for business, but as far as Tory ideologues are concerned the state is infested with special interest groups utterly opposed to them. Hence for Thatcher, destroying their institutional bases was as much part of her programme as attacking the labour movement and undoing the post-war settlement - see her crusade again experts and the professions, for instance. Centralising power and control in the government and using market mechanisms to discipline state-provided services was pursued by all subsequent administrations, but it also provided a job creation scheme for people who knew (and know) nothing about public services: management cadres from business.

On utterly spurious grounds, business people are best suited to this environment because they've felt the lash of competition and the demand of subordinating enterprise to the bottom line. Thatcher and all subsequent Prime Ministers were/are fully paid up members of this gullible idiocy, and have set up reviews headed by business people and appointed business people obviously outside of their competence. It continues still. Business people are treated as if they possess privileged access to the truth of the world, what you might call an ontological primacy, and everyone else should kowtow to their majesty. We don't bother with the truths of business, like its being utterly wasteful, utterly unfree, and utterly bureaucratising. This does not and cannot find room in the Tory imaginary. With this indulgent attitude conveying them into the public sector, the notion of 'leadership' has coincidentally emerged from within managerial culture. Management committees are "leadership teams", and leadership itself is less a matter of being a competent administrator or supervisor but more a personality who barks out orders and pays little mind to the specifics. It's a simulacrum of entrepreneurship for authoritarian personalities or, to put it more plainly, a nice line in professional bullshit that can command big bucks from the gullible. I suppose it's natural a culture making a virtue of not doing detail got real traction among its adherents as management cadres circulated between big organisations they had little handle on nor no interest in knowing.

Harding moves in a universe where these assumptions have the status of physical laws. But what also aids her is her clubbability. Leading Tories know her because she's one of them. What matters less is competency and counts for more is a safe pair of hands politically speaking. With a placewoman running the NHS show there is now full political integration between the top of the apparatus, Matt Hancock's office, and the political objectives of Downing Street. Mistakes, as per recent scandals can be put down to impersonal forces or minions while the closed loop at the summit continues. Harding then is another example, a well publicised one, showing openly how senior positions are carved up and handed out in this country. Her example underlines the fact that, to all intents and purposes, the Tory party is simultaneously an institution of state and a racket for getting the top positions in its machine filled.

If you want a vision of the sort of Britain the Tories stand for, imagine blue blooded failures circulating at the top of the tree, forever.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Classrooms and Class Politics

1. Another day, another government concession. Once news broke last week that some 40% of students were downgraded from their predicted grades thanks to the class/geography bias embedded in the Ofqual's grades algorithm, no matter how much the government hid from questions or dug its heels in, their position defending the exercise was untenable. Going back to teacher estimates is a major victory for a movement of disgruntled young people that appeared overnight and drove the wider public sense of injustice.

2. The extension of the government climbdown to GCSE results, due this Thursday, goes to show these too were about to suffer social sorting by algorithm. A repeat of the tertiary education fiasco would have proven even more explosive, affected even more young people and their families, and blown a gaping hole in the Tories' seeming invulnerability.

3. They call the Tories the stupid party, yet surely even they could see this coming? It was obvious from the beginning of lockdown that a system commanding the confidence of students, parents, and teaching staff was necessary to avoid just this sort of fiasco. And if not that, there was the Scottish Higher scandal from a couple of weeks ago, which some Tories MPs rather unfortunately made hay with. Their short-sightedness speaks of an arrogance an 80-strong majority and endless polling leads confers, but it is also part of a plan. Shrinking the state, that allegedly inalienable goal of post-1979 conservatism, is simultaneously an effort at minimising the area of political responsibility. If state provision is privatised, or marketised relationships between state institutions are introduced, governing is displaced by governance. It's no longer a case of a bureaucrat making a decision with a chain of responsibility running upwards to ministerial office, services are delivered by the play of simulated markets responding to signals provided by an elaborate system of metrics. These become "operational matters" to which workers and managers are beholden, but are ultimately the responsibility of no one. This is naturally attractive to politicians as it divests them of responsibility, and so new ways of depoliticising the administration of social life is constantly strived for. Algorithmic governance is just the latest manifestation of this game, and is something Dominic Cummings is particularly keen on. The refusal to prepare anything in advance was to allow the formulae to do their work, and then wash all hands of the inequities that result. Of course, algorithms are never neutral and only reflect the assumptions built into them - a lesson the rising generation has very quickly learned.

4. A good victory, but not a complete victory. As Clive Lewis rightly notes, students with BTECs and vocational qualifications are not included in the reversal. Why not? For one, A-Level students and their parents made the loudest noise, and, to be blunt, are more middle class and more likely to provide the Tories headaches in the key marginals. Meanwhile, BTEC cohorts tend to be more working class and vocationally oriented. If their grades aren't spared the algorithm, from the government's point of view this doesn't matter. Comparatively few have university destinations in mind, and certainly not the top institutions. And if they haven't got the grades to secure the apprenticeship they want, or land the trainee post they previously applied for, well, in an age of depression there's a wide enough pool of youngsters to fill the vacancies. The struggle isn't over yet and a climbdown is not inevitable.

5. And there are the universities themselves. Evidence for this being a panicked retreat is the cataclysm many institutions now face. Thanks to the huge shortfall of income with no students on campus, the evaporation of the conference market and, most importantly, the disappearance of international students from the coming semester, some were looking down the barrel of liquidation. This wasn't just your post-92s, it included some big and venerable names. One of the conditions the employers' organisation, Universities UK, managed to negotiate with the government in return for bail out loans was a temporary cap on numbers. i.e. Preventing top institutions from opening their doors to all applicants to make up for lost international income at the expense of those lower down the pecking order. That numbers cap has disappeared and so every student who has received an offer who would otherwise go elsewhere because they didn't get the grades means they get in, and a financial black hole opens beneath the universities who lose out. Affecting the typical Tory arrogance about higher education, Gavin Williamson has previously opined on overcapacity and "low quality courses." This crisis provides him an opportunity to reshape HE into employee induction factories and allow the "surplus provision" to vanish, with all the consequences that has for unemployment and impact on local economies.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Waiting for Opposition

Another set of polls, another stubborn Tory lead. You can talk discuss why this is the case, but what about the how? What can Labour do that 65,000 deaths and an increasingly obvious second wave of infection can't? Whether you think the best tack to take is criticising the politics of the Tories' miserable failure, or go in for some colourless managerialism, Labour's strategy has to think about two things. How can we win over Tories voters, or failing that, discourage them from voting Conservative in the future, and how do we keep existing supporters on side.

Keir Starmer's latest piece in the Mail on Sunday should bear this in mind. The argument, such as it is, aims to place Boris Johnson's competence at the heart of the argument about schools reopening in September. Readers won't have failed to notice how the Tories have worked to blame/scapegoat teachers for keeping kids at home, instead of thinking creatively about how they might reopen. Keir also makes potted observations about Tory tardiness in handling the pandemic more generally. There's a few criticisms about their handling of the A-Level results fiasco (how likely are we going to see a repeat with this week's GCSE grades?), and this is paired with the schools issue to show how education is treated as an "afterthought". But that's your lot.

Nothing much to scare your average Mail reader there. Keir offers formally correct criticisms from a bland, managerial standpoint contrasting his Mr Competence to Tory uselessness. Therefore, if his audience doesn't like the Labour Party because it's too lefty or too remainy, presenting as a better administrator might improve his standing, with the party benefiting from reputational trickle down. By playing to well worn concerns even among Tories about Johnson's suitability on issues other than getting Brexit done, quiet but determined seriousness is the card Labour are playing. True, but in so doing he goes out of his way to do the government a favour by ignoring the health risks of a rushed opening. Despite what Gavin Williamson says, the risk of pupils passing Coronavirus to one another and taking it home to older family members while exposing teachers and school support staff is real enough - even if Keir, like the Tories, pretends it doesn't exist. Perhaps he's avoided it to dodge accusations of scaremongering, or it doesn't fit the "strong and stable" sensibility he's keen to cultivate.

Some will criticise Keir for writing in The Mail. If, for whatever reason, the most unhinged and reactionary sections of the bourgeois press are offering space to Labour politicians to make an anti-Tory case, then we should approach it instrumentally. The likes of The Mail, Express, Sun, etc. are the most powerful means the Tories have to cohere and organise their support. If there is an opportunity to disrupt its unity, sow a bit of discord, cut through the editorial bilge and address Tory voters directly, then we should take it.

This is secondary to the fact Keir's criticisms are astonishingly poor. In the age of big politics where everything is up for grabs, limiting yourself to nitpicking is just not good enough. To cohere a bloc of voters you need to attack opponents on competence and contest the politics. Unfortunately, Keir is even fluffing the line of attack he has chosen. In recent weeks we have seen evidence of egregious corruption, of government handing out cash to ragtag and bobtail outfits with no experience of manufacturing or supplying personal protective equipment, but do happen to be mates with Dominic Cummings. We've seen Robert Jenrick nod through planning applications after Richard Desmond donated (paltry) sums to the Tories, and government loans made to other billionaire donors. Why isn't Keir attacking the Tories on sleaze? Why is he determined to paint them well-intentioned but out of their depth? This will not win Tory voters over.

You might expect me to criticise Keir for offering anything but effective opposition, but how about Alastair Campbell? What a dismal state of affairs. We need strategically savvy, politicised criticisms. No ifs, no buts, no equivocation, to coin a phrase.

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Friday, 14 August 2020

The Revenge of Shinobi for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis

There are plenty of games distilling and preserving the cultural logics of their times. Days Gone, for instance, condenses on-trend apocalypticism and nihilism with a big dose of bootstraps individualism and everyday survivalism. 20 years earlier, you had games like Driver thumbing its nose at authorities with all the Gen X attitude it could muster. Even though you were really a cop. The Revenge of Shinobi for Sega's beloved MegaDrive was also one of those games who wears its influences proudly.

Published in Japan in 1989, Revenge was designed to be a showy number for the new machine - a task the programming team acquitted with aplomb. For an early game, it says something that by the end of the MegaDrive's run this was still one of the better-looking, best-playing action platformers available. And this is before mentioning the soundtrack composed by Yuzo Koshiro, which automatically places it in the top tier of 16-bit game music. I can still remember first clapping eyes on the game when my mate got it on import not long after release. Revenge was head and shoulders above anything else I'd seen in the home at that time, and certainly made my humble Speccy that wee bit more humble. Everything about it oozed a polish rare in British computer games - no wonder it was about £40 (when it was officially released in Europe in 1990, it usually weighed in at £34.99).

The plot is pretty straight forward. You are Joe Mushashi, Shinobi ninja master extraordinaire. After your exploits in the previous game (Shinobi, funnily enough), the evil crime syndicate Neo Zeed have slaughtered your dojo and kidnapped Naoko, your bride-to-be. Terrible. There follows eight stages of shuriken throwing, sword slicing, platform jumping, boss-slaying action. Joe is equipped with an energy bar, so no annoying one hit kills, and a few special abilities. There is a double jump feature that sees you somersault which, in turn, allows you to throw a fanning pattern of shurikens simultaneously. Especially useful for blind jumps, of which there are a few, and taking out the first end-of-level bad 'un. The second is jolly old ninja magic, because no self-respecting warrior of stealth would leave home without it. These come in four flavours - an invincibility shield, a high jump ability, columns of roaring flame that deal damage to enemies, and, um, a spell that causes your body to explode. Very good for quickly dealing with bad ass bosses, but a life is lost each time it's cast. Unsurprisingly.

Revenge then is uncomplicated fun. Kill enemies, find your way through each mini stage, beat the boss. And the boss cast are an interesting mix. Stage one has a giant samurai, two a shuriken flinging disco ninja (yes, really), three a brain in a jar, five a missile launcher, and lastly Zeed himself - a portly Kabuki-type who attacks with a lethal wig. The bosses I failed to mention are, um, not entirely original. Level four has you going up against an Arnie look-a-like who turns out to be a terminator. Level six is Spider-Man(!) who, in the first pressings of the game, morphed into Batman(!) after a set number of hits. And level seven finds literal Godzilla as your playmate, which was reskinned as a skeleton-and-innards monstrosity in subsequent versions of the game. There are other naughty touches too, like flame throwing Rambo doppelgängers (called Rocky, funnily enough), baddies resembling Jackie Chan, and an intro nicked from an old ninja movie. Lots of lovely little "borrowings" the copyright police did not appreciate.

We've talked many times about crime and criminals being the ideal foil for video games. Early on in gaming, baddies had to be unproblematically bad, which meant aliens, robots, soldiers, and henchmen. But where these are taken on by Joe are quite varied, for the time. Cityscapes are naturally included, but there's a pretty waterfall level, a military base, some sort of aeroplane, the top of a speeding train, a highway replete with dangerous joyriders, a factory, dockyard, munitions plant, and a maddening maze sure to have upset hundreds of thousands of gamers over the years. The scene setting does a good job of suggesting travel across Japan and then into the US. As such, the references and tropes draw deep from Japanese perceptions of American culture and, in turn, the Western perception of Japan in the late 80s: technologically advanced but steeped in martial arts and mysticism. The cultural mix is executed brilliantly, and extends to Yuzo Koshiro's soundtrack with a seamless blend of Japanese traditionalism and Western dance music - which he was later to perfect. Chinatown is my personal highlight.

Yet, as per most games well into the 1990s, the most modern medium was organised around the horribly dated damsel-in-distress theme, though it later turns out your toughest conventional enemies are dagger wielding nuns and sword swinging women. Also, while it is a Japanese product for Western audiences it does reinforce orientalist notions of Eastern exotica while also contributing in a very small way to the (overly American) anxiety about Japan's technological superiority and economic domination. The fact Neo Zeed HQ is located in NYC and has drawn American icons into his insidious bidding - some of whom are clearly US soldiers too - crystallises these inchoate concerns perfectly. Though in reality, what Revenge was was a killer app for a machine determined to wrest US market share from an already-dominant Japanese company. Perhaps Joe's Sega was coming to save America from Zeed's Nintendo?

Revenge then is an excellent game, one that offers an all-round solid and satisfying experience in 2020, both for those who want a decent 16-bit challenge and others who might like unfurling the 80s tropes and trends crammed into its four megabit cartridge.

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Thursday, 13 August 2020

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

A Depression Made in Downing Street

You've seen the numbers by now. Measured in GDP terms, the UK economy collapsed by a fifth between April and June. It would have been much deeper hadn't June in and of itself recorded a dead cat bounce of 8.7% growth. As Rishi Sunak says, this recession is unprecedented because the crisis precipitating it is unprecedented. True, true. Then riddle me this. Germany, down 10.1%. Belgium 12.2%. Blighted Italy, 12.4%. And even Spain, with a catastrophic a fall of 18.5%, fared better than us. The UK is the sick man of Europe again, both literally in the numbers of dead and people infected, and a far worse economic performance than any EU state.

How might we account for this? We can be generous and note the UK's over-dependence on services, which comprise 81% of the economy. Germany's is just shy of 70%, Italy's is 74%, and ditto for Spain. Naturally, any country so dependent will suffer a huge contraction if social distancing is enforced. All the more reason why the Tories were loathe to take the Covid-19 threat seriously, and why they're keen to play down the crisis with jiggery-pokery over statistics, set arbitrary dates not at all informed by the epidemiology for lifting restrictions, and Gavin Williamson's outright denial of children as possible disease vectors to get schools reopened.

Leaving aside the UK's relatively unique exposure to a biopolitical crisis, the next obvious (if crass) point is more excess deaths and people who are sick = fewer participating in economic activity. But when you compare the UK with Italy and Spain, we are talking relatively small numbers and certainly not enough to account for the performance gap. What gives?

Firstly, timing. Going into lockdown later than most other European states did not confer the UK a brief competitive edge of any sort. Rather, it prolonged the formulation of the economic support package. The lockdown officially, and reluctantly began on 23rd March. Prior to this, on the Friday the government announced the furlough scheme, which did not go live until 20th April - almost a month later. For smaller businesses there were packages of loans and interest-free credit lines, but it was not enough and it came too late for some. Tens of thousands of businesses either shut up shop, or simply laid off staff to cut costs their much reduced operation. By tarrying, hundreds of thousands of people were left without an income and the Universal Credit hotline was duly overwhelmed. Other European states moved earlier, and so protected their economies better.

The second problem was furlough itself. Paying up to 80% of staff salaries was a significant cut for many people, but there were also those excluded from the scheme, such as the self-employed and freelancers, and those who were caught between jobs. Most other schemes were more comprehensive.

Thirdly, social security support. Remember, the six week wait to even receive support (reduced to five by caring, sharing Theresa May) was introduced when Iain Duncan Smith was at the DWP as a means of "encouraging" people to find work. Because, again, in topsy-turvy Westminster land there are MPs on both sides of the Commons who think welfare causes unemployment, not lack of jobs. And so a couple of million people were left with nothing while their claims were processed. And once they were? Universal Credit entitlements vary, but they're hardly generous. For instance, Jobseekers' Allowance tops out at £74.35 for the over 25s and £58.90 for 18-24s. Compare this with, say, Germany where 60% of your salary is paid up to a value of roughly £1,725/month. The Italian system is less generous, but more so than the UK's - 75% of salary up to the first €1,195, and 25% of anything over that to a maximum of €1,300, but with three per cent deductions each month after the fourth month. Spain runs a not dissimilar but more generous model. In other words, the spending power of the unemployed in each of these states is greater and therefore contributes to a shallower dip.

Want more? Sick pay. Statutory sick pay is among the weakest level of support offered in any advance economy. If you're ill, you can get a princely £95.85/week provided you meet the conditions, and for up to 28 weeks. In Germany, for up to six weeks an employee is entitled to 100% of their salary. In Italy it's 50% of daily pay between the fourth and 20th day of illness, moving to 66% from the 21st day. In Spain it's 60% of salary. Again, the same observations apply. For most workers in the UK, a long-term period of illness means penury. Needless to say, the UK is the pits when it comes to redundancy payments too.

It doesn't have to be like this, of course. The Tories particularly hate working people for all their flattery for them. The typical worker is needy, feckless, dishonest, lazy and, very occasionally, dangerous. Simply put, for 40 years the Tories - and New Labour - have designed a welfare system that punishes instead of supports, and reflects their real feelings about the employee class. All those decades using social security as a football to kick the most vulnerable in pursuit of votes (and labour discipline), combined with the particularly cruel turn policy took after 2010, and Johnson's own disastrous handling of the crisis is behind the crisis. The reason the UK is in the deepest depression, or rather a deeper depression than it had to be, is because of Tory policy, Tory incompetence, and Tory callousness. This is a crisis made worse by Downing Street, and it's Labour's job to pin this on them.

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Monday, 10 August 2020

Bernard Stiegler and the Attention Economy

I was sorry to hear about the death of Bernard Stiegler last week. The range of his work takes in the gamut of French philosophy and German critical theory, while delving into political economy and having a few choice things to say about the attention economy. This makes his summation in a short blog post partial and difficult, and so for those looking for something more comprehensive and technical should check this paper out.

Stiegler's particular concern was technology, or what he refers to as 'technics'. Working in a space adjacent to Latour's actor network theory and Deleuze and Guattari's work on assemblages, for Stiegler technology was inorganic matter that had been reorganised by human hands with purpose. As our tools are used we change or "humanise" the natural environment, and we transform and reconstitute ourselves (a la Marx). Technology is always socially bounded and conditioned and therefore can be thought of as a physical form of memory, both in terms of how we use relate to it but what these tools say about the society that made them. The second key point for Stiegler is technology is imbued with memory through use, and as we become familiar with sets of tools these technologies structure our perceptions and how we experience time.

That time is complex, historical, and multiple (i.e. runs at different rhythms depending on the ensemble of social relationships) is readily accepted, but reaches a new level of intensity in the age of what Stiegler terms 'cinematic memory'. Here, what we might crudely characterise as the distinction between everyday experience and memory congealed in technology collapses as we assume a more intimate, symbiotic relationship with our tools. This means a blurring and a merging of the rhythms of time. The perceptions of time or, to be more precise, the immediate future becomes one always already ordered (anticipated) by the structuring of life by the technical imperatives of our technologies. As Stiegler put it, living time is conditioned by dead memory. At its most simple, the modes of perception encouraged by social media participation condition the cognitive processes of its users. An opinion is formatted as a hot take, a thought is structured like a tweet, an approach to an event is framed by instagramming imperatives. With our "technical disposition" structuring our consciousness, the spread of technology engenders a certain uniformity. The rise of the attention economy is a product of and a qualitative leap forward in the universalisation of particular perceptions of time. And with it comes a diminution of individuation - something encouraged by earlier phases of capitalism, but now shut down as attention encourages a process of de-differentiation.

Our current period then is characterised by 'hyper' attention. 'Deep' attention belonged to the age of the printed word, now our technologies enable the circulation and consumption of 'technical temporal objects'. These are fleeting things providing an immediate hit before the next one comes along, and then the next, all jostling to be seen and consumed and crowding perception to the edge of the horizon. The levelling of consciousness accomplished by cinematic memory and hyper attention marks its proletarianisation: minds are not brainwashed but are sculpted and moulded to fit into the homogenised circuitry of the social. This threatens diversity and difference, prescribes a limited range of individuation, and introduces new forms of dependency and alienation. Living in this time is frequently overwhelming because the demands of attention heighten the sense of everything happening everywhere simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, anxiety is the generalised pathology of the age.

In his small book, For a New Critique of Political Economy (2009), the proletarianisation of consciousness, unsurprisingly, entailed a functional recasting of desire (the libido) to churn out the consumers appropriate to the attention economy. This was a historical and, at times, a conscious accomplishment - a process of desublimation on which the social order depends. Indeed, following Marcuse's arguments that almost presented 50s and (early) 60s America as a smooth, enclosed system of domination, the proletarianisation of consumption was the precondition for mass consumer markets and, therefore, an increasingly important counter to capital's tendency to crisis (that 2008 was a crisis beginning in mass home ownership, and how 2020's biopolitical crisis occasioned the present slump demonstrates capitalism's heat sink can, in turn, precipitate crises of its own).

What Marcuse didn't see at the time of One-Dimensional Man is visible in the mature attention economy. The flattening of diversity and the erosion of difference ultimately undermines novelty and innovation on which attention depends. The extreme short-termism and the ubiquity of hyper attention is ruining mental health and making people into, from its perspective, less efficient consumers. And the new age of technology is enabling capital to destroy the means of life itself at an ever greater pace. These contradictions rule out the possibility of a smooth, coherent system of domination. For all its simultaneity and levelling down, the attention economy can generate metrics and matrices for the (quantitative) appreciation of others, but cannot finally accomplish the full reduction of human beings to tools. As the gaps widen and the contradictions build, the possibility of its other becomes visible. This other is an economy of contribution, an altermodernity little different in conception from what can be found in Hardt and Negri: an imminent, familiar communism haunting the attention economy with its possibility as attention grows, spreads, dominates.

Stiegler's project was simultaneously a thinking through of power, domination, and economy in the 21st century, but it was also an enterprise of recuperation. The history of technics was, he argued, something Western philosophy had at times forgot, and at others actively repressed. And it's easy to see why. For Stiegler technology is irreducibly social and socialising. Technology is never innocent or neutral, it can be deployed to build things, including class relations. The traditional philosophical emphasis on contemplation and cognition in isolation from the real conditions of thinking and doing meant it apprehended a distortion of the social, and entered into crisis in the 1960s when the early attention economy and the relationship of consciousness and technics became increasingly evident. They could no longer be ignored, and so the tradition as we understood it collapsed leaving the materialist philosophies and philosophies of difference and complexity the field. Stiegler's work then is a matter of correcting the record and cataloguing the conceptual repressions and narrative ruses philosophy has spent centuries administering to deny the basic social facts of what it is to be human.

Louis Althusser once described philosophy as the class struggle in Theory. Stiegler can be counted as one of the militants who fought the good fight from our side. It's down to us to carry on where he left off.

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Sunday, 9 August 2020

On Conservative Despair

These things make me happy: shelves spilling over with books waiting to be read, trance music, and Tories in despair. You might think this species of conservative is thin on the ground. An effective majority of 80 (Julian Lewis ain't about to oppose the government, despite his expulsion) and super favourable opinion polling suggest they (should) have plenty to be cheerful, if not arrogant, about. And yet Tory gloom about their future exists, and occasionally finds itself articulated in Ed West's pessimistic forays on the topic. Having written a book on the decline of the right (which, you'll be glad to hear, gets a fuller treatment in my coming book on the Tories), Conservative Home gave him welcome space to dampen Tory spirits.

Ed's thesis is conservatism is doomed because social liberalism is on the march everywhere. Despite the grip the Tories have on British politics, the Black Lives Matter protests and the speed at which companies and the media have folded to the movement's demands represents yet another advance. And there is nothing Tories like him can do about it. The woke wave is less a tide and more a tsunami. All is swept up as it surges inland and when it ebbs, the ground is left utterly transformed. The chance of this provoking a conservative backlash is next to nil, especially when the people now entering middle age aren't moving right in anywhere near the same numbers as previous generations - and what push back there is champions the ridiculous, alienating rising generations all the more from conservatism and conservative parties.

What can the discerning social conservative do? Very little, it seems, apart from picking up a few crumbs where Ed finds some comfort. So we see the idea small countries have coped better with Covid-19 as a sort of endorsement of small statism. The crisis has encouraged a communitarian sensibility, reasserted the importance of expert knowledge and the notion and that, yes, sometimes people need to be told what to do. An enforced slowness of life induced by the lockdown has encouraged a move away from instantaneous and disposable culture, with the late Thursday night clapping ritual, a rediscovery of common events that bind us together. Superficial enough observations yes, but not ones you can build a conservative political programme out of. Don't tell Ed but, even worse, curbing atomised, narcissistic individualism and playing up social connectivity foregrounds something guaranteed not to be to conservative tastes.

Does Ed's argument sound familiar? Of course it does. We saw its more academic iteration wheeled out by Matthew Goodwin more recently, and is propagated on a spectrum ranging from Blue Labourism, mainstream Toryism (Ed West, sundry MPs and newspapers), and all the way to the nudge, nudge, wink, wink racism of "Cultural Marxism". They all share the same premise: conservative social values are losing ground because institutions are under the sway of sinister progressivists/unaccountable elites who, in turn, are brainwashing successive generations of people. That ever increasing numbers of people might be socially liberal thanks to the materiality of generationally conditioned everyday experiences, or successive right wing governments having a first class record of dumping on younger people, eludes them completely. Funny how stubborn, persistent, and immediately obvious realities of the 21st century is invisible to those who benefit from them. The likes of Ed then are philosophically paralysed, and can only find comfort in hard right authoritarians like Poland's Andrzej Duda and anti-semites like Hungary's Viktor Orban. 

If you want to take seriously its philosophical underpinnings, conservative thought is about managing change, of being cautious when it comes to reform and preserving what is good and wise over fads or, even worse, radical change. Translated into the brute reality of capitalist societies it's a creed for buttressing power and privilege, of maintaining prevailing class relationships. Therefore, scepticism about and the management of change is always an anxiety over and about the balance of power, ruling class power. Ed's pessimism is an acknowledgement that in the long run, his party and the class he identifies with have a serious political crisis coming.

And yet Conservatism, as a bourgeois political movement, is not paralysed. Far from it. Because it is rooted in ruling class politics, for as long as capitalism persists it too persists, along with subordinate establishment perspectives and traditions like liberalism and Fabianism. The Conservative project, if it can be so described, is a permanent rear guard action for stymieing what's coming and works to recast politics on grounds favourable for its continued dominance. In our present Tory government, we see this fight against the future assume three broad forms. There is being seen to be a crusading, activist, reforming government motivated by the best of intentions. This was and is Boris Johnson's approach to Brexit, and ditto for Coronavirus. For example, Rishi Sunak's stimulus measures, as pathetic as they are, materially benefit key sections of existing Tory support while showing the others in their coalition (i.e. pensioners, largely sheltered from the economic consequences of Covid-19) they are "doing things" to get matters working again. Few among this layer are about to bother looking too closely. The second is tried and tested scapegoating, the familiar spectacle of pinning the blame on or sign posting particular groups as the condensation of all that is wrong with the country. Classic divide and rule; today it's refugees risking their necks in the English Channel, yesterday it was immigrants generally, and tomorrow some other powerless and marginalised people will get their turn. Lastly, a conservative favourite is displacement activity, of generating projects and causes that, to all intents and purposes, are distractions from long-running problems, like Britain's economic decline or climate change. Brexit is the exemplar of such, even if it does reflect a real division among the ruling class. And it has, temporarily, consolidated the Tory stranglehold on politics. It also promises more political opportunities in the future as Johnson and friends jet around the world striking new trade deals to replace what is being lost through leaving the EU - an ultimately pointless piece of theatre sacrificing economic capital for political capital, as Old Bourdieu might have understood it.

Conservatives have to win and keep on winning for their system and their class power to persist. With all their advantages it's still a massive slog, they are by no means are they guaranteed to win, and ultimately stumping for the persistence of inequality and injustice is demeaning and disfiguring. Just look at the calibre of contemporary conservative intellectuals - bank accounts stuffed with money to compensate for the poverty of their minds. For those able to take a longer view, like Ed West has, a reckoning lies on the horizon threatening a most dreadful finality: the end of conservatism's popular base and, if it all goes terribly wrong, the permanent eclipse of the class it serves. As the old socialists used to say, they need to win all the time. We only need to win the once.

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