Wednesday 30 September 2020

What I've Been Reading Recently

Another quarter done, another slew of books for show and tell.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher
Babylon's Ashes by James SA Corey
The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe
The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
The Field of Cultural Production by Pierre Bourdieu
Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

The reading drought of Coronavirus quarantine continues. At the beginning of this in March a months' long vista opened up, not unlike the neverending summer beloved of childhood memory. I'd get so much done, and just think about all the books you don't ordinarily have time for. In the event there was plenty of time for a book: the one I'm writing. Not so much for others, hence the modest extent of this here list.

Quality, not quantity right? I guess so. Both the Barneses were entertaining enough, Damned was good fun in the shock schlock mode Palahniuk affects, and Carrie Fisher's novel (don't call it a memoir) was very Less than Zero/Rules of Attraction. If tales of 80s-tinged celebrity hedonism is your bag, grab it by both handles.

I do want to take this opportunity to pick on Arnold Bennett. Largely forgotten now by the wider discourse, Bennett was a popular late 19th/early 20th century novelist and writer from the Potteries. He wrote some excellent novels, such as Anna of the Five Towns and Clayhanger but also some mediocre yarns too, like The Card. The consensus among the literati who've ever paid Bennett any mind cast The Old Wives' Tale as his magnum opus. A sprawling novel of over 700 pages, it follows 60-odd years in the lives of a pair of sisters. One stays put in jolly old Burslem (or Bursley, as Bennett styled the Potteries' mother town), while the other elopes her way off to Paris. Okay. I tried reading this book about 15-16 years ago when I was part of a local library reading group and gave up after the first eight pages. This time yours truly stuck with it, all the while wishing I'd sunk my time in And Quiet Flows the Don, which has glowered from the shelves these last eight months. The Burslem scenes are tedious, and only come alive when a neighbour is killed off. Paris is more interesting, but we're not talking memorable-level engagement here. There's some promise as the story builds up to the siege of Paris at the hands of the Prussians and at any moment you're thinking, "yes, we're going to have some action set during the Commune." And ... it's glossed over in a single page. What a missed opportunity. Does it make any difference as the rest of the novel goes? I suppose it rubs in the plodding, dreary and boring countenance of the narrative. Why this is received as Bennett's masterpiece beats me. Therefore, take this as a warning. If you ever find yourself wanting to dip into the oeuvre of Stoke's literary giant, this book should be far down the list.

Got some interesting things coming up due to feature on next quarter's list. I (might) have got round to finishing Mandel's Late Capitalism by then, and my copy of Huw Lemmy's Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell has arrived and awaits the attention of my economy. No doubt destined to be a cult, pornographic classic of the Corbyn moment. Grab your copy while you still can.

What have you been reading recently?

Tuesday 29 September 2020

The Tory Higher Education Dilemma

Incoherence is fatal in politics where, more of than not, single mindedness reaps the political rewards. Which brings me to the government's management of the pandemic in Britain's universities, which has highlighted one (among a legion of) contradictory pressure on the Tories.

The Tory attitude towards universities is ordinarily contemptuous. Uninterested in them as big bucks export earners, successive Prime Ministers and their satraps approach them from the standpoint of their class interests. A less propitious future awaits the Tory party, and some can feel the advancing dread in their bones. The character of the coming crisis is a disjunction between the Tories and the bulk of the working population. With property acquisition by younger generations breaking down and their experience of the Conservative Party as a barrier to their aspirations, there are good reasons why younger people have a healthy antipathy to the Tories. The Tories are, however, insensible to this. What they are more sensistive to is the growing commonsense of social liberalism versus the Tory comfort zone of nostalgic nationalist identity politics, and so the Tories instinctively lash out at the perceived sources of their malaise. Polling consistently illustrates correlations between graduation, social liberalism, and a propensity to vote for anyone but rightwing parties. For the Tories, the diagnosis and cure is simple. This has nothing to do with the world they preside over and everything to do with brainwashing. The ludicrous announcement that extremism, interpreted as exposure to socialist or communist critiques of capitalism in schools is to be banned, is the latest episode in an inglorious history of purging education of the capacity for critique. To put it another way, it's the teachers and the lecturers beaming liberal tolerance and the evils of anti-capitalism into their heads.

Make room on the stage for Gavin Williamson. Our terminally absent education secretary earlier this year was determined to use Coronavirus to force through the re-modelling of higher education. In the Tory imaginary, as universities are factories for churning out Labour voters, the Covid crisis presented the government an opportunity. With many institutions staring down the barrel of insolvency, pairing liquidation with bail outs contingent on increasing the provision of vocational courses and STEM subjects are efforts aimed a bleaching out criticality. This is all done under the guise of curbing "low quality courses" and offering a return for the taxpayer. Indeed, last week in announcing a review of the ridiculous National Student Survey Williamson said the government was minded to nerf the NSS in institutional rankings. The sorts of degrees the Tories find objectionable - the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences - tend to be better NSS performers than STEM subjects, coincidentally enough. Downplay the NSS and institutions have one less reason for keeping them on the books. Another victory in the Tory culture wars, and more meat for the gormless base.

The Tories don't have an enitrely free hand in pursuit of this scheme. Coronavirus management and particularly the drive to re-open everything is crucial for the coalition of interests the party articulates and represents. The mad rush to get as many students signed up as possible, packed off to (and imprisoned in) halls of residence, and forcing universities to offer a reduced schedule of in-person teaching has little to do with the government keeping institutions afloat for their own sake, and a great deal more with supporting pension funds, institutional investors, landlords, and the supporting ecology of businesses. They need the students for the rents and the spending power, and to do their bit to keep city-centered property speculation on the rails.

You can see the problem. From a strategic point of view, they know something must be done about the anti-Toryism of the rising generation, so lashing out at the perceived institutional source of opposition makes some sort of sense. Yet clamping down on student numbers cuts against the interests of their coalition, which needs relentless growth. From the Tory point of view, it's lose-lose. How will the dilemma resolve itself? Whatever happens, it's not about to go away and shut up.

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Sunday 27 September 2020

Laurence Fox's Fake New Party

I had a moan about repetitive politics the other day, and the cyclical grind continues. Though, on this occasion, we're talking about farce, not tragedy. Laurence Fox, famous for playing the sidekick of a sidekick and marrying Billie Piper has announced he's launching a political party. Under the working name of Reclaim, there's apparently a million quid of donations in the bank and has no purpose other than fighting the culture wars. To quote Fox, "Our politicians have lost touch with the people they represent and govern. Our public institutions now work to an agenda beyond their main purpose. Our modern UK was borne out of the inclusion of so many individual voices. We can reclaim a respectful nation where all are included and none are ashamed to have somewhere to call home." If past behaviour of racist and transphobic trolling is taken into consideration, readers can make their minds up about the sincerity of Fox's words.

Between 2018 and 2019, followers of political minutiae will remember it as a springtime for new centrist parties. The much-missed Change UK got founded and quickly floundered, but this was one product of a moment that birthed half a dozen petty centrist outfits. Forwarding to Autumn 2020 there is persistent talk among former Labour members about setting something up, and indeed we had George Galloway's Stalinoid Worker's Party of Britain founded early this year, and in the past fortnight Chris Williamson's Resistance Movement, and the Socialist Party announcement of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition's return. We're also seeing similar moves around the edges on the right. The Brexit Party has drifted into abeyance while Nigel Farage decides what to do with the party's reputed £10m - the idea of rebranding the fan club as the Reform Party still tickles him, but there's no point if he can't hold remunerative public rallies. And so, other chancers are trying their hand. The London AM David Kurten has, for some reason, sat on the registration of his new party for two months and announced the arrival of the Heritage Party on Friday. Social conservatism and free markets are the boring fare on offer, and sounds no different to Reclaim.

The boom in petty party formation on the left is pretty straight forward. The election of Keir Starmer presents a clean break with Corbynism. It's totally understanable. But on the right? A Brexit-oriented Tory party is in power peddling right wing identity politics, and is always looking for new angles to cement its advantage. The political space is entirely squatted by Boris Johnson. This isn't like the Dave years that allowed UKIP to flourish to the Tories' right. How then to explain? In the first instance, politicians without parties tend not to last very long at any level of British politics. For someone like Kurten for whom there is no other vehicle and (probably) isn't about to be admitted into the Tories, it's a desperate roll of the die. But "Lozza" Fox?

To stand out in the crowded field of right wing punditry requires some originality - especially if one is a relative newcomer. Having made himself unemployable as an actor thanks to repeat public displays of prejudice and stupidity, Fox can - and does - position himself as a crybaby picked on by nasty liberal thesps who refuse to have anything to do with him. Therefore Fox is the perfect victim to feed the grievance culture of the right, and confirms all the suspicions about his profession throught repeated "truth-telling". But this can only get you so far. When this is the limit of your shtick, and one's musical efforts aren't pulling in the reddies, what is a privileged boy to do? Well, why not launch a political party? With a platform designed to tickle the fancy of Tory editorial offices and antagonising Fox's opponents on Twitter, it secures a new wave of attention and a justifiable excuse for inviting him on the politics programmes. And the (alleged) money bankrolling the project ensures some interest when parliamentary by-elections roll around. It's not actually going to do anything though. The prospects of electoral success range between nothing and nil, but this isn't the point. It's a vehicle for the person of Laurence Fox, a device for keeping the appearance fees and column offers flowing in. This is a non-party, a pure fake. Its substance is entirely grift.

Saturday 26 September 2020

The Tories and the British Fox News

With a "heavy heart", wrote Andrew Neil, "I will be leaving the BBC ... As for the future, I’m delighted to announce I have accepted the post of Chairman of GB News, a new news channel to be launched early in the New Year bringing new perspectives to the news." Backed by the US Discovery corporation, the aim is to challenge the BBC, ITV, and Sky in the broadcast news market - leaving many anticipating a British iteration of Fox News. Not as overtly right wing and frothing perhaps, but the "new perspectives" aren't about to feature excluded voices from council estates or left wingers critical of this pathetic government. If the Tory press is anything to go by, those deemed marginalised by "leftist media bias" are going to be the Douglas Murrays, Melanie Phillips, Isabel Oakeshotts, and Rod Liddles of this world.

Founding a right wing news channel is interesting because it says a lot about the political ecology of the Conservative Party and its hinterland. One thing we need to remember is, despite its record and institutional political advantages, the Tories are not invulnerable and, if anything, are finely balanced on the precipice of crisis. They have so far weathered the Coronavirus crisis without sustaining heavy political damage, but with growing numbers of cases and far larger numbers of people disapproving of their handling this is not a hook they can wriggle off forever. One thing sustaining their healthy vote intention numbers is Brexit, and doesn't Boris Johnson know it. The problem is their custodianship of leaving the EU is also time limited. The UK has left and whether there is a deal or not by the end of the year, it goes from an emotive issue wrapped up in national fantasies to a hobbyist pasttime. There might be some mileage over the next year blaming Brussels for picking on little Britain or, as per the politics grapevine, pinning withdrawal agreement chaos on the EU's lack of preparedness, but nothing to excite in the same way as 2017 and 2019.

Why is this crucial to the Tories and what has it got to do with GB News? The party's mass base is almost entirely dependent on older people generally and the retired in particular. There are two ontological reasons disposing them toward the Tories. The first is the estrangement from working life and a relative detachment from the social mainstream the fact of retirement entails. The discipline instilled from selling their time for a portion of their week gives way to an individuated freedom from work, albeit a freedom conditioned by the extent of one's pension. Priorities change and the brute compulsion of economic necessity largely disappears, replaced by other priorities and obligations. Yet retirement is potentially precarious. Pensions do not go as far as salaries, and are largely fixed. With limited options to make good income shortfalls, it is a social location prone to anxiety and fear.

The second exacerbates the characteristics of the first. The retired are, disproportionately, property owners. They own their own homes. They're more likely to own more than one home and rent out their "spares", have index-linked pensions, and own a modest quantity of shares. Structurally, there is little separating them from the archetypal small business person. They are their own boss, but are dependent on impersonal forces beyond their control for prosperity or misfortune. This antagonises the general unease underpinning the pensioner position and turns them, politically speaking, into nervous wrecks. These anxieties and fears sublimate into lashing out against things exemplifying uncertainty and change, like young people, the socially liberal trajectory of popular culture, and people traditionally positioned as outside the mainstream and used as scapegoats: sexual minorities, travellers, and immigrants. The flip side of anxiety is a longing for surety, and what provides this better than the smack of firm government? Parties with dynamic leaders who whill "do stuff" while shafting the sublimated stand-ins for one's fears has floated the petit bourgeois boat for over 200 years, and as retirement has ever more approximated this class location so we see a decisive shift to the right expressed along age lines. And it's not just authoritarian leaders presenting themselves in beguiling terms: simplistic ideas cutting out uncertainty while justifying selfishness and self-indulgence, such as the right wing slant to face mask panic, a propensity to nostalgia seeking to reassert the cetrainties of an imagined past, and a weakness for nationalism and the monarchy because they represent certitude and continuity in an uncertain, discontinuous time.

Conservative Party politics is deliberately and cynically calibrated to keep this constituency in a state of permanent excitement. Johnson's policy agenda attacks their bĂȘtes noires, waves the flag, and shields them from the consequences of his wrecking ball government. And when they're not, the Tories are a proven dab hand at depoliticising issues that should be central to British politics, such as the delapidated state of public services and the slow starvation of the NHS. The problem the Tories have, however, is that Brexit can't do the heavy lifting for much longer and whether banging on about Brussels, demonising liberal elites, and victimising scapegoats will cut the political mustard indefinitely is doubtful. Realities will intrude sooner or later. This is more acute as Keir Starmer is equally consciously nullifying Labour as an antagonistic other by going completely bland. However, an even greater threat to the Tories' ability to whipping and jabbing their core constituency to vote the right way is the falling salience of their institutional power. The Tory press, which has done more to gift their party more elections than any amount of campaigning, is in deep trouble and long-term audience decline. Switching to online might save them as businesses but not as opinion formers. It's difficult to see readers clicking through to The Sun website's political coverage in anywhere near the volumes who presently consume editorial content as they casually flick through the print edition. How to meet this looming disaster?

Broadcast journalism. The permanent Tory attack on the BBC is nothing to do with fairness and balance, and everything to do with muzzling it as a potential source of criticism and accountability. The immanent appointment of the silver spooned Charles Moore, Thatcher hagiographer and hard right propagandist as BBC Chair is the logical end point of years of attacks. Likewise appointing former Daily Mail editor and notorious racist Paul Dacre to run Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, gives the government extra powers over what gets broadcast and what is sanctioned. And, of course, Andrew Neil's GB News, adds more right-wing, Tory-friendly content into the media mix. As the newspapers whither, television grows in importance as a means of cohering the Tory base, feeding them news coverage, programming, and framing the day's talking points in ways advantageous to, well, the Tories. This institutional shift in television might also prove important for reaching beyond the army of Tory retirees as, by its nature, broadcast journalism can manipulate and frame issues in more complex and subtle ways than the printed word.

Here is the Tory game. If Autumn 2019 was about winning power, Autumn 2020 is about keeping it, and the Tories can always be relied on its dogged, single-minded pursuit, even (especially) if it means stamping on liberal niceties and openly playing a most cynical hand. Under the present circumstances of polarised politics, it's not going to cost them support - in fact, they're affecting a pain-free benefit. Even if this does not save Johnson in the long-run, they can help box in and discipline a future Labour government to stick to the rules laid down by Hammond and Sunak, and cohere the Tories in opposition. Keir Starmer's eagerness to appease the media now doesn't bode well for a possible future scenario where Labour sets aout dismantling this cosy Tory arrangement. And so, despise the Tories by all means. Feel real venom if you have to. But pay attention to their efforts at rigging politics. If we don't, only then do we deserve to lose.

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Thursday 24 September 2020

Blocking Writer's Block

In the summer of 1996, letters were exchanged between a Derbyshire pit village postcode and Weston Super Mare. The contents of this correspondence ranged over weighty matters like the meaning of truth, the Smashing Pumpkins, and whether joining the SWP was ever justified. The scribbler who later spent too much time scribbling was an identifying Marxist ploughing through Lenin's Selected Works in One Volume, and dipping into Marx's Capital inbetween shifts at Morrison's. The other was resolutely anarchist and tried his damndest to sell Nietzsche to his uncomprehending interlocutor. In this epistlery blizzard, the Nietzschean expounded the doctrine of eternal recurrence, which he interpreted as cyclical history. Everything was doomed to repetition: the present will recycle itself somewhere down the line, while we shuffle along an unoriginal course revisiting the same experiences and thoughts of previous generations. It has always been thus. It will always be thus.

This happy episode came to mind while thinking about the writer's block that has descended this last fortnight. Casting an eye over Keir Starmer's leadership and you could be forgiven we're living 10 years in the past. Crap slogans are back with 11th dimensional reasoning performing an Emporer's new clothes' job on vacuous banalities. And we have a rapid distancing from anything remotely smacking of progressive politics. Yesterday it was a failure to oppose the Tories on exempting military personnel from war crimes prosecutions. Today Labour Lords abstained on a mortorium on 55,000 evictions. Even mentioning the Covid dead is out of bounds. Like Ed Miliband, Keir Starmer won a Labour leadership contest on a soft left platform. And like his predecessor, he's busying burying his pledges because the geniuses around him think alienating core support is the only way to win.

Then we have the appalling nonsense of the Tories. With a pathetically needy Prime Minister getting the brick bat treatment, the dead cat distractionism of withdrawal agreement posturing is so Autumn 2019 and all the more indecent for it. Continuing the theme of pillaging the recent past, Johnson's announcements of new Covid-19 restrictions are so tissue thin we can look forward to infection rates galloping higher and higher, just like the start of the outbreak. And what do we have here? Rishi Sunak offering an economic support package that leaves culture workers out in the cold again, will compensate workers for only upto £700/month, and incentivises employers to dispense with full-time workers. It's enough to remind one of the economic support packages announced earlier in the year with all the inadequacies plus a few new ones.

These egregious examples of eternal recurrence are the root of my writerly malaise. Different day, literally the same old shit. The thought of repeating myself over and over as the same things keep happening doesn't appeal, so I'm taking it a bit easy. Get the old book finished (first draft done, now editing), read some more to stop the brain rotting, and write when the block is blocked out. It could be tomorrow, next week, or next month. And so, until then.

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Monday 21 September 2020

Simian Mobile Disco - Audacity of Huge

I can't be doing with writing anything tonight, so here's a tune instead. Crank it up.

Saturday 19 September 2020

Labour's Awful Sloganising

The first poll putting Labour on evens since before Boris Johnson became Tory leader, Keir Starmer will take that as Labour's (online) conference opens this weekend. Hopefully further inroads into their support are imminent, thanks to Tory incompetence and studied callousness. How to mark the milestone? The pointy heads at Southside have spent a few weeks beavering away and came up with a slogan. Unfortunately, it's of the "bread, peace, bland" species of sloganeering, sharing the same space with gems like "forward, not back" and "Ambitions for Britain". The party's new strapline, "A New Leadership" is, well, a bit nothing, amirite? Let's try channelling their brainstorming session to tease out what the hell is going on.

The first, evidently, is to punctuate Jeremy Corbyn's tenure and emphasise the difference between Corbynism and Starmerism. Considering Keir's off-hand remark at Prime Minister's Questions about Labour being "under new management" back in July upset some, the new slogan has a similar effect but without the immediate connotation of rubbing the left's nose in it. But the vacuity and inclusion of the word 'new' would certainly set Blairist hearts a flutter, of insipid sloganising recalling the memory of better times and saying to them the Starmer project is their project. Additionally, as the leadership question was central to four-and-a-half years of bitter factionalising and scorched earth scabbing by the right, it is well known and widely accepted on the left that Jeremy's chief fault was an absence of decisiveness and a preference for consensus. In the conditions of mainstream politics in normal times, let alone a highly charged moment of political polarisation, this was fatal to the party's prospects and put the brakes on making the left's revolution in the Labour Party permanent. Therefore, talking about leadership signals a break from indecision, though in favour of what is anybody's guess.

The best slogans and soundbites hit multiple targets at once. In his 2008 Labour conference speech against the backdrop of economic catastrophe, Gordon Brown uttered the words "this is no time for a novice". It worked as a sideswipe at Dave's rapid rise without a trace but was a particularly well-timed barb at the blessed David Miliband who was primed by assorted malcontents as a would-be challenger to Brown if the moment arose. Why Labour decided to put out billboards of Dave on a Quattro instead of using this line beats me, but such was the wisdom of the higher ups. "A New Leadership" possesses a similar double meaning. Confronted with the catastrophic political management of the crisis, the slogan implies Labour have, if you will, an "oven ready" leadership ready to take over from the discredited, cynical leadership of the Tories. The "new" here resonates in much the same way as it does for Blair's epigoni in the party. Not that masses of Blair fans exist out in the real world, but the fact New Labour were capable of being decisive. Blair got criticisms for all kinds of things before and after the Iraq War, but failing to be "prime ministerial" was not one of them. The slogan invites comparison between Johnson now, Labour under Blair, and Keir Starmer's steady-as-she-goes approach. The stress on competence and the colourless way of going about politics is a way of playing the personalities game, of opposing serious Starmerism to jibbering Johnsonism.

The use of this slogan is redolent of something else too. It can tick so many boxes because of its blandness, but it also sums up a direction of travel. There is plenty to be gleaned from Keir's shadow cabinet appointments and occasional, semi-cryptic statements about economic policy, but in the immediate future, at least for the next 18 months, the ambiguity of what "Starmerism" stands for will be allowed to stand. Ambiguity is here to stay. Long-time readers might recall Ed Miliband went on a policy-free holiday for the first couple of years of his tenure. Likewise, unless political opportunity requires the adoption of an eye-catching, low political cost policy, there is a likelihood of seeing much the same. Since his shopping list of Corbyn-lite leadership pledges, Labour has been a policy-free zone beyond a few weak coronavirus management and getting children back into school demands. You start as you mean to go on, as the old saying goes. The new slogan's emptiness also complements the leadership's non-positioning by not getting in the way of projection. As Johnson's refusal to adopt any policy this time last year apart from Brexit allowed him to pitch successfully to former Labour voters who wanted to see Brexit over the line, Keir's team are banking on his person acting as a blank canvas for discontented Tory voters as well as Labour people and those whose heads are turned by other parties. If they make the emotional investments in his vaunted abilities now, they are less likely to withdraw them later.

Will it work under the present conditions of political polarisation? Possibly, though it's not without dangers. If it does stand a chance of success, timing for its abandonment is crucial. Labour certainly won't be going into the next election with "A New Leadership" festooning every shadcab podium. But even more important than timing is what follows next. Are we going to get a Corbynism without Corbyn, which Keir's campaign promised? Or, as is more likely, can we look forward to capitulating on establishment redlines over work, the environment, housing, and health? Let's just say if you're hoping for the pulling of a socialist rabbit from a centrist-looking hat, I can forecast a deal of disappointment in your future.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Earthbound for the Super Nintendo

A (relatively) rare video game. A bloody expensive video game. And a much-beloved video game with fandom, wikis, and a cult following that only grows as the present gallops away from the date of its release. For these reasons Earthbound is something of a curio. The vast majority of video games get released and are promptly forgotten. Likewise those commanding hype and good reviews also have a tendency to fall into the hole of cultural memory after a while. Only a few have attained immortality status, and it's to the Super Nintendo's credit that it has more of these sorts of games than most. Yet Earthbound is different, a beast refusing to conform to these schemes of speciation. Despite heavy promotion in the US (it never made it officially to Europe) it didn't sell spectacularly. Perhaps it released too late in the SNES's life or because the gaming landscape was already a veritable field bursting with pricey role-playing games. But somehow in the years since its reputation has come on in leaps and bounds and is routinely listed as one of the best games of the era. Hence high demand and the high price tag.

What is the fuss? There is the originality of the game. Unlike most 16-bit era RPGs, which were mostly (but not exclusively) fantasy affairs, a deliberately low-fi look in a present setting made it unique. Yet not stand out enough to ensure success, at least not for the time. How about the game mechanics? Some have waxed lyrical about Earthbound's innovations in this regard. Going for the standard number-based combat and experience system, the hit point counter is replaced by a tumbler. This has its uses as points for battle damage roll down very slowly, giving the character the option to finish off their opponent before the counter falls to zero. If that happens they stop accruing damage and therefore avoid the expensive resurrection feature. Also nice are the options of automating battles, and thanks to enemies appearing on the map a lot of battles (and therefore grinding tedium) can be avoided. Even better is when the band of characters have reached a certain level enemies can be defeated by simply walking into them, avoiding the battle screens altogether. Very nice. But hardly big departures of what went before. You can still use magic/psychic powers. You can still use items.

No, the reputation on which Earthbound is built is the story. In a scene reminiscent of 1953 classic, Invaders from Mars, the protagonist Ness (or whatever name the player decides to grant them) is woken from his bed by loud knocking at the door and a rumour something has come down in the hills. So there begins an adventure as hokey as anything found in B movies, replete with aliens, time travel, youthful hoodlums, and zombies. Ultimately the game culminates in a showdown with the apparent nemesis, Giygas, an antagonist sold as an alien leader but is revealed as an elemental spirit of evil. It can't be denied the showdown sequence really pushes the SNES with its graphical jiggery-pokery, and the stock of fan theories about what it all represents has helped contribute to the game's legend.

Speculating about the lore or the hidden meanings wrapped up therein isn't really my bag, but beginning with what the production staff intended is a good place to begin to understand its appeal. The project's lead, Shigesato Itoi, set out to create something that was a distillation of American culture while paying homage to the graphical style developed in the preceding game, the Japan-only Mother. It therefore delivers a double shot of nostalgia - a presentation reminiscent of 8-bit graphics while simultaneously improving on them and delivering something redolent of Saturday morning cartoons and, crucially, toys. The second is the setting. This is white middle America as it projects itself outward. The characters live in nicely-sized houses and their requisite picket fence with Mom and Dad, and each town in the game is nice with well presented public buildings, roads unchoked by traffic, but also the hint of a world unseen by adults that comprises the threat - a plot beloved of many so-called family movies of the 1980s.

This repetition of Americana and selling back to Americans, who have driven the fandom, also preserves the relations and tropes of Middle America. Ness doesn't strike as a jock, but his combat weapon of choice is the baseball bat and the ubiquitous cap suggests he's on his way to becoming one. This contrasts with the other characters who join the party: Paula, who later fills the girlfriend slot and deals and swings a mean frying pan (yes, really), proves pivotal in the final battle where it's her prayers that win the game. Woman as spirit being, is it? And woman as victim too. Her hit points are consistently calculated as the lowest of the cohort as she accumulates experience, and is therefore the most likely to kick the bucket in battle. There is also a brief interlude relatively early in the game where she is kidnapped and has to be rescued. Le sigh. Jeff is the poindexter boarding school personality type. He wears glasses, so he's obviously smart. He can fix broken items overnight when the player nips for a sleep at a hotel, and is the only one capable of operating technological items (bombs, rockets, bazookas, death rays). The final addition is Poo (yes), who is a caricature of all the orientalist tropes fanned by decades of Hollywood: lives in a temple, has his own mysterious master, finds sustenance in meagre helpings of rice and water, does martial arts, and has to undergo a spiritual journey to access the full range of his mystical powers. For a layer of gamers, particularly those of a certain age who might be exercised by more contemporary challenges to lazy sexist and racist stereotyping in video games, these kinds of depictions are a link to a privileged, persil-white culture subsequently retconned as the rosy frames to their childhoods.

Nevertheless, Earthbound is also a very nineties video game. Irreverence, gross out humour, the psychedelics, and occasional breaching of the fourth wall help to round out the game. It even features that rarest of digital antagonist: the police, who Ness has to beat up to progress the narrative. But they're possessed, so don't worry. The game isn't that edgy. Earthbound is also praised for its humour, which is more quirky than laugh-out-loud, but when joking was thin in games back then its idiosyncrasy in this regard has held up surprisingly well.

Indeed, despite the necessary cultural critique it is entertaining by today's standards in ways other 16-bit RPGs are not. The setting, the interpretation of American culture, but also the technical virtuosity, quirkiness, it's very easy to get into thanks to the undemanding gameplay. Truly, Earthbound is sought after because it's a good game and worth the time.

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Tuesday 15 September 2020

Life on Venus

Writer's block/other irons in the fire, and we'll go with this instead: the news possible biosignatures have been detected in the atmosphere of Venus. Play it, Sam.

She's got it. Yeah baby, she's got it. Well, we still cannot be certain. More observations are required but the fact this is based on two observations at different times by two different telescopes strengthens the odds considerably. Very exciting. If confirmed, the chances of other forms of life clinging on or thriving on other bodies in the solar system increases, and if it can be found to have an origin independent of life here on Earth the likelihood of (at least microbial) life being common in the universe also goes up.

In the grand scheme of things, does this change anything about our perception of ourselves? Probably not.

NB The most recent episode of The Sky at Night is especially comprehensive on the chemistry of possible Venusian life. It comes highly recommended

Sunday 13 September 2020

On Tory Law Breaking

It's the most ambitious crossover event since Brownites and Blairites teamed up to do in the Corbyn project. Writing for the Sunday Times, John Major and Tony Blair have attacked the government for its stated intention to break the Withdrawal Agreement Boris Johnson signed last October, and was voted into UK law in January. They condemn the government's posturing as irresponsible and the damage it's causing the country's international reputation. And who can disagree?

It's long been the contention of this blog that the Tories articulate the interests of the most backward sections of the business class, whether it concerns Coronavirus management or, for that matter, everything else. Indeed, over the course of the last five years the horizon of Tory ambition has contracted quite sharply to the day-to-day survival of the Tory party itself and, latterly, the career of Johnson himself. Major and Blair, as hangovers from a previous age of establishment politics, are aghast because they know, and it's hardly the keenest of insights, that the extreme short-termism of contemporary Tory politics goes beyond discrediting the occupant of Downing Street: it imperils the authority of the state itself.

When Johnson tried rushing Brexit through with unseemly haste last Autumn, it was because his project was time limited. Get Brexit done as quickly as possible, purge the critics, and win an election without dragging it out. The game plan was plain as day from day one of the Tory leadership contest. And so when leading Tories prattle on about unforeseen political circumstances and the pressure the Prime Minister was under to get a deal, the pressure was entirely his. He determined the timetable, he determined the bombastic and reckless approach, and he determined the limited window for scrutiny in the Commons. The unprecedented situation was entirely the government's own contrivance, and the customs border in the Irish Sea between the north and mainland Britain a detail Johnson reinserted into the agreement after Theresa May had excised it.

For Major and Blair, and the grandees who've chipped in this last week, there are three chief concerns. The avoidance of the hardest of hard Brexits, which would exacerbate the problems of Britain's weak economy - already cratered by Tory policy pre- and post-Covid. There's the small matter of other governments wary of signing up to anything with the UK if treaties are rode over roughshod for politically expedient reasons, a message reinforced by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this last week. And as for authority at home, if it's okay for the government to break the law in a "very specific and limited way", the state runs the risk of undermining respect for the law for everyone else. Consider the widespread consequences of the Dominic Cummings affair, for example. Without the cloak of the law the real underpinning of state authority, that might is right, is exposed. Tory legal shenanigans short circuit the constitutional flummery on which its legitimacy rests, and who knows what might flow from this down the line. From their point of view, Major and Blair are right to be concerned.

This is one of those rare occasions where the interests of the left and part of the bourgeois establishment episodically align. The law, like all other aspects of the state is a terrain of struggle and a useful tool for checking the arbitrary exercise of executive power. Where we depart from our temporary comrades the former Prime Ministers is the refusal to fetishise law as something sacrosanct. The law is frequently wrong and unjust because of its class character, and as such it is entirely right it be defied in some circumstances, dependent on the politics of the situation and the nature of the struggle. And besides, mainstream politicians are prepared to act unlawfully if they too believe it suits their interests - as one of the two men taking Johnson to task did so spectacularly, until the United Nations provided necessary legal cover after the fact. Nevertheless, this is a thin end of a thick wedge. The Home Office routinely tries deporting people in defiance of court orders, the trial of Julian Assange, whatever one may think of him, is a travesty of legal process, the government ignores the law to dish out juicy Covid-19 contracts to their cronies, and the attempt by Suella Braverman and Robert Buckland - the attorney general and justice secretary respectively - to soft soap treaty breaking is more than a pattern of behaviour. It's a strategy aimed at hobbling the courts, protecting themselves from legal scrutiny and challenge, and allowing the government to do as it pleases. It's the same species of authoritarianmism we've seen from Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and Poland's Andrzej Duda, albeit with British, Johnsonian characteristics.

Major and Blair have called on MPs to reject the internal market legislation due to come before the Commons tomorrow. For its part, Labour have said it will vote against it if the law breaking provisions are not removed. There's excitable talk of up to 30 Tories rebelling (recent history suggests no one shouldn't hold their breath), and then tying it all up in the Lords. All of which suits Johnson as long as he can convince the Tory base about how the remainers are ganging up to steal their Brexit again, but given how it's his own deal he's now opposing this will stretch the credulity of some. But the theatre, which the Tories are increasingly dependent on, is all that really matters. As Buckland said in his Andrew Marr interview, the proposed legislation won't come into force if the government and EU agree a trade deal anyway. Johnson thinks the noise now is worth the consequences that may never come, though as Major and Blair are right to point out, the casualty of this reckless approach will be the Tory objective of advantageous bilateral trade deals.

This is a pattern we've seen before with Dave and May, one in which increasingly risky bets are placed on gambles offering ever diminishing returns. Being seen to posture and act tough versus the UK's intergovernmental reputation as a respecter of treaties is the dilemma. Given this choice, for Johnson there is no contest. The short-term perception of personal and party political advantage wins out every time.

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Saturday 12 September 2020

Cultural Marxism and Conspiracy Theory

Among the drafts never to have seen the light of day, there is a third-written piece about so-called Cultural Marxism, a favourite and persistent conspiracy theory starting out in the anti-semitic sewers of the far right and has ingressed into more mainstream conservative thought. Rather than spending time dusting it off and giving it the spit and polish treatment, Aaron Bastani over at Novara Media has supplied the goods instead. In lieu of extensive writing from me this evening, enjoy.

Friday 11 September 2020

Covid-19, Capital, and the Conservative Party

We've talked about the dead, let us now consider the living. The new measures Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday were certainly, well, confusing. The Rule of Six, redolent of something half-inched from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, prohibits private gatherings of no more than six people. No more house parties, drinks out or a meal if participants exceed the magic number. You won't even have a socially distanced gathering in the park. And then we have the infection rate, which reported over 3,500 new cases on Friday and an official R rate of between 1.0 and 1.2. Local lockdowns are popping up quicker than Russian oligarchs at Tory fundraisers, and Johnson is musing a 10pm curfew. The measures are half arsed and, remember, don't come into force until Monday. You can imagine some, just like the weekend before lockdown, hitting the town one last time before restrictions are imposed - a blow out that can only blow up the positive tests and hospitalisations.

Incompetent and reckless, yes. Incoherent, yes. But isn't it funny how the loops and contradictions in the management of the crisis map onto the Tory party's coalition of interests? Perhaps we need to stop giving the Tories the benefit doubt by putting Coronavirus failures down to their hopelessness. It's time to start treating their decisions as deliberate and pre-meditated. They know what they're doing, and their first concern is not the health of those in harm's way: it's the wellbeing of capital and, in particular, the capital strategically allied to the Tory party.

This is a topic visited here on several occasions. The Tories are not simply the 'party of business', but - like the Labour Party - a coalition of (business) interests whose composition has adjusted over time. There is a certain continuity, however. Keeping the City of London the pre-eminent global hub for currency exchange, brokerage and share trading, and finance is a priority and touchstone of Tory statecraft (and, for that matter, Labour governments too). As such, the bankers, traders, and financiers in the City have tended to look to the Tories for political protection, while personnel flit between the City, the Treasury, and the Bank of England - not to mention around the Conservative social circuit - at a speed matched only by algorithms modelling derivatives. Since Thatcher's Big Bang in 1986, sections of the City closest to the Tories tend to be those who viewed its best interests served by repositioning the City as a no-questions-asked clearing house outside the regulatory reach of the European Union. Another section of the City, particularly those whose commercial interests are tied up with sourcing finance to EU-based firms, take a different view.

Additionally, a subset of the City - finance capital - is closely aligned with the Tories. Based on the creation of debt, this is big capital grown fat off the two property booms of the last 40 years. They simultaneously have an interest in inflating property prices and ensuring supply can never satisfy demand, which creates a synergy of interests with the small but politically important layer of landlords. Limited owner occupation ensures a healthy rental market for landlords, as well as avenues of investment for institutional investors, private individuals, and pension funds. All of a sudden, Tory failures and limited measures on home building and, as we've seen, help for renters, makes perfect sense.

The Tories have always been closely tied to the land. As Geoffrey Ingham notes in his masterful Capitalism Divided? The City and Industry in British Social Development, successful capitalists in Britain have tended to acquire the aristocratic habitus and the taste for a big pile and acres of land as signs of what we now call cultural capital. Jacob Rees-Mogg typifies this tendency. Despite his ridiculous affectations, neither of his parents were drawn from aristocratic stock and his fortune comes from his investments in the City, not inherited wealth. It's a confidence trick repeated by the well-heeled for three centuries, a conscious effort of cultural appropriation to associate one's lofty position not with contemporary money grubbing but the trappings of England's ancient past. In addition to city slickers-turned-country gents, farming, small scale and large, have traditionally looked to the Tories because of ties of loyalty and deference to landowners, but also protectors of the rural interest - above all the supply of cheap, non-union labour to do the labouring and picking. This was guaranteed by a combination of feeble protections for workers, and subsequently shielding them from above minimum wage rises thanks to migrant labour. This intensive use of labour also underpins Tory support from the service industry. The age differentials built into the minimum wage allows big chains and small businesses to simply hire in help cheaply, and the cheapest of workers are, of course, the young. Our good friend Tim Martin is an ideal typical personification of this tendency in capital.

It's worth remembering that capital is a social relationship, but one based on irreducible inequality and exploitation. Those at the commanding end of this relationship - the bosses, the managers, the owners - have a sense for what's good for the immediate interests of their businesses, but this is not based on perfect information and their recognition of their interests are filtered through lifetimes of prejudices and loyalties, many of which reinforced by their lived experience as owners and controllers of the means of production. In some cases, their attachment to the Tories can be viewed in terms of rational choice/rational actor theory, but not always.

But rather than seeing the Tories as the expression of these interests, we should see them as their articulators. The insights of Mao Zedong are not usually aired here, but his discussion of democracy and the mass line is useful for understanding this. He suggested democracy existed in as far as party militants and leaders have a feel for the diffuse currents and interests among the popular classes. These voices are condensed and distilled into slogans, demands, and programmes which are taken to and win over the masses. The democracy, he argues, lies in this process of dialogue, of listening to the people and feeding into strategy. The Tory party works in a similar way, albeit with smaller groups of people. Its reputation as the party of business is alone enough to draw in business support, but it does not need a cabal of the rich to tell them what to do at every turn. To keep the money flowing, it instinctively knows, has a collective feel for the sorts of people and interests it should be supporting - and this feel comes from the traditions, ideas, and the personnel of the Tory party itself. They're embedded in their class, or rather particular fractions of it, and away they go.

How does this work? The contradictions in the Tory coronavirus strategy is a perfect case study. The government's refusal to apply the rule of six to workplaces shows, as far as they're concerned, people are primarily profit fodder. The new control measures are to be enforced in what they regard as the ancillary requirements of labour. i.e. Life outside the purview of the capitalist. Indeed, all throughout lockdown the Tories have fretted over the consequences of furlough and refused point blank to issue a general business closure notice: for most organisations outside of retail and services, whether workers were required was down to the judgement of individual employers. And so, whatever measures the Tories consider over the next few weeks, telling people to stay home is never likely to feature. Labour discipline is at stake. The second is opening the service economy is the attempt to throw a bone to a key layer of Tory support, and it's this undoubtedly driving the newly-accumulating levels of infection. As we know with the panic about ghost city centres and the memes around dying for a sandwich, the Tories want people back in the office so the multiplying effects of passing trade and revive retail - a scenario uniting chain stores and the small newsagent. On top of this is an overall concern with the death of the office. In as far as the Tories have a properly thought out economic strategy, it is clustering as many businesses into big cities to drive up property prices, rents (commercial and residential), and provide a relatively stable property environment for finance capital and pensions funds to profit. There are further happy electoral consequences of doing so too. If this model breaks, those funds, the investments are in big trouble and property-led economics becomes more difficult to sustain. Desperate moves at getting people back into the workplace is to try and derail this move, and protect those vested in the model. But the result? Overwhelming support by business, ostentatiously sympathetic media coverage of the government's efforts to get Britain moving again, and a bedrock of unmovable support in the polls.

On the surface, what the Tories are doing is nonsensical and counter-productive. To get any sense of what's happening, we've got to stop treating Johnson's government as a bunch of incompetents responding to a health problem. The Tories have a political strategy, and their concern is the health of the class relationships they articulate and champion in this period of biopolitical crisis. Rising to the difficulties of Coronavirus demands we have a political strategy of our own that opposes and pressures the Tories, and this is only possible if we are fully aware of what the Tory party is, what they're doing, and why they're doing it.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

The Tories are Winning the Necropolitics

"Abide by the rule of six!" exclaimed Boris Johnson during a rare appearance at a Coronavirus press conference this evening. Announcing new rules, all settings should be restricted to no more than six people - unless you are on a train, going in to work, walking into a shop, or heading into the classroom. As any scientist will tell you, Covid-19 is a notorious respecter of the places people gather to sell their time to their boss and only becomes infectious in private, home settings. Following the fourth day in succession of 2,000+ new infections, Johnson's new measures which, he says, "breaks his heart", are not going to curb transmission much. He doesn't want a second national lockdown, but if cases keep going up the political consequences of not acting become increasingly expensive. Fluffing the containment of Coronavirus twice is a can the Tories would rather not carry.

Yet there's a strange absence from the discourse, a void barely remarked upon by leading politicians of the government and opposition. The press are uncharacteristically quiet on this issue too and the left, even the left aren't banging on about it. The absence I'm speaking of is the absence of absent people: the dead. At the time of writing, the official count says 41,594 people in the UK have died of Covid-19. Excess deaths in total are between 50k-65k since the start of the outbreak. A lot of people who should still be with us are just not getting talked about. Why?

Back before the lockdown, we had occasion to consider Tory strategy ahead of the calamity about to engulf the country. What the theory heads refer to as necropolitics. If biopolitics is how a state goes about managing its population at a remove via forms of governance selecting for, nudging, and using the stick to encourage acceptable patterns of behaviours and styles of living, necropolitics is the management of death and the risk of death. From the off, the Tories' management of the risk of death was slapdash and cavalier. They were slow to lock down and let hundreds of sporting events take place, including Cheltenham which, alone, led to dozens of deaths and thousands of infections. Then, to clear the hospitals ready for a wave of Coronavirus patients, elderly people were discharged back to care homes, some of whom were already ill (but untested). A recipe for death on a huge scale which, peculiarly, has yet to trouble any conspiracy theorists. These criminal failings go hand in hand with the Tory abandonment of track and trace at the very moment it was most needed to stamp out the spread of disease. Instead, they allowed Covid-19 to flair out of control until the closure of practically everything brought the rates of infection down.

A mix of complacency and incompetence characterises, and continues to characterise their management of risk. If negligence of this magnitude had taken place in a company, the boss would rightly face a battery of charges. And yet, far from punishment, Johnson and the Tories continue to enjoy handsome polling. One of the reasons why is because, so far, they've successfully depoliticised the necropolitics. The question "why are 60,000 people dead?" is yet to elicit an answer along the lines of "because of the Tories." And the government have managed this accomplishment by a mix of design and fortuitous accident.

There were two phases to the lockdown. The first was a zealous campaign of curtain-twitching and over-enthusiastic coppers busting people for taking the dog for a walk in the middle of nowhere. Stories abounded of feral youths being ... outside, and panics about lockdown not getting taken seriously. There was cringe talk of reviving the Blitz spirit (replete with VE Day congas that, strangely, did not attract the press's critical attention), but the stress here was on the individual responsiblity we have not to make others ill. With hundreds of deaths piling up everyday and government uniformity backed up, as ever, by the media , the lockdown zeroed the public's imagination down to social distancing and being careful. As such, the background presence of death underlined the seriousness of the situation. And yet, for all its ferociousness, it struck seemingly at random, a consequence of chance, poor luck, or failure to behave responsibly in the new situation. All the public messaging rammed this point hope: stay at home, control the virus, save lives. This is where the accident of Dominic Cummings's legendary trip to Barnard Castle actually helped with managing the necropolitics. This blatant case of hypocrisy caused the Tories some pain, and while it did undermine people's trust in the rules, it placed renewed stress on individual responisbility. Cummings's breach of lockdown did not lead to a generalised popular critique of the Tory handling of the crisis, instead it helped justify rule-breaking while affirming one's responsibility for Covid avoidance. If you're daft enough to do a Dom and catch it, the government is not to blame for your foolhardiness.

As the lockdown restrictions have eased, the press and TV news regularly pepper their output with illegal raves and huge house parties. There was also plenty of faux concern in the Tory papers about the health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests. And so as we see with the building wave of infections, because the young this time are disproportionately affected a whole summer of reportage on their irresponsibility allow the government to escape its share of the blame, despite the failures over testing - something even Boris Johnson guffawed about in the Commons earlier - and the debacle of test and trace mk II. But the point needs stressing. The vectors of infection aren't because a few young people have secretly met under tree cover to indulge their mutual love for repetitive beats, but thanks to the government's ludicrous eat out to help out scheme. Epidemiology isn't string theory. You have large numbers of people encouraged to visit cafes, bars, takeaways and pubs then the people most likely to fall ill will be those exposed to a flow of patrons for long periods. And guess which age group is overrepresented working in these trades? The 18-24s.

The Tories wanted to depoliticise the dead, and they've found a willing partner in the Leader of the Opposition. The strictly limited terms of Keir Starmer's opposition is a stress on Tory incompetence. A wider critique is off the cards: contesting the politics of coronavirus is limited to only nibbling at the edges. Whether this is thanks to now-is-not-the-time-ism or thinking plodding managerialism plus a refusal to take up a firm critical position will endear him to Tory voters (or, for that matter, both), the result is the same. The Tories get to define the necropolitics of Covid-19 uncontested, and while some might fetishise the inquiry to come, it's naive to suppose what they're doing and getting away with is going to come back in 18 months and wreak catastrophic damage on them.

The Tories then are winning. Whatever happens over the next four years, they've boxed out the damage tens of thousands of totally unnecessary deaths should have caused them. Whether they can carry on doing this as the next wave laps at the country's toes depends on whether the opposition changes tack. If not them, who will speak for the dead and those who are about to die?

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Tuesday 8 September 2020

Balearic Bill - Destination Sunshine

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside. Console yourself at Summer's passing with this beast.

Monday 7 September 2020

More Tiresome Brexit Posturing

How's Brexit going? According to the latest bombshell heavily trailed all day, it's proceeding according to plan. This morning, the papers led with the news Downing Street was planning on tearing up withdrawal agreement provisions struck last October. You'll remember it. The deal Theresa May took to the Commons and had it rejected on three occasions (and voted down by Boris Johnson on two of them), but was suddenly a last minute master-stroke once Johnson was in the saddle and took it to Brussels himself. So good is the withdrawal agreement that the Prime Minister took to The Times to crow how Britain would "prosper mightily" if this forms the basis for the UK's future relationship with the EU. Prosper so mightily in fact that his deal allows Northern Ireland to remain in the EU's single market and customs union because being outide would be, um, profoundly damaging.

Johnson's latest Brexit move involves passing a new UK internal market bill, the full details of which are to become available on Wednesday. On BBC Breakfast this morning, environment secretary George Eustice tried gamely to make it sound like a technical matter, a case of checking the commas and evacuating the colons. But it is not. The specifics would make changes to seemingly arid aspects of the withdrawal agreement around customs arrangements and the rules governing UK state aid for Northern Ireland. These, however, could risk unilaterally revising the agreement.

Over a year of Johnson in government should have insulated Westminster watchers against Number 10's contrivances to shock. And yet. The first thing we have to keep in mind is who this theatre is aimed at. Allowing the flames of ambiguity to get fanned by half-hearted denials opens the door to reports of "concerns" in Brussels. While a frisson of panic is sending shivers down the spines of remainers, it guarantees favourable editorials in the Tory press and more red meat for the hungry Tory base. Seeing the government self-consciously and ostentatiously acting tough with and trolling the EU is something they definitely love to see. Would the Tories be so petty? When you consider we're stuck with Brexit because a Conservative Prime Minister wanted to stop UKIP winning a couple of parliamentary seats, the answer is a definite yes.

This latest round of Brexit brinkmanship is faithfully reproducing behaviours past, then. There is another good reason to view it as pure bluff: the fact we're dealing with an international treaty. As we saw before when, for a while in 2019, May telegraphed to her honourable members how she didn't really mean the things she signed the UK up to and we wouldn't have to abide by them anyway. Or Johnson's rhetorically playing fast and loose with the law a year ago, there is a very simple fact of geopolitical life the Tories cannot escape from. If they renege on treaties, the trading relationships they're going to get Tony Abbott to negotiate for them won't happen. A Brexit deal with Japan won't fail because of Liz Truss's red lines on Stilton, but simply because the UK cannot be trusted to abide by legal agreement. That means no deal with the EU, none with the emerging markets supposedly poised to replace trade volumes with our closest neighbours, nor the holiest of holies, the United States. If some weird hobbyist writing from the back streets of Stoke-on-Trent can discern this, so do the civil servants, the politicians, and the UK's chief negotiator.

This posturing is not without risk. The Tories' stance could box them in to not striking a deal at all. And the interests closest to the Tories could live with that. With an opposition at best "measured" in its criticisms, the Tories can rely on its press friends and supine broadcasters to bury the damage of a chaotic Brexit amid the Coronavirus winter wreckage. And if Johnson does strike a last minute deal (which remains more likely than walking away), it will be thin and fall far short of the oven-ready promises made last year. Not that this is overly concerning: they can again call upon their friends to herald it a triumph. You can write the Daily Express headlines already.

Where does this leave the rest of us already at the sharp end of a pandemic and an economic depression exacerbated by the Tories? With a serious organising job to do. Because the Tory constituency is somewhat shielded from the consequences of these three crises now coming to a head, Johnson thinks he can carry on as he has for the last year. Labour for its part is left without a strategy of breaking up and disorganising the Tory coalition, unless making nice to the Mail and the Telegraph is it. Until the left comes up with a disruptive strategy of its own as well as continuing to organise our people, they shall rinse and repeat it all the way to 2024 and another unconscionable victory.

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Sunday 6 September 2020

New Left Media September 2020

August has seen an explosion of new left media flash across my screens. Here's what I was able to capture. Check them out!

1. A World to Win with Grace Blakeley (Twitter)

2. Adorno Studies

3. Chop Shop Economics (Twitter) (Facebook)

4. Christine Berry (Twitter)

5. Labour Beyond Cities (Twitter) (Facebook)

6. Labour Outlook (Twitter) (Facebook)

7. Notts Momentum (Twitter)

8. RADIKAAL Podcast (Twitter)

9. Socialist Alternative Podcast (Facebook)

10. This Machine Kills (Twitter and Twitter)

11. Tim Petherick (Twitter)

12. Tom Williams (Twitter)

13. VOICE.WALES (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs, podcasts, channels, Facebook pages or whatever that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs etc. to have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The new media round up appears hereabouts when there are enough new entrants to justify a post!

Saturday 5 September 2020

A Cultural Sociology of Mass Stupidity

We can now add former Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown to the roll call of stupidity. Tweeting on Saturday afternoon, he wrote "NO LOCKDOWN NO TESTS NO TRACKS NO MASKS NO VAX." Utter bobbins, but remember he did release a song called Dolphins were Monkeys so science was never his strong point. We know it's not just him, though. Last week Piers Corbyn copped a ten grand fine for organising the anti-mask protest in Trafalgar Square, and to him flocked all that is naive, foolish, and downright thick. The banner of the British Union of Fascists made an appearance, and circulating among the anti-maskers were adherents of QAnon, climate change deniers, and assorted far right and conspiracy hobbyists.

When a small clutch of people do something, you can put it down to idiosyncrasy. But when large numbers are involved, with input from right wing politics and celebrity has-beens hungry for the hit of the spotlight, we're talking about a social phenomenon. It therefore behoves us to understand more than the cultural roots of this form of conspiracy thinking, as interesting an exercise that is, but what matters most immediately are the reasons why anti-Coronavirus conspiracy thinking and its anti-mask message has efficacy.

These processes are fairly well understood in general terms, but it's worth spelling them out. Mass stupidity in advanced capitalist societies is not because people are ultimately brainwashed or lacking in the grey matter department, it's a question of how we "become", of what type of human beings we are and why our society has churned our like out for decades. And this is inseparable from the N-word no one ever hears on the BBC: neoliberalism. Instead of conceiving neoliberalism as a set of economic-oriented policies emphasising market fundamentalism, privatisations and, with it, attacks on workers' movements and workers' rights wherever it takes hold, neoliberalism has to be thought about at its most pernicious: as a mode of governance, a diagram for shaping, manipulating, and relating to human beings, particularly at the interface between institutions and organisations as collective entities and people as atomised, individuated bodies.

Let's unpack that a bit. Thanks to successive interventions by the state across all areas of social life, what you might call the consuming self has become the model of citizenship. Think of the prototypical shopper. They go into a shop and choose what they want to buy, and as consumer markets have expanded so have the choices available, provided money is available to take advantage of the array of choices. What someone decides to buy, how much, and how frequently is solely a matter of individual determination, of weighing up the options and choosing. This sensibility was raised to the pinnacle of public policy under Thatcher, and has informed governments red and blue ever since. Education, for example, a matter of parental choice, and this has justified the semi-privatisation of schooling and the introduction of metrics to evaluate schools by. Enhancing the ability to choose between private or public health providers was a long-held Tory policy objective, and enabling patients to make choices about their treatments, who treats them and where, continues to justify the ongoing marketisation of the NHS. And on and on it goes at all level of public service. Yet it is not enough to simply be offered choices. Successive governments were just as concerned with turning out people capable of making choices. This depended on inculcating a sense of the entrepreneurial self.

Consider schooling. At school children are taught about individual self-responsibility. So what is new? That has always been a feature of the education system. But married to this are batteries of test regimens backed by an increasingly authoritarian school culture in which teachers are performance-managed by the inspections regime and fidelity to grade targets set by management. This encourages informal streaming, exclusions, and the move toward screening entrants. In many schools some children are simply told they're not getting entered for a particular examination because their performance reflects badly on the school's reputation, which is measured by league table positioning. While wider culture is tending toward more cooperation, children and young people are addressed as isolated monads thrown onto their own capacities, skills, and resources. Whatever they do with them, however these are deployed is, again, down to choice. No one is responsible for their application or lack thereof than them.

This critique of education of the last 40 years is also well worn. It advantages middle class children, and those who refuse, reject, or find this approach to schooling alien to their background are wheedled out. They chose not to succeed, and it's only a hop, skip, and a jump to suppose they chose (and deserve) the fates awaiting them. But this interpellation of a neoliberal self, which is reinforced by the way public institutions address someone and, depending on the organisation, administer sanctions as disciplinary measures to reinforce future compliance comes with a political bonus. If the institutional landscape is set up to address everyone in a similar way, and everyone has more or less the same shared capacity to access services and abide by expectations placed on them, the micromanagement of everyone by a Whitehall bureaucrat becomes moot. Neoliberal selfhood is the most efficient way of managing populations because governance is overwhelmingly self-governance. Micromanagement in fact mushrooms under such a regime as administrators are needed to track metrics and managers are required to reinforce conformist behaviour, but it immediately appears spontaneous and not directed from the centre, effectively depoliticising the running of the services the state provides. "We do not comment on operational matters" has become a staple of the government lexicon.

The neoliberal self comes packaged with other consequences: on how the individual sees themselves in the world. While this mode of governance is prescriptive about individuality, choice, and responsibility, excludes collectivism (Thatcher might well have said there's no such thing as the economy, only individuals and their families), and reinforces one's powerlessness in the face of the world, it compensates by endowing the neoliberal self with ontological and epistemological sovereignty. Put plainly, I'm all that matters and I know best. If then the cultural accent is on self-responsibility and effort, there is no higher power dictating what is and isn't true apart from your own opinions. If previously "objective truth" resided in the claims of experts and the rules of evidence, the systematic denigration of politically inconvenient authorities by governments and the number of occasions experts have shown themselves to be wrong reinforces the belief of individual discernment. If I want something to be true, then it is. UFOs, climate change denial, QAnon, homeopathy, chemtrails, Rothschilds, lizards. No one can tell me otherwise.

Which brings us to covidiocy as the latest manifestation of the social propensity to stupidity. Primacy of the self involves more than just scepticism of authority: the sovereign individual is anxious the state is out to get them or curtail their fundamental capacities in some way. In other words, its a sensibility of self that heightens a sense of (narcissistic) paranoia. This is the logical end point of the individuated, isolated neoliberal self: an affirmation of their right to choose as it shrinks in terror from impositions of state authority. Therefore, the lockdowns and the partial closure of public life, the insistence on facemasks and bans on large gatherings, these are straightforward power grabs to force people to wear masks in public forever more (why?) and police the conduct of the citizenry. If that is the first concern, then the rest makes sense: Coronavirus isn't more serious than a case of the sniffles, or Covid-19 is a manufactured disease, or is totally bogus. The reality (or not) of the disease is secondary to people, in the absence of collective sources of symbolic belonging/reassurance, clinging to and fetishising the structural principles of their perceptual universe.

This is the how, but what comes next? How to beat this? Politics and hope. Variations of the discussion on the dynamics of mass stupidity can get written and find their audiences, but elaborating this critique and explanation won't dent the potency of these notions. The alternative, the only alternative, is by challenging the position neoliberal governance occupies. And again, that requires critique, but is doomed to impotence if it is not merged with a movement challenging not just the Tories but capitalism itself. This is not a cop out. Ideas can't change the world by themselves. Conspiracy theories were (mainly) harmless eccentricities until millions of people across the globe took them up and began acting on them. The same is true of our ideas too. Writing them is the easy part, making them part of the everyday is the difficult slog. But it's worth it. The struggle opens the way to real freedom where true individuality, not it pale, stunted, neoliberal version, can take wing and soar, unencumbered by authoritarianism and the banshee call of superstition.

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