Sunday, 7 March 2021

New Left Media March 2021

We're in the third month of the new year already and new media projects are springing up everywhere! Give them some of your time, and if you like them support them!

1. Amplify Stroud (Twitter) (Blog)

2. Ann Narkeh Media (Twitter) (Meme Factory)

3. Good Sense (Twitter) (Podcast)

4. INCURSIONS (Podcast)

5. JohntheDuncan (Twitter) (YouTube Channel)

6. Labour in Exile (Campaign Group and YouTube Channel)

7. Labour Organiser (Twitter) (Journal)

8. LEFT/OVER (Twitter) (Podcast)

9. RUPTURE Radio (Twitter) (Podcast)

10. Ten Thousands Posts (Twitter) (Podcast)

11. The International (Magazine)

12, World Outlook (Blog)

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 new media to have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The round up appears when there are enough new entrants to justify a post!

Image Credit

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Negative Class Consciousness

He's gone to ground. Between Tuesday and Thursday it was all smiles and plaudits for the Chancellor. He unveiled his budget and basked in the adulation of the client media. Dishy Rishi it was, the sharp-suited, big-brained nice guy who wrapped his arms around the nation and made everything pretty and fine. But things were not fine. As noted by those who read the small print, significant gaps remained in the Covid support scheme, and there was no money for education nor the NHS. Eventually it was noticed by enough people in the media that among the pay freezes for public sector workers was a measly one per cent rise for NHS workers. Or, to ditch the spin, a real terms pay cut if OBR projections are right. Sunak split and avoided the cameras all day Friday as defending the move fell to the hapless pairing of Matt Hancock and Nadine Dorries.

There are two lines the government are taking. The first, proferred by Hancock, is this is all "the nation" can afford. The economy is in the toilet, the government have borrowed hundreds of billions to keep it on life support, and so sacrifices are necessary. We know this to be false. As pointed out by the vastly improved Jolyon Maugham, the cost of a two per cent pay rise for nurses would be less than the money gifted to Tory donors for inadequate PPE. And, well, the government isn't in that much debt actually. In a stunning about turn from the BBC, famed for framing public spending in terms of "taxpayers' cash", it acknowledged the reality of the debt. I.e. "borrowing", or 92% of sums lent to the government since the start of the pandemic came from the Bank of England. This "debt" is money that need never be paid back because the BoE is an institution of state. In other words, just like a decade ago the Tories are depending on the general public's ignorance about deficits and debts to carry on running down public services and, above all, the NHS. Never let a crisis go to waste.

The second line of defence is more pernicious and one bound to have more resonance because it speaks to people's experiences: the strategy of pushing negative class consciousness. This was something Dorries raised on Friday's BBC Breakfast, more or less arguing NHS staff should feel thankful they're getting something because the rest of the public sector are making do with frozen wages, and the private sector are laying off workers or are allowing their staff to get by under the reduced circumstances of the Job Retention Scheme. This has subsequently been whipped up by the Tories' online support to try and mitigate the outpouring of disgust the government's derisory offer has provoked.

Negative consciousness has proven a firm friend since the Tories began their assault on the post-war settlement 40 years ago, and it's quite easy to grasp. It speaks to the sacrificial experience of having to work for a living, i.e. renting out our time and capacity to do things for an employer in exchange for the means of life, and valorising it as the most important thing everyone's existence should revolve around. As a common, relatable reference point, it is articulated by party speeches, broadcasts, and their media as a means of cohering a collective against enemies or targets of the Tories, real and imagined. It's typically useful against those subsisting on social security - the idea someone, somewhere is getting free money while I/we have to spend time earning money. Or that (public sector) workers are getting a better deal than us, as this typically stupid Tom Harwood tweet outlining how sharply wages have fallen under the Tories demonstrates. It's trotted out to provide cover for cuts to government spending outside of welfare, along the lines of "we can no longer afford to spend hard earned tax payers' cash on libraries/adult social care/street lighting. And nor is it the property of the Tories alone. For example, when New Labour was prepping the ground for their narrow win on the introduction of top up tuition fees in 2004, John Prescott did the rounds to argue it was outrageous that a dustman whould work hard and pay taxes to put students through university. And you might remember the "alarm clock Britain" phrase of Nick Clegg's, which seamlessly conjoined George Osborne's rhetoric about the "strivers vs the skivers" as the Coalition butchered welfare protections and shoved hundreds of thousands into destitution.

Why is negative consciousness such a potent weapon? There are plenty of other common experiences that aren't wielded to similar effect. It's because of grievance. The forced character of work gives rise to innumerable frustrations and pathologies, even if one professes to enjoying their occupation. This builds up and has to go somewhere. At times it powers collective action, but in the absence of trade unionism and positive class consciousness, it finds an outlet in resentment. And it's not the abstraction of the wage relation it attaches to, but those seen not to share a similar fate and are perceived as avoiding the sacrifice everyone else has to make/has made.

It's also worth noting that as a form of class consciousness, albeit one effectively revelling in its own exploitation and domination, it changes and is weaker or stronger depending on the time. While the present settlement was being struck in the 1980s, the Tories used this as a weapon to cement their two-nation coalition, a trick they have tried repeating ever since with varying success. But in the context of the erly 2020s, it is worth noting the displaced resentment the Tories are manipulating is uneven across the population. For younger cohorts of workers, it's difficult to present the cause of precarity, low pay, private debt, and not enough housing as the faults of undeserving others when the Tories happily front up the policies making their life difficult. It's much easier with the older people and the retired who are the bedrock of their support because they're at a remove from Tory attacks on workers, and because they disproportionately own property this is self-regarded as the fruits of a lifetime of sacrifice. Negative consciousness congeals around their memory of work. Because (they believe) they had it tough, but they're relatively comfortable in retirement, they tend toward a hypersensitive acceptance of government/media scapegoats, especially on matters of social security and "outsiders". As self-styled heroes of capitalist labour, they likewise think those who work, particularly their children and grandchildren, have it easy because of flat screen TVs and mobile phones. In 2021, negative class consciousness is, ironically, strongest among those who no longer work. And the result? A very effective weapon of divide and rule.

How might it be overcome? Class consciousness is always a process and never a condition, and the problem is is a Tory reliance on negative consciousness runs the risk, in some circumstances, of firming class identity if they take a misstep (such as attacking the "deserving poor"), or their blunders or overconfidence allows possibilities for the negative to pass into the positive. To mangle the old phrasing, from a class (turned in) in itself to a class for itself. But just as consciousness is a process, the Tories and the state are not the sole actors. We are not dependent on them making political faux pas. In other words, it depends on us, the labour movement, and the difficult job of organising workplaces, organising communities, and waging the attritional fight against the barrage dropped on our positions every waking moment. Easier said than done, but negative consciousness is never all-powerful, it can never close down class politics fully. Indeed, its mobilisation points to its persistent political salience in advanced capitalist societies. It is a backhanded complement to the possibility of our waging the class struggle successfully.

Image Credit

Friday, 5 March 2021

Alienation and Capitalist Domination

Such an interesting discussion between Novara's James Butler and Peter Hudis, author of Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism among other books. The conversation ranges over Marx's concept of communism, what alienation is and its continued relevance, and the thorny issue of the negation of the negation. In other words, the establishment of the abstract forms of domination capital inaugurates and depends on. Peter also speculates on how contemporary Marxists would react to Marx if he happened to be about today. A long listen but a rewarding listen.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Myth of the Vaccine Bounce

If you haven't seen the latest YouGov poll, it makes for grim reading. 45% for the Tories versus 32% for Labour doesn't look too clever. For information, going back to the Jeremy Corbyn era YouGov didn't post a polling deficit of 13 points or more until mid-October 2016. In other words, for Labour to perform this badly it had to go through a bruising civil war, a failed coup and leadership contest, and another round of civil war. Events we have not witnessed in the 11 months since Keir Starmer ascended to the party's leadership.

Thanks to the NHS's success with the vaccine roll out, pollsters and pundits have talked up the possibility of a Tory bounce for about a fortnight. And consulting recent surveys, the prediction has come to fruition. The Tories are up again and accelerating away from Labour, so this much is true. But when we come to the myth of the vaccine bounce, we're talking about the very political uses to which this trope is being put by Keir Starmer's supporters. Responding to poll reversals, Polly Toynbee counselled patience. Last week, we had clever-clever strategy claims made by Ian Dunt, and before that the usual everything is fine, nothing to see here line. Joining the line-up is former head of research for Labour, Tom Hamilton, with another pro-Keir tract. Among its claims is the vaccine bounce and the crisis is crowding out Labour's messaging, that Keir Starmer is doing a good job in straitened circumstances, and he's having to rebuild the party's reputation after Labour's recent "difficulties".

Going in reverse order, perhaps Tom might be good enough to argue a little more honestly. That Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular among most is not contentious. What is is whether this proved fatal for Labour's chances, or whether the trust issues masses of voters have now in "the brand" lie elsewhere. Helpfully, we can answer that question using polling evidence. The Corbyn-led Labour Party between June 2017 and April 2019 had the main parties taking turns posting modest leads. If he was the unique electoral bromide some suppose he was, then why wasn't Labour lagging? The ratings started tumbling as the EU elections approached - the Tories were eviscerated by the Brexit Party while Labour got a pummelling from them, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the SNP. However, while the Tories were able to recover their numbers Labour had, disastrously, lost a good chunk of its vote to the remain ultra parties and, crucially, hundreds of thousands of Labour leave voters to the Tories. Admittedly, by this point "constructive ambiguity" on Brexit was no longer an option and the party had to choose between a bad defeat or losing vast swathes of its core vote. The result was the preservation of the party's new constituency, but a legacy of distrust outside of it. Particularly among former voters who went Tory because of Brexit. Given that Labour leavers, in the main, accepted Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in 2017 and didn't in 2019 might owe something to the big difference between the two contests: how in the first it accepted the referendum result, and in the second went into the election determined to overturn Brexit. Keir Starmer was instrumental in changing this position, and plenty of Labour leavers know this to be the case. Hence any account for Labour's performance this last year neglecting the entirety of recent history and its consequences just isn't a credible argument.

On Keir is labouring under the burden of media disinterest, or he's doing the best he can, or he's hemmed in by limited options, or because objective circumstances. Some of this is obviously true. The reason why Jeremy Corbyn never got a 20 point lead had more to do with the character of the polarisation that still coheres British politics, itself a workthrough of the polarisation of the country's political economy. It's interesting how Keir's defenders never pay mind to the fact Labour wins among the under 55s, i.e. the working class, and the Tories are the party of the old and propertied. What was true of politics during Jeremy's time is true of now, also. Even if Keir Starmer's Labour were doing well, there is a relatively low ceiling stopping the party from climbing too high, and it will persist as long as the Tories look after their coalition at the expense of everyone else. The only way a 20-point lead is possible is if the Tory coalition is split and broken, and that is beyond Keir's power, even if he had made all the right strategic calls in his first year. It therefore follows reassembling Labour's coalition is the only way it stands a chancem and this requires understanding the political map of Britain. I.e. the sorts of people the party had in its camp on 2019, looking at how it can win back those lost from two years earlier, and seeing what can be done to chip away at the Tories in a war of attrition, a war which does not play to their strengths in the long run. Putting aside any cyncicism I have about Starmerist politics, the obvious difficulty here is Keir and the people he listens to do not have the right analysis.

In the first place, they persist with the idea the voters lost in the so-called Red Wall are Labour's core voters. They are not. Those lost in 2019 tended to be older or retired, and tended to own property - specifically their home. They might have voted Labour all their lives previously, but this drift to the Tories among the people fitting this demographic has become a pronounced trend since around 2005. It's not that the class basis of politics has disappeared. It is, instead, changing and changed - an argument expounded here many times, both after 2017 and after 2019's debacle. What passes for Keir's analysis barely recognises this. The new base is consistently (some might say purposely) mischaracterised as big city-dwelling graduates and young people, and are treated like an optional extra. The path back to power demands rewinning Labour leavers, now codified as patriotic proles with no time for immigrants or equalities issues, while the actual mainstay of the party's coalition are treated as if they have nowhere to go. This is a very serious mistake. In 2019 Labour lost around 300,000 voters to the Tories which, combined with the Brexit Party also drawing in Labour leave voters, helped pave way for the cataclysm. The very people Keir's leadership is now (unsuccessfully) chasing. Yet no one discusses the 1.6m votes Labour bled to the LibDems and the Greens, nor the 600,000 or so who didn't turn out. This serves to remind us that because the new natural base is, well, new its support for Labour is much softer, more conditional, at least for the moment. While some of these have undoubtedly been won back from the LibDems, the Greens are enjoying something of a bump in support. Again, it might be worth reflecting on how attempting to outflank the Tories from the right on corporation tax, or waving flags, or not supporting key parts of the Labour coalition even when backed by public opinion, and a host of other missteps could be and is alienating the people Labour needs to support it to win. True, as Tom says, people might not be paying politics much mind. But it's certainly the case people drawn to Labour because of Corbyn's stand are watching proceedings, and a lot of them are not appreciating what they see.

If this argument is a load of rubbish, then why is it Keir's approach to opposition steadily rebuilt Labour's standing in the polls between his election to around level pegging with the Tories. That is until the turn toward flag waving and adopting George Osborne's position on corporation tax? Again, if one is being honest the timings suggest a relationship exists between party ratings and the chosen strategy, and might start drawing some political conclusions from the evidence dancing in front of their eyes.

And this brings us back to the vaccine bounce. That the Tories are benefiting from a feel good uplift is undeniable. The myth however is that this is responsible for Keir Starmer's difficulties. The polling this year suggests that while the Tory coalition is hardening, Labour's is softening and dispersing - not to the Tories, in the vast majority of cases, but to the Greens, the nationalist parties and in some polls, the LibDems again. The problem is Keir's difficulty holding the existing Labour bloc together, and these are thanks to the politics he's pushing. The party's travails aren't because the Tories are doing well, it's because the Labour leader is doing badly.

Image Credit

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Rishi Sunak's Two-Nation Toryism

I'm quite fond of contemptuously referring to "Dishy Rishi", but from time to time the broadcast institutions of the British state consciously, and without a shread of shame, push this framing. Consider the grotesque propaganda put out before the budget by the BBC. Decorated with friendly columnists who talk about how clever, nice and savvy the chancellor is, it resembles a Xinhua-style portrait of a rising princeling ascending the party hierarchy. So much for good old-fashioned British reserve.

Let's try and absent the politics from Sunak's budget for a moment and narrow our imagination down to wonkish dimensions. The extension of the Job Retention Scheme until September is good (but with limitations). Ensuring the £20 uplift remains until at least then is also welcome (though, of course, it should be permanent and be more). New mortgages requiring a five per cent deposit will be introduced from April, and should help a layer of younger people trying to buy a house. And green bonds are to be introduced over the summer, sounding a bit like recovery bonds that, coincidentally, were trailed recently. And then there is the big ticket item. Corporation Tax is set to rise but will not come into force until 2023 and, admittedly sensibly, introduces progressive taxation on profits with businesses operating at £50k or below staying on 19% followed by a tiered system up to a maximum of 25%. And so the eager burning of political capital to look pro-business we saw this week was effortlessly sidestepped by the Tories.

Back to the politics. Huge sums were sprayed here and there, but this was not a Labour budget, nor a centrist affair happened to be fronted by a Conservative chancellor. This was every inch a Tory budget. Remember, right wing statecraft is not beholden to principle. Its aim is the preservation of Conservative political dominance as a means of defending the class relations they stand on, and if this requires confounding small statist expectations and sinning against the collected works of Milton Friedman they will merrily trample his screeds into pulp. Consider the evidence. Support for the self-employed continues, but those who don't qualify for the scheme still receive nothing - people who, as it happens, disproportionately fall into the creative sector. The suspension of stamp duty extends into the summer, helping the loyal Tory strata of private landlords. Business rate relief was handed another three months, and VAT on food and drink for pubs, bars, and restaurants is cut to five per cent until September before rising to 12.5% for a further six months. More grants and cheap loans are available to start ups and small business. And to induce capitalists to pony up capital for investment, Sunak also announced a sweetener where businesses can reduce their tax bill by 130%(!) of the costs incurred. Last, but by no means least, buried in the small print is a further reduction to departmental budgets. In other words, a generous splash for businesses, help for the Tory coalition, but continued cuts to the public sector.

And so no help for renters. No help with living costs for workers in th reduced circumtances of furlough. No let up on lashing civil servants, public services, and local government. There was no money for the NHS beyond £1.6bn for the vaccine rollout, nothing for education, nothing for emergency services, nothing for adult social care, nothing for the court system. The tax cut due from April as the thresholds rise will get gobbled up by the five per cent council tax increase thanks to the government's (intentional) failure to fund local authorities properly. This isn't just Toryism, it's two-nation Toryism.

More than 18 months into "Johnsonism", the contours are now obvious to everyone who looks for them. The state is back in a big way and is being used above board and below desk to lubricate the gears of British capital, and offer inducements to bits and pieces of their voter coalition. Meanwhile our class qualifies for no such largesse, helping ensure that when a semblance of normality returns (vaccine resistant variants permitting) there will be a large pool of labour desperate to take anything the reopening economy offers. And, the Tories hope, continued restraint on the part of de-furloughing workers grateful to still have a job and keen to crack on. At every step the Tories' political management of the Covid crisis is something of a master class. Not only have they avoided the blame for an unnecessarily high death toll, they have successfully headed off hops thing might get better after Covid, beyond bosses making some concessions over homeworking. If this is all the government and their system have to concede, British capitalism can easily live with it.

Rishi Sunak's budget therefore marks crowns the Tory triumph in the politics if the virus. A victory lap after a struggle that saw them afforded every advantage, including an opposition responsible enough to not offer opposition. The blizzard of bank notes is so much snow blindness for those who refuse to see what this budget was about. Boris Johnson defined "the war" against the pandemic, and now his party gets to define the peace. This is Toryism for the 2020s: a creed and a settlement, as it always was, for the bourgeois interest at the expense of everyone else.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Applauding Failure

What might Keir Starmer say to the gloomsters and the doomsters following the latest poll, placing Labour seven points behind the Conservatives? We don't know, but at least this is providing ventriloquising opportunities for some. Indeed, a mini-genre is growing up around Keir apologism and at this early stage we can discern three types. The first is everything is brilliant actually and Keir Starmer is doing a brilliant job brilliantly. The second, offered by those fancying themselves as knowing wiseacres maintain nifty 11-dimensional chess stratagems are in play. This stretches credulity, but whatever fantasy helps folks get through their day. And the third genre? For this we turn to the pen of Polly Toynbee.

Most of the article is flim flam speculation about a budget whose details have accidentally on purpose leaked out to the press this last week, and so can be put aside. What's more interesting are her two core arguments. The first, and one shared by the inane boilerplate of Alan Johnson, is the idea Labour are suffering because of a Boris Johnson vaccine bounce. The second thesis flows from the first. Things are rubbish and the polls will eventually turn as reality bites down, therefore no need for panic. Instead Labbour supporters must exercise patience.

Let's take a look at the evidence of a vaccine bounce. True, a lot of people are feeling optimistic about the future as the prospect of something approaching normality might be with us by late summer. So the Tories are getting awarded for, well, a NHS job well done? Survation recently reported a three-point uplift for the Tories, stretching the gap between them and Labour to eight. According to Opinium, the government are up one and "the grown-ups" trail by seven. and RedfieldWilton? A two-point bump and a gap of five. It's a mixed bag across the different pollsters. Some suggest growth in Tory support at Labour's expense, and others point to a modest dispersal of opposition voters across the minor parties. Given how Keir Starmer's leadership has gone backwards in terms of voting intention and personal ratings, this demands an explanation.

Polly Toynbee chooses not to provide one. She laments the difficulty of getting noticed, and writes of this being "the worst of times for an opposition, a bystander carping at the government’s monumental blunders and disgraces ...". I suppose it depends on what one does with the mantle offered to them. Consider Jeremy Corbyn at the onset of the Coronavirus crisis. Defeated and miles behind in the polls, he tried offering leadership by criticising the government for their unserious response and made suggestions. Among them was a five-point plan demanding a rise in sick pay, a job retention scheme covering the self-employed, increases to social security payments, and help for renters. This was after he made the case for the effective nationalisation of the wage bill, which the government took up. Despite casting a defeated and, in the eyes of establishment politics, diminished figure his intervention ensured the pandemic wasn't as painful as it might have been. Keir Starmer's opposition is reduced to "carping" because he's not offering an alternative to the government. He has abdicated the responsibility for leadership to randoms picked for the focus groups over Zoom, and without a poitical critique, without even attempting to contest the Tory framing of the pandemic, then of course his criticisms about competence are going to look like carping. The punters, unimpressed, will switch off. This is not the force of circumstances staying his arm: these are the consequences of a conscious political strategy.

There are, of course, other issues too. Dear Keir is proving lacklustre, but he does so under circumstances not of his choosing. The polarisation that has marked politics for the last six years remains the unminstakable feature of the British scene, and yet LOTO and its very clever people pay it no mind. Therefore the second part of Polly Toynbee's apologia, the counselling of patience and the inevitability of a reversal in Labour's fortunes is based on the old Blairist assumption pissed off voters have nowhere to go. As the drop in turnout in 2019 and the loss of 2.5 million voters show, our people always have somewhere they'd rather be if Labour doesn't speak to or for them. And this, which shouldn't need spelling out, is a big risk. Remember, our people might be clustered in the cities but they have a presence in every constituency in the land. Alienating Labour's actual core vote to win over the imagined core vote seems like daft politics.

Toynbee then has set down the template of the third genre of Starmerist apologism. The nothing-to-see-here response. Less stupid than praising Dear Keir for all he does, like its stable mates it performs a superficial analysis of the moment, purposely avoids critical commentary - in this case denying the Labour leader any agency - and just assuming the fatalist tectonics of politics will grind out the support in the end. Good grief, is this feeble minded bollocks the best they can come up with?

Image Credit

Monday, 1 March 2021

Emilie Oldknow and the Rare Comeuppance

Every day brings joy for some, tragedy for others. It might confer a windfall, or saddle one with crippling debt. Falling into the last category is the Labour Party's former head of governance, Emilie Oldknow. She took the party to court to force the release of the five names it suspects leaked last year's report into the disciplinary process. The report which, incidentally, repeated verbatim hundreds of 2016-2017 WhatsApp messages between the then head of governance and her right wing cohorts at party HQ. And in a rare moment of justice being seen to be done, she failed. Or, to give what happened the precision of accuracy, her legal bid completely cratered. The presiding judge rejected Oldknow's argument, did not grant her plea to make Labour pay costs (she's now on the hook for an estimated £120,000), and to rub it all in refused leave to appeal the verdict.

Readers will recall the leaked report revealed what many suspected all along: that senior staff sat on antisemitism complaints, sabotaged Labour's election campaign, leaked material to the press, and happily assisted MPs actively undermining the leadership. These magi who fancied themselves sorcerers of the dark arts were stupid and arrogant enough to not only document their scabbing but back the entirety of their conversations up on Labour Party servers. Their own words damned them and should, to put matters politely, be sent packing from the labour movement. In light of the report, the fact Oldknow persists at the top of the Unison bureaucracy is nothing short of disgraceful.

There's no need to review their abysmal shenanigans again. What does deserve consideration is how the revelations have been handled. It was an early test for Keir Starmer, and one he effortlessly fluffed. Announcing an inquiry into the report's contents, he appeared more concerned with locating the source of the leak than punishing the wrong doing at the heart of the party apparat. Almost a year on we still await the Forde report, ostensibly because the Information Commissioner's Office is peering into the party's affairs. A long delay then, a coincidence. And also a pattern of behaviour. Recall last July when Dear Keir shelled out hundreds of thousands to former staff members suing the party for having the temerity of defending itself against the rubbish John Ware Panorama documentary on Labour antisemitism. A case, incidentally, the party stood a good chance of winning in light of the leaked report. Keir ponied up the reddies to make the headlines go away. But don't worry, at least some of them were disciplined for their attacks on the party. It was subsequently revealed our scabs received a light tap on their wrist and allowed to carry on their merry way, pockets and purses bulging with members' cash.

This is demonstrative, again, of the party's rotten culture. According to my little birds tweeting from their perch at Southside, the Keir/David Evans partnership are determined to modernise the party's operation. For them, scabby behaviour is less a matter of factionalism and more symptomatic of dysfunctional organisation. The management consultant nonsense is their way of overhauling everything and replacing broken processes and redundant roles with a fine thrumming campaigning machine focused on winning elections. This has meant (ludicrously) scrapping the community organising unit and clearing out perceived dead wood. These include a sliver of dabblers with infernal practices who've not only risked bringing the party into disrepute but might find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The problem isn't just the modernisation drive is clunking and brutal and dumb. It is anti-democratic and authoritarian. "Professionalising" the operation means empowering the party's administrators at the expense of members' rights and decision-making powers. The haughty manner with which David Evans suspended 50 lay officers, only two of whom have been reinstated, is a naked imposition of the new regime, of treating volunteers as if they're employees expected to be on-brand and snap to attention. The three-part reasoning for this is the Fabianism at the root of "Starmerism", the self-evident clear out of annoying leftists, despite the costs, and following the road map to success according to one Tony Blair. Yet in the end this will give us a hollowed out party where bullying behaviour is the norm, and unaccountable apparatchiks are put in place to wreck the party should another left insurgency surge through the ranks. At least this is why the so-called hard men of the Labour right are riding the Starmerist bandwagon. The more things change the more they stay the same.

And this is way Keir's leadership has treated the scabs with kid gloves. They are his kind of people, the ones who were unlucky to get caught out but, when the chips are down, share identical political projects: keeping Labour a safe pair of political hands, a party that won't rock the boat for British capitalism if the B Team's services are called upon. Emilie Oldknow's case is rare because here's a creature of the Labour right fully caught out and now having to pay for her hubris. As for the rest? They have escaped sanction for now, and if Keir Starmer has his way they will escape sanction in the future.

Image Credit

Five Most Popular Posts in February

What was the action like on the blog this February just passed?

1. On Labour's Poll Collapse
2. The Uses of Captain Tom
3. Boris Johnson and Thatcherism
4. The Right Wing Defence of Starmerism
5. The Green Threat to Labour

Keir Starmer and Starmerism was always going to feature this month as it became increasingly clear the strategy isn't working. Indeed, addressing Labour's reversals in the polls duly went to the top of my particular pops. Next up was the political uses of the nation's granddad, and then a few chin stokes about Tory strategy during and after Coronavirus. The problems with Starmerism hit the number four and five spots, covering an idiotic defence of Keir's record so far, and how its failings might bleed support to other parties - particularly the Greens. In other words, we're seeing the unfolding of a process this blog has long forecast.

February, however, has been another crap month for the left as we lost our comrade Ed Rooksby. Also essential reading on Ed's work is this longer piece from Alex for Tribune. The best way to remember Ed is by carrying on the tough work of making sense of politics and thinking through the problems of socialist strategy, and we must do this because his keyboard has fallen silent.

What's on the horizon for this month? The budget, of course. No doubt there are more Starmerist missteps to look forward to. The rumpus in Scottish politics might inspire a piece or two, and the episodic and contingent we cannot forecast.

Image Credit

Sunday, 28 February 2021

George Galloway: I'm Voting Tory

A putative leftist voting Tory? What kind of mixed up place is this? Welcome to the convoluted world view of Labourist unionism as manifested by our old friend George Galloway. Getting himself trending on the Twitter, he announced to the interested how he'll be voting Tory in the constituency section of the coming Holyrood elections. This is followed by a punt for his Alliance for Unity vehicle, itself an ego mobile and a popular frontist, um, front for his Stalin-worshipping Britnat sect, the Workers Party of Britain. To think he has the chutzpah to call others out for abandoning socialist ideas.

The politics of this aren't hard to fathom, but they might seem weird for comrades unfamiliar with the Scottish scene. Scottish Labour, despite dalliances with Home Rule and being the party of the Holyrood devolution settlement, is a thoroughly unionist party. In the post-war period the might of the labour movement rested on the Scottish economy being fully integrated into the UK's, and the Keynesianism practiced by successive Westminster governments more or less maintained full employment. Labourism which, among other things, is the spontaneous empiricist mindset of the workers' movement therefore identified its prosperity with the union and the necessity to return Labour governments to govern for them. As the post-war order fell apart and along came Thatcher's governments with a new settlement of their own, the Tories dismantled the material and institutional base for unionism. Politics lags behind economics so the old teachings go, and by 2007 the success of the SNP at Holyrood put the establishment on notice. They didn't listen and thanks to Labour's cretinous behaviour in the independence referendum, almost torched its entire base. What remained of Labour vote was old, nostalgia-tinged, and mourning for a unionist settlement long dead.

George Galloway was schooled in the politics of Labour unionism when it meant something, and imbided a commitment to the UK state (and a certain soft spot for the Queen) - along with the usual left (statist) commitments to nationalisations, trade union rights, public housing, etc. His animus against separatism and Scottish nationalism is hard wired into his political DNA. Therefore what he is expressing is merely Scottish Labourism. Because it locates its (class) politics as a supplicant to the UK state, then this (small l, but often big L) loyalism is the anchor point for politics. Because the Tories, as the traditional ruling class party, unsurprisingly identify with their state the common ground between Labour and the Conservatives (and the Liberal Democrats) on the state trumps the divisions between them. Their common enemy is the SNP and any other nationalist party. Hence, in the recent past, we've seen leading Scottish Labour figures call for tactical votes for the Tories because, believe it or not, they are the lesser evil.

This politics is utterly bankrupt. For all the giddy Galloway goading of Scottish nationalism, Labour loyalism overlooks British nationalism and how its politics disrupts and disperses the possibility of (re)founding the party on class politics. One of the contenders in Scottish Labour's leadership election recognised this (in part), but then Monica Lennon didn't win. Nor does Galloway appear to understand the first thing about class and class politics in Scotland. If he did, he wouldn't be buddying up with Tories for a start.

Then again, the Galloway project has always been about him and his notoriety. He happily foxtrotted across the class line by aligning with Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, enjoyed cosy "debates" with Steve Bannon and, how could we forget, jumped on the Donald Trump train and called November's election result "a coup". This is sans the well-documented fondness for certain strongmen who incur the displeasure of the US State Department.

There are going to be people very disappointed in Galloway's positioning, particularly those who've signed up to his "left wing alternative" to Labour. I suppose for some the red, white, and blue branding, the explicit "anti-woke" politics, and the repugnant Stalinophilia weren't warning enough. Galloway and his politics might belong to a bygone age, but the "leftist" British nationalism he's taking to its logical endpoint is not his political make up alone: it's in the genetics of Scottish Labour too. And for as long as it clings to this pitiful, declining tradition, the party is doomed.

Image Credit

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Dunce Cap for Dunty

I see low corporation tax rates are 2021's "tuition fees are progressive, actually." At least according to Ian Dunt, Brexit flip flopper, self-regarding sweary man, and one of the most consistently wrong people making a living from writing about politics badly. His argument? Keir Starmer's corporation tax positioning is actually good and the left should support it to stop the government returning to austerity. Having seen one rubbish defence of Starmerism, is Dunty's any better?

He argues Tory plans to put corporation tax up are the first phase for a new programme of cuts. It begins with taxes on businesses as a means of Dishy Rishi getting the public on side, and then austerity comes later - a proper one-two punch to the economy and Britain's post-Covid recovery. Apparently, (unspecified) "focus group research suggests many members of the public – including in Red Wall seats – are already starting to murmur the killer words that all this spending will have to be paid back sometime." Delivering unto business a new tax bill establishes the narrative of the requirement to balance the books, and from there?

Here's comes the killer argument. The left are enabling Tory positioning by attacking Keir Starmer. He argues the left aren't paying attention to Sunak's scheming, otherwise his nefarious plan would lie exposed and the Campaign Group would be joining Dear Keir in the no lobby. Instead its "growing hatred" of Dear Keir is becoming an identifying location, and this is blinding the left to the extent which they have changed the politics of the Labour Party. "The Labour leader, for all their attacks on him, is fighting for the principles they hold." Because Dunty was an exponent of the "any other leader" crowd, rather than take his argument at face value we should examine the evidence underpinning it. And there isn't any.

For one, while Keir Starmer has ruled out a return to austerity, framing opposition to corporation tax rises as an anti-cuts move is all Dunty's. Consider how the policy put across by the leader and Lisa Nandy during the week. Their argument was entirely Hayekian and based on the assumption lower taxes means more funds available for investment. Theoretically true, but with a dearth of profitable opportunities for capital this is just a recipe for big business to carry on banking their returns and doing nothing with it: a situation that has persisted now for almost a decade. Austerity wasn't mentioned at all. A sense this is a cunning trap was entirely absent. Instead, there is a more likely explanation even hard-of-thinking Dunt-esque types might comprehend: the "SLT" saw an opportunity to appear more pro-business than the Tories, and steamed into that space thinking it a smart political move.

And then there is the question of Tory austerity itself. In Saturday's Financial Times, Sunak makes grave faces and promises to level with the British people. Sounds bad, and it is. Corporation tax is the thin end of a wedge alright, but a wedge that sees the enforcement of tax rises across the board. Instead of a carbon copy of 2010-15, which seems to exercise Dunty's imagination more in the remembrance rather than his writerly output at the time, Boris Johnson's schemes are going to be "funded" by taking cash out of the pockets of workers. You'd think this would exercise Labour more, even if only from a wonky, semi-Keynesian multipliers standpoint, but no. Johnson has repeatedly said he's not returning to an austerity programme. His words and the government's plans are more than clear on this. Even the committed Thatcherites are ruling out cutting. No one should trust the Tories, of course, and it is very clear that for all their big statism they mean to rig it in favour of big business. There is more than one way to skin a cat, just as there are multiple strategies for restabilising British capitalism around the class interests the Tories represent.

Read the room, Dunty. If Labour aren't talking about its new flagship policy in anti-austerity terms, and if the Tories aren't about to unleash a wave of public spending cuts, then your argument is empty spin. The struggle over tax is where punitive policy is coming from, not Osborne redux, despite Sunak's ideological pedigree. Still, nice try at giving Keir Starmer's prostration before the hungry gods of capital a principled spin. But I don't think LOTO are going to be in touch about a job any time soon.

Image Credit

Friday, 26 February 2021

The Use and Abuse of Shamima Begum

1. Friday's court victory for the government is horrific. The Supreme Court's decision to reject her application to return to the UK to fight her case and upholding Sajid Javid's decision to strip her of UK citizenship sends a message to everyone born of migrant parents that they're here under sufferance. At any time their rights can be taken away at the flick of the Home Secretary's pen and be treated as if they're a foreign national of a country they didn't grow up in, do not know and, in all likelihood, wouldn't accept them either. Shamima Begum has been denied the right to a trial, the right to a defence, and a right for the chance at rehabilitation. And now the same shadow is cast over millions of Britons if the government of the day deems it politic to revoke their citizenship.

2. This is a reprieve for national security, so argue some dickheads. Apparently the very presence of this woman would lead to "increased risks of terrorism." There's the suggestion she's an unrepentent jihadist, that returning to Britain to stand trial would somehow embolden radical Islamists, and there's a good chance securing a conviction would be difficult thanks to the lack of evidence beyond hearsay. In other words, the UK state should wash its hands of a troublesome citizen and dump her on the Kurds because she presents too many unknowns. Talk about a lack the state has in its own legal system.

3. The politics of all this doesn't really have anything to do with the specifics of Shamima Begum. She was a useful foil who came along at the right time for the Tories to burnish their tough-on-terrorism credentials. That she was a schoolgirl effectively groomed by her recruiters doesn't matter: here we have a brown Muslim woman onto whom was poured every Islamophobic trope, every doubt about the "loyalty" of British Muslims, and every punitive cruelty the Tories and their base reserve for appropriate non-people. For Tory divide-and-rule to work, they need scapegoats. And scapegoats need their demon figures. Begum fit the bill.

4. Legal judgements are never just legal judgements. The law, especially the peculiarites of the English legal system, is class rule codified. And as the Supreme Court is an arm of the state, it is hyper conscious of this fact and how the government are minded to curb its powers following its ignorant waffling about "activist judges" - rhetoric imported directly from the United States. Having ruled against the government on prorogation and noting lower courts had recently ruled Matt Hancock's procurement practices unlawful, self-preservation dictated a certain interpretation of the law in Begum's case.

Image Credit

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Keir Starmer Means Business

Just look at the headline. Look at the bloody state of the headline. Yesterday at Prime Minister's Questions, Keir Starmer made plain his opposition to tax rises ahead of next week's budget. "Now is not the time for tax rises on families and businesses", he confidently asserted. He's right to a degree, working people are already paying the price for our Downing Street depression. But businesses? This raises the curious prospect of Dear Keir voting with rightwing rebels on the Tory benches against the coming budget and the Labour left ... supporting the government increasing the corporation tax rate to 25%. How do we explain this curiously discombobulating state of affairs?

Shall we begin with the official reason? This was outlined by Lisa Nandy on Politics Live Thursday lunch time. She suggested the time wasn't right for raising taxes, despite business enjoying the lowest corporation tax in the G7. She went on "this is a real concern among businesses in my constituency because they just simply can’t afford it at the moment." A straightforward managerialist observation, you might think. Corporation tax rises, which falls on all profits, isn't a good idea for business restarts as the Covid restrictions are relaxed. Seems sensible, is utterly ludicrous. To dust off jolly old Keynes, getting economies moving isn't dependent on fiddling with the tax rate but putting money in people's pockets. Boris Johnson's Tories are showing an instinctive affinity to right wing Labour's former guru just as the Starmerist front bench have rediscovered obsolescent Hayekism. What makes Lisa's positioning even worse is the fact business remains on investment strike long before the pandemic, and the neoliberal schlock forecasting an investment boom if taxes were low was debunked by the real world. In other words, the Tories now have a better position on economic growth than Labour does.

So much for the foibles of the formal politics, what about the real reason? Believe it or not, there are strategic considerations in play here. This has nothing to do with the so-called red wall voters, who our Blue Labour gurus tell us are socially conservative but economically radical. Saving Amazon tens of millions isn't about to set the 1950s-were-so-much-better-than-today Facebook groups alight. And as for winning over Tories who like small state dogmatism because it means the undeserving poor get the punitive treatment they deserve, they aren't about to find themselves converted to Starmerism off the back of opposition to tax rises three years away from a general election.

Consider Labour's record. The party has consistently offered pro-business manifestos. Even under Jeremy Corbyn. In office, Labour has never once threatened the rule of capital. Not even in 1945. In more recent years, Tony Blair, following his predecessors, marketised the public sector and offered business guaranteed markets and handed them juicy procurement and outsourcing contracts. He also helped his bourgeois friends by disassembling and disaggregating Labour's position in wider society, pushing atomisation further and making matters next to impossible for workplace collectivism. And then we had Gordon Brown, whose efforts ensured he saved capital from a 1929-style cataclysm, but as Blair's chancellor helped exacerbate the crisis tendencies that exploded in 2007-8. Yet Labour's commitment to business is always questionned, and whose past proposals for modest regulation were made to sound like the liquidation of the Kulaks. Tacking to the right of the Tories on corporation tax certainly makes these media-driven narratives harder to sustain. But even then, Labour's positioning isn't about thwarting the right wing press either.

This is about business. It is a direct message from the Labour leader to big business that they have nothing to fear from a Labour government. There won't be any experiments with economic democracy nor the enforcement of alternative forms of ownership. Labour will protect their privileges, power, and say over how the country is run, and Dear Keir's occasional mention of social security, inequality, and scrapping tuition fees won't ever place additional responsibilities on business. This is different to Blairism because we're in a different age, but preserves its explicit embrace of big capital (which, in the UK, always means commerical and finance capital). Keir Starmer has wound the Labour clock back and we find the party in the position it occupied before Ed Miliband's predators vs producers speech. Coincidentally, perhaps this pitch to business might win over a few wealthy donors now members are leaving and taking their subs elsewhere.

The reason why Labour has to continually demonstrate and protstrate its fealty to business is because fundamentally, structurally the party is an unreliable partner. It plays the Westminster game. It offered light touch regulation, stuffed contractors' mouths with PFI gold, cut social security and held wages down. Policy-wise it can be and often is as throughly bourgeois as the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and, yes, the SNP, but what makes Labour always suspect are its institutional links with the labour movement. Its class basis can never be fully integrated into capitalist realism, though this will never stop most Labour politicians (and not a few trade unionists) from trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Underscoring this is how, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the party went from pale pink social democracy with neoliberal characteristics to an anti-austerity insurgency, resulting in a mass explosion of socialist and (shudder) communist ideas and politics. Dear Keir's rubbish sloganising is ultimately the Labour right pleading with their bourgeois betters for another chance, and their seriousness of intent is demonstrated by the recrudescence of egregious stitching, happiness to shed tens of thousands of members, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, and refusing to back unions on issues of major national import.

It's not going to work. With the Tories having won the framing battles of Coronavirus, which Dear Keir didn't even bother contesting, as Johnson sets out to win the future with high spending, infrastructural investment, and the (usual) promises around levelling up and sorting the regions out, Labour are stuck defending Dave and Osborne's corporate tax regime. Labour voters can always go elsewhere, or they can stay at home. And Keir Starmer, the "grown up in the room" who's serious about winning elections appears entirely fine with that.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk - Starboy

Marking the end of one of the most influential dance acts ever with one of the last decade's biggest and best tunes.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Labour's Rotten Heart

Is there something rotten at the heart of the Labour Party? Yes and, I'm afraid to say, 'twas forever thus. The latest victims of shenanigans are the three hopefuls shortlisted for Liverpool's mayoral elections. Having pulled the plug on the final selection meeting, the party today declared it was reopening applications, scrapping the all-women's shortlist, and barring the shortlisters from standing. Anna Rothery, whose candidacy had received an endorsement from Jeremy Corbyn and the backing of Unite said she would take legal action if the decision is not reversed.

In typical Labour fashion, the whole thing was handled appallingly. No explanation was forthcoming about the decision, releasing a pitiful non-statement saying the party wanted a candidate who would "stand up against the Conservatives, lead Liverpool out of the coronavirus crisis and fight for the resources that the city desperately needs." Candidates were not even informed that their bids had been given the heave ho. And so, where there is a vacuum of information speculation rushes in.

While much has been made about the politics of Anna Rothery, my first instinct wasn't a question of compatibility between her (soft left) positions and the world according to Dear Keir, but more an issue of tidying up. Given what has happened with Joe Anderson, the former mayor who resigned under a cloud of corruption allegations, there might have been a concern all of the candidates were considered too close to the ancien regime. And so while Unite has had its nose put out of joint by the suspension, so too has Unison who are normally considered reliable by LOTO. A clean break with what went before appeared to offer a good explanation. Avoid embarrassment, and put as much distance between the party and fall out from whatever happens with the Anderson case.

But, as per Skwawkbox's story, my spies in the belly of the beast back their reporting up. The overturn did not come from the top but within the regional apparatus. Less a case of hobbling the left candidate and more one of installing a favoured son of the bureaucracy, as the cancellation of the AWS attests. Anna suffered not because she was the leftist, but simply because as per Ann O'Bryne and Wendy Simon, she was in the way of someone else.

Either way, while knowing the factional details are important for the minutiae of inner party manoeuvring, the point of principle remains. Stitch ups were bad when the right did it. They were no better when the left pulled the same. And now the right are back in charge, here we are again. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Remember, when there was the merest suggestion the party's complaints system was going to abide by due process and no longer be a factional football, a certain someone made their displeasure known.

Therefore best of luck to Anna if she goes down the injunction route, but unfortunately I don't hold out much hope for success. Shabby manoeuvres are fine as long as they're consistent with the rule book and NEC rulings. Natural justice doesn't exist in the party. This serves to remind us that if Labour is to change a strategy is required to transform it from top to bottom, to enhance democratic decision making, due process, and bring the parliamentary party to heel. We had this opportunity, and the left will forever rue the day Corbynism didn't push change harder. And sadly, the task becomes more difficult as every outrage, rotten move, and terrible tactical positioning repels good people from the party. Legal challenges won't stop the right and the apparatus. And neither will giving up.

Image Credit

Monday, 22 February 2021

Boris Johnson's Russian Roulette

Last week we heard how Boris Johnson was resisting pressure from his backbenchers to open everything up. Had he caught a bit of caution and drawn appropriate conclusions after the third national lockdown and 120,000 dead? Not a bit of it. At his address in the Commons on Monday afternoon, we definitively learned all schools and colleges are to open on 8th March. No phased return, just home Covid tests, masks for some pupils, and the return of the fines for parents who refuse to comply. 10 million kids back school, mixing, and then returning home. Clairvoyance isn't required to forecast the result of this ridiculous big bang approach to education.

Then we have the other steps. The rule of six returns on 29th March for outdoor meeting and socialising. 12th April sees non-essential retail opening, alongside outdoor attractions, gyms and swimming pools, but the rules on social mixing still apply. 17th May sees outdoor social contact rules lifted with hospitality and hotels opening up, and finally 21st June marks the end: no more restrictions. Because, by then, Coronavirus will have respected the government's timetable and done the decent thing by disappearing. Johnson said matters would be kept under review and implementation of subsequent stages delayed if this was what the data suggested, but we know what this means: more dithering, more delaying, more nothing. How many unnecessarily died because the country was late into all three of its quarantine measures, and how many more are going to be killed by this government's indifference to the data and determination to stick by its arbitrary timetable?

It's not just about deaths or serious disease. With the old largely protected and the voter base secure, entirely coincidentally the rest of the population can take their chances until they have their jabs. Some will die, and the R number is set to ramp right up, but these are acceptable losses. And here lies the risk. Thanks to Tory recklessness which merrily left the virus to circulate in late Summer and Autumn, the even more infectious Boris variant emerged and has become the dominant version of Covid in this country. This act of careless stupidity has cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. Allowing schools and colleges back with little restriction gives infection a new lease of life and, just like last time, multiplies the chances of a harmful mutation emerging. With so much disease and millions of people not fully vaccinated, it's not difficult to imagine the emergence of a new strain that pays our Pfizers and our AstraZenecas no mind. And we're back to square one again: more restrictions, more lockdowns, more waits for a new treatment. Vaccines are essential for suppressing Covid but in the early phase of the roll out, it can't do the heavy lifting on its own. A magic bullet will not stop Johnson from playing Russian roulette with lives of tens of thousands.

Where does this reckless impulse come from? This impatience to get back to normal betrays Johnson's impestuous character and hurry to get on with his programme. But the urgency also has its roots in Tory anxieties about class relationships. Forced into the Job Retention Scheme, providing (limited) support for the self-employed, uprating Universal Credit, and suffering political damage for being beastly to the poor is not just what Toryism is about. Having successfully depoliticised the crisis and largely escaped sanction for the catastrophic failure they presided over, there is a danger of losing the post-Covid peace because of the expectations raised over the last year. The feeling we cannot carry on in the old way, the (temporary) decoupling of income from work, the importance of key workers, the huge sacrifices made by NHS staff, the life support for many businesses, the inadequacy of social security, the all-in-it-together solidarity fostered, and a mental heath crisis unlikely to disappear with the opening of the pubs are huge challenges for any government. "Johnsonism" and its talk of levelling up is only really a more Keynesian turn, with added arbitrary government interventions in the day-to-day. Is it capable of taking on the huge social challenges it faces?

No, therefore the haste to get back to normal is the hope these challenges might sort themselves out and/or not have the time to cohere around an oppositional politics. What are several tens of thousands of deaths, cases of long Covid, and the possibility of a vaccine-resistant variant against preserving a favourable political climate and returning to the balance of class forces as was before the pandemic? Mere trifles, confirmed each and every time Johnson condemns others to infection and disease.

Image Credit

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Late Capitalism, the Tories, and the State

In Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism, his chapter on the state makes some interesting observations. In a quick overview of the then state-of-the-art (remember, the English edition was pubished in 1975), he argues Marxism has thoroughly analysed the two dominant aspects of the state. Its repressive character was explicated by the likes of Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg, and people like Lukacs and Gramsci were responsible for theorising the state's articulation of the politics of persuasion and consent. An authoritarian state resting on force of arms only is a naked state, and not as well protected as it might think. Mandel then goes on to note a third characteristic of the state: the part it plays in the general maintenance of production. This comes in two flavours: the reproduction of the technical basis of the society, and then the social conditions (preservation of markets, the currency, wage labour, etc.). The state is also largely responsible for the training of the increasingly important intellectual labour that makes its reproductive strategies possible.

To cut a long chapter short, this third characteristic of the state has grown in importance over time. Its assumption of more social responsibility is a consequence of rising social pressures from mass democracy and the strength of labour movements, and social necessity. The provision of social security is beneficial to capital-in-general, despite efforts made by the right to force the floor lower. However, because the state does control social spending, is the first line of crisis management, and the guarantor of capitalist relations of production the owners of capital have a collective interest in its policies and strategies. Because of the separation of politics from economics, underlined by the hidden character of exploitation, the state has a certain autonomy, and the development of the state in the post-war period only saw this freedom grow more expansive. But the autonomy is only relative, which leads Mandel to ask the simple question: how adequate is it as an instrument of the bourgeois interest?

This "guarantee", which our late comrade Ed Rooksby was interested in was, for Mandel, a complex of relationships: capital's economic dominance over the state in terms of credit supply, capital mobility (and the threat of capital flight), financial relationships to the governing parties, the bourgeois backgrounds/integration argument around decision-making state personnel (the old Ralph Miliband argument), and, crucially, the overlooked behind-the-scenes relationships between politicians, the civil service, and capital.

These relationships assume greater importance in the age of liberal democracy. Mandel suggests in the 19th century legislative bodies served well for the clearing houses of competing bourgeois interests, and the limited/managed democracies of the time ensured the state's autonomy was kept within certain parameters. But the rise of labour, social democratic and later, communist parties meant parliaments grew to be dominated by issues around population management and demands from below. With this declining efficacy of official politics for determining common bourgeois interests, new axes of articulation outside of politics became more important. As, simultaneously, competition passed over into monopoly and capital concentrated into fewer and fewer handfuls of firms, the formalities of democracy were bypassed and direct relationships between the key decision makers in the state - government politicians and top civil servants - increasingly became the norm. Mandel here singles out the importance of lobbyists. These organisations, whether independent businesses in their own right or wholly-owned subsidaries of multinationals speak directly to government about their interests and offer inducements/bribes/favours to get them looked after. The revolving door between the Cabinet, boardrooms and lucrative consultancies shows this remains the case. Another avenue was the virtual fusion of offices of state with large companies. It is routine in the British system, for example, to not only have staff seconded to key politicians from big firms, but for them to fund the think tank research, input directly into policy, undertake reviews on government's behalf (a favoured tool of Margaret Thatcher's), take over functions via outsourcing, and so on. And while politicians will come and go, the permanent cadre of decision-making civil servants remain and with them the direct line to big business.

This is pretty much the common sense when it comes to Marxist approaches to the state, so what's the point of disinterring it now from Mandel's famous if, nowadays, little read book? It was this centralisation and bypassing of formal politics that interested me. Since 1975, the politics landscape has shifted. Neoliberalism was a fringe idea, though its foregrounding had been present for years, and the labour movement was, arguably, the rising power in the land. An ocean's worth of difference separates 2021 from 1975, yet the core argument offered by Mandel about the withering of official politics has remained a constant throughout this time, regardless of Prime Minister, regardless of party. Yet, since 2015, establishment politics has been in profound crisis. For an interregnum of four years, capitalist realism suffered a major defeat in the Labour Party. To all intents and purposes the Liberal Democrats were destroyed. The British state faces the real prospect of losing Scotland. Brexit won and has damaged the soft power of the state and its class on the world stage while compounding the country's economic decline, and the Tories have proven disastrously short-termist and serially, structurally incompetent. And this is without the recklessness of the May/Johnson governments on Brexit and the ticking time bomb of long-term decline.

Is there something deeper to the question of the overt authoritarian turn in Tory politics since May took over? As discussed here a fair few times, the neoliberal governments from Thatcher onwards have used the state to smash opponents to impose its normative imaginary and the insitutional relationships supporting it. This involved gutting civil society, centralised strategic governance in government and, perversely, rendered the Prime Ministerial position more vulnerable and accountable as the decision-maker in the last instance. Too many questionable decisions and failures, authority evaporates and they're done. Such has been the case of each occupant of Number 10 since Thatcher was forced from office. It stands to reason Prime Ministers since are obsessed with preserving this authority, which handily explains Boris Johnson's behaviour since entering office. Might Mandel have something to add to this?

Possibly. Given the recent crisis, the splits in capital, the dysfunctionality of the Tories, and the Corbynist reminder that Labour is always suspect from the standpoint of bourgeois interests, no matter how right wing it gets, might this have spurred more articulation of those extra-parliamentary avenues of influence along Mandel's lines? I.e. A closer reationship between offices of state and offices of CEOs? This is a question requiring further investigation. For example, is the (ostensible) roll back of NHS marketisation an application of the "what works" principle, or a power grab by Matt Hancock consistent with Tory statecraft, or is there an added layer of serving up sections of the NHS to the party's backers on an even less transparent basis than the market nonsense of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act? Additionally, in the context of Covid-19, the government's losses in the courts, and the egregiously corrupt handing out of procurement and supply contract, is this the usual cronyism or symptomatic of the bypass of formal politics? It's one thing to point out the business pushed disproportionately to Tory donors, but how many of them lobbied government and made use of informal channels. Quite a few if mates of Dom (remember him?), mates of Hancock, and other friends of friends are walking away with lucrative deals.

The evidence is anecdotal, and we'll have more once Johnson fires up his "blue Jerusalem." If we see the same arbitrary dishing out of contracts, then the answer is yes. The risk for Johnson and the Tories is by embracing and acting more on the basis of their extra-parliamentary relationships, the greater the scrutiny they attract, and the more pungency the odour of corruption acquires, a stench that might make Johnson's authority grow sickly and become vulnerable. All the more reason to attack these practices now. The questions raised by a contemporary reading of Late Capitalism in regards to the state aren't scholastic then, as interesting as some might find them. They reveal the possible contours of Tory strategy, and should allow the Labour movement time to formulate its response.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Ninja Gaiden for the Nintendo Entertainment System

A month has passed since last visiting a notorious Nintendo game, so why not another? Ninja Gaiden, or Shadow Warriors as it was known in Europe in pre-internet days is one of the most praised and feared video games in the NES library. While it never made a splash on these shores, its mix of precise gameplay, stunning sound and presentation (at least for the humble grey box) and the most punishing difficulty was legendary in North America. Its reputation secured the game an appearannce in The Wizard, a Hollywood/Nintendo tie-in to market Super Mario Bros 3 ahead of its release. Before the coming of YouTube, all I knew of Ninja Gaiden was a positive review in Mean Machines. While a canonical game over there, it was a curio over here. Thankfully, it was one of the first games I was able to score for my NES in 2011 when one of the local emporiums was basically chucking retro titles out the door on a three for two offer. My gain was, um, my gain.

The origins of Ninja Gaiden lay in a duff but, at the time, well-reviewed arcade beat 'em up called Shadow Warriors, Having had this game for the Commodore 64 it was next to impossible and an exercise in frustration thanks to crap controls and terrible collision detection. The NES iteration, like many other conversions for the system, opted to use the branding and intellectual assets but were reworked into an entirely new game. The arcade machine, apparently, was about doing battle wth a descendent of Nostradamus determined to fulfill his doomy quatrain for 1999 and raise an evil king to take over the world. A trace of this remains in the NES plot. You are Ryu Hayabusa and you are tasked with preventing a ne'er-do-well from raising a demon for world conquering/being annoying reasons. The name of this baddy? Jaquio, a play on the jacquerie evoked in Nostradamus's riddlesome prophecy. An interesting nugget of trivia, but plot actually matters in this game. One of the most celebrated aspects of Ninja Gaiden is its use of cut scenes. There are 20 minutes worth of panels and animations setting the scene and linking the action between levels to move the story along. This was virtually unheard of at the time outside of role-playing games, and conferred the game a level of narrative depth absent from any other contemporary action platformer. The famed introductory duel between Ryu's father and an unknown ninja, getting blindsided by a young woman, and seeing the baddy's castle at the end of the jungle level pull the player into and along with the game. It wasn't really until the 32-bit generation that this level of presentation became customary.

As for the game itself, most of the time it is as flawless a ninja game you could hope for. Certainly better than Shinobi on the Master System and almost on a par with the MegaDrive's The Revenge of Shinobi. Almost. There are few Nintendo games reporting for duty with controls as precise as these. And, like any ninja game, there has to be magical special abilities because ninjas. These abilities are acquired by picking up magical icons along the way, with other icons that refill the amount of times it can be used. For example, while fire is dangerous at the best of tims for Ryu a set of fireballs can surround him for a limited time, rendering him virtually invulnerable. Very handy for the numerous death runs later in the game. He can fling fireballs too, chuck shuriken, and whip out his sword and make like a whirligig of doom - all used to stunning effect by the game's community of speedrunners. The actual gameplay is very straightforward. Traverse the level from left to right, or in some cases right to left, kill baddies (a mix of thugs, soldiers, dogs, monkeys, birds(!), and an assortment of weirdies, take out the end of level boss and rinse and repeat. All the levels are well laid out. There are no opportunities for getting lost, but some properly test your platforming abilities. Clinging to walls and working out how to jump right, while assailed by birds is, um, a favourite.

And then there is the fabled difficulty. The problem is despite the bells and whistles, the flawless controls, and the hugely gratifying action the game is super hard, and it's because the developers resorted to some very cheap tricks. These include respawning enemies, placing them on narrow platforms you cannot clear in advance, getting overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of running and flying bad 'uns, having enemies come at you when you're vulnerable - like climbing walls/ladders. And some of the late bosses are very cheap as well. They all have predictable patterns, but the penultimate boss cycles through his pattern super quick. Lightning fast reflexes are required. Like a lot of NES games, getting hit knocks Ryu backwards, which means instant death if you're surrounded by bottomless pits. And last of all, die during the end of game confrontation with Jaquio and his subsequent incarnations and you're sent all the way back to the beginning of the level. This was apparently noted during playtesting and was a mistake, but they left it in anyway. Hence why the MegaDrive game edges it out in the best ninja title stakes.

Yet this did not prevent Ninja Gaiden from becoming a hit and something of a saught after cartridge, and there were two things going for it apart from its excellence (after all, not all great games are hits). First, as discussed here many times, the lone wolf action hero was neoliberal masculinity du jour in the 1980s. Forget the constraints society places on you, deal with your enemies as if rules don't matter. As a one-man army (though later, in collaboration with the US security apparatus) Ryu manly enters battle without constraints. Second, following the success of Bruce Lee in the 70s, the ninja trope was built up by film after film featuring martial arts and sprinkled with a flavouring of orientalist mystery. This framing of the East as mystical, traditional and exotic was picked up on by Japanese audiences of Western film (and media), and in turn was re-repackaged and sold back as the premises for hundreds of video games. The second was the theme of urban decay and crime fighting. Indeed, the first level sees Ryu battling with street gangs and their (literal) attack dogs. As acceptably disposable baddies when authoritarian governments in the US and UK were cracking skulls and declaring the war on drugs, the theme of fighting back against the decay, vigilante-style, was very much in the air. This was the time of the Guardian Angels and kids cartoons relentlessly pushing anti-crime populism. The zeitgeist was there and Ninja Gaiden rode it.

Then there is the overall culture of difficulty. Old farts talk about the how hard 8 and 16-bit games were versus most modern titles, but it was not a myth. Games were tougher and demanded they be played on their own terms. Yet the cheap deaths, the respawning enemies, the dreaded knock back, and the tough level of challenge were common mechanics in NES titles. Konami's Castlevania being another notable example. In this sense, Ninja Gaiden's basic unfairness was not a disadvantage as far as its reception was concerned. The meta-habitus of NES gamers had long grown accustomed to similar cheap tricks and they were accepted as part of the gaming scene, just as infinite player respawns are in most first person shooters today.

For the casual gamer is Ninja Gaiden worth a go? Absolutely. As a landmark if not a monument to difficult games, its canonical status is well deserved. And because its ludic qualities are so compelling, it is hard to put the game down. New players might overlook its unforgiving countenance and, who knows, perhaps accept the ridiculous challenge it represents.

Image Credit

Friday, 19 February 2021

Remembering Ed Rooksby

The awful news Ed Rooksby had passed away came as a shock. He was known as a brilliant tutor at Ruskin College and then, for too short a time, at York. I only knew Ed through his writings and the occasional Twitter exchanges, but he always came across as someone dedicated to his students, and underlined this by teaching a full semester in the Autumn while being unwell. He movingly wrote about his experience with long Covid at the beginning of this year.

Ed was serious about social theory, and understood it as a means to a political ends. He was interested in thinking through the problem of the state in Marxist theory, and in a three-part essay on Lenin's State and Revolution he subjects the text to a close reading, bringing out some of the fuzzy and metaphysical props ignored and overlooked by others. Particularly those claiming fidelity to "Leninism". Needless to say, Ed didn't think there was much there to help us with our strategic travails today.

He was also intereted in the viability of structural reforms. This was different to the idea of reformism handed down to us from Rosa Luxemburg's attack on Eduard Bernstein and countless Trotskyist educationals since, but were a theoretically viable set of strategies left governments might (or, to be more exact, must) pursue if they're serious about social transformation. For example, Corbynism's transgressive quality lay in its positions on economic democracy which, unsurprisingly, are ignored by the present incumbent of the Labour leader's office. Structural reforms struck at the root of capitalist relations in ways demanding tax rises on the rich and a properly funded NHS do not. In another memorable piece for the Graun from 2011, he took apart the bilge that is Blue Labour - a piece that repays reading now this is the party's Big Idea again.

At times over this last year, Ed had mentioned he was wrestling with a book on these themes. I hope what exists of the unfinished draft becomes available in due course. In Ed, we have lost a talented comrade and a militant thinker determined to put the materialist theory of politics on a firmer footing. It falls on us to continue with the work he left - there are plenty of tantalising leads for us to pick up.

This bibliography of Ed's work put together by Jonah Wedekind is a valuable and fitting act of remembrance. My deepest consolescences to Ed's family, friends, and everyone who knew him. Sleep easy, comrade.