Monday 30 August 2021

The SPD's Unexpected Comeback

Something strange is happening in Germany. According to weekend polling, the Social Democrats (SPD) are edging out the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) in the popular vote ahead of September's federal elections after a period as the junior partner in the grand coalition between right and left. Strange because, as far as leftist analyses of German politics are concerned, the SPD are a thoroughly Pasokified party. If the thesis is right its chances of becoming the largest party should be thin to non-existent, surely. What's going on?

Pasokification, for those unfamiliar with the term, is associated with the collapse of the mainstay of the Greek centre left and describes the process how it went from 44% of the popular vote to 12.3% in 2012 to 4.5% in 2015. So enfeebled this once mighty party was that PASOK has since merged with a couple of small centre left parties, forming the Macron/Change UK-sounding Movement for Change and returning 22 parliamentarians on eight per cent of the vote in 2019. What occasioned this sudden collapse was the party's embrace of austerity measures as the chill wind of the 2008 crisis bit into the Greek economy. They found, to their cost, that forcing workers to pay for a crisis of capital isn't a good idea for centre left parties. Who could have forecast that attacking their core constituencies would entail negative political consequences? Few on Europe's official social democratic and labour parties cottoned on and similar results repeated in the Netherlands, Italy, and France. In other countries, centre left parties who allied themselves with the main ruling class party of the right suffered similar fates. Scottish Labour here was one of them, but a party lucky to experience both was the SPD.

Between 1998 and 2005, the SPD governed in coalition with the Greens. Winning 41% in the first and 38.5% in the second, the pair ruled at the point Third Way politics dominated the horizon of bourgeois politics. In 2005 the SPD vote slid again to 34%, virtually level pegging with Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU, and on this occasion opted to form a grand coalition - the first in 40 years - that oversaw cuts to social security and increases to VAT and the equivalent to National Insurance contributions. In 2009 the SPD's service was awarded with a collapse in its vote down to 23% and the return of just 146 seats, its worst result since the first federal elections in 1949. They were dumped out of office as the Union turned to their preferred coalition partners, the right-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). A four-year period of opposition was good for the social democratic constitution as the SPD went on to regain three percentage points worth of lost ground, and presaging what happened in the UK the FDP were completely wiped out, losing every single seat. This was good enough for a resumption of the grand coalition in 2013 and, unsurprisingly, history repeated itself yet again in 2017 when the SPD vote dipped below 10 million again and won them 21%. The rise of Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) helped spare the SPD's blushes by making sure the Christian Democrat vote was hit with a nine-point drop, but as the two main parties remained the most viable partners they renewed their coalition following an appeal from the German president.

What has changed since then? The SPD's ride through the polls since 2017 have been a bumpy one. Upon entering government again the numbers absolutely tanked, occasionally dipping into fourth place behind the Greens and AfD. They reported ratings worse than the vote the SPD received in the fake election of 1933 where the Nazis used the force of the state to attack the party, engaged in ballot stuffing, and getting their bully boys to watch voters as they made their choices. But since June the Union have suffered, with their figures posting well below the 25% floor established in 1949 while the SPD have dramatically recovered and are touching a quarter of the popular vote. How to explain?

The first is the debacle of this year's floods, in which 184 people died. The Union's candidate, Armin Laschat, is the party leader and state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia's state, a place hit particularly hard by flooding. While there are questions about his regional government's handling of the crisis, what has harmed his chances was him laughing and joking with local officials in the background of a broadcast given by the President mourning victims of the disaster. With nothing left in the tank, Laschet has gone for good old fashioned red baiting, claiming the SPD can't wait to jump into bed with Die Linke, Germany's slowly shrinking SPD left split/fusion with the East German PDS - the successor to the former communist party. The tumbling numbers suggest the traction it's getting is minimal. The Greens have also taken a bit of a dive over the summer after briefly leading several polls. Their candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, has become embroiled in a plagiarism row which has hurt her personal standing as a fresh faced alternative to the primary parties. And the SPD itself? Their candidate, Olaf Scholz, seems to be winning by simply keeping his nose clean. As finance minister and vice-chancellor to Merkel, if anything he better represents continuity and stability - the CDU/CSU's traditional strong suit - than the Christian Democrats themselves. For many Germans, mainly older Germans, he is a known quantity. As Jeremy Cliffe notes, during this weekend's three-way debate he merely plodded through the answers and is content to trade off the mantle of Merkel's heir - undoubtedly assisted by his sceptical views on public spending and reining in debt. Apart from a preference for a Eurozone-wide financial transaction tax, there's little to suggest he is much of a social democrat.

Therefore what we're seeing is the possibility of a strange ending to the Pasokification process. The Greens are by far and away the most popular party among the young, followed by a reinvented FDP fishing from similar waters. What is saving the SPD is a two pronged assault on the right. The AfD have long soaked up the populist constituencies who might otherwise be relied on to vote reluctantly for the Union, while the SPD are living the Blairite dream of occupying the proving grounds of conservative politics and are proving successful at ripping these supporters away from the CDU/CSU. In other words, in 23 years the SPD have lost its mass base, done its best to liquidate its traditional support among workers, made it very clear the rising generation of immaterial workers aren't welcome, and look like they're coming out the other side with a chip off the old bed rock of dyed-in-the-wool centre right Christian Democrats.

Given what is happening in Germany, we can imagine someone one these shores is watching events closely. With its determination to disperse its coalition inherited from the past two general elections, and temper any policies that might be regarded as radical, such as abolishing tuition fees and improving trade union rights with right wing positioning and unconvincing flag waving, the Labour leadership are seeing their fondest dreams playing out across the North Sea. This gives them the evidence they think they need to plug away as they are doing, downplaying expectations, giving no reason to hope, and merely offering a competent steady-as-she-goes approach to politics. A position that could well lead to the liquidation of Labour without the consolation of replacing its vote with disgruntled Tories.

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Saturday 28 August 2021

On Conservatism and Starmerism

I was very happy to appear on this episode of the Socialist Hour alongside Susie Granic and the chair of my CLP, Jim Bradbury. In my segment I talk with the podcast's impresario, Dave Middleton, about the book and my recent piece published by Political Quarterly on The Problems of Starmerism.

The Socialist Hour is part of the Critical Mass magazine project. You can view the site here

Friday 27 August 2021

Local Council By-Elections August 2021

This month saw 35,283 votes votes cast over 18 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Overall, 10 council seats changed hands. For comparison with July's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Feb 20
   - 1

 * There were five by-elections in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** This month Others consisted of Aspire (1,204), Independence for Scotland (47, 42), Libertarian (11, 16), Socialist Labour Party (57), TUSC (50), Yorkshire Party (347)

August has graced us with a month of firsts. The Tories come out of a round of by-elections with a net loss of councillors for the first time since December (on that occasion, there were no contests in England). And if we put aside the special circumstances of running by-elections on Super Thursday in May, this is the first time Labour have taken a seat directly from the Tories since February 2020. A consolation of sorts then for a miserable by-election performance for Labour. Having run these round ups for eight years now, I can't remember an occasion when the party couldn't be bothered to fight over a third of the available seats. If the Tories can manage to run in virtually every by-election with nowhere near the same level of membership, why can't Labour? This occasion, however, is particularly egregious. As still the largest party by far in British politics, one might be tempted to lay this at the door of member demoralisation and/or lack of enthusiasm with the way things have turned out.

Where Labour fails to tread, the Liberal Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Greens have stepped in. Some very good results for both parties, indicating they're sharing out the spoils of the none-of-the-above vote and, possibly, the slow move away from the Tories in their heartlands, which aren't exclusively located in the south. And while the Greens have slipped back on the very good vote tallies of previous months, their standing in as many seats as Labour and growing threat to the Tories in rural areas means they're the ones to watch over the coming months.

5th August
West Lothian UA, East Livingston and East Calder, SNP gain from Lab

12th August
East Suffolk, Orwell and Villages, Con hold
Highland, Inverness West, LDem gain from Ind
Highland, Wick and East Caithness, LDem gain from Ind
North Ayrshire, Dalry and West Kilbride, Con gain from SNP
South Lakeland, Grange, LDem hold
Tower Hamlets, Weavers, Oth gain from Lab

19th August
Aberdeenshire, Mid Formartine, Con gain from SNP
Ashford, Downs North, Grn gain from Con
Dover, Sandwich, Con hold
East Riding of Yorkshire, East Wolds and Coastal, Con hold
Ribble Valley, Littlemoor, LDem hold
Ribble Valley, Primrose, LDem hold
Rutland, Oakham South, LDem gain from Con

26th August
Cumbria, Corby and Hayton, LDem gain from Ind
Medway, Princes Park, Con hold
Medway, Strood North, Lab gain from Con
Newport, Graig, Con hold

Image Credit

Sunday 22 August 2021

Off for a Week

Believe it or not, I've not had a proper break from blogging since October 2012. A day or two away from this place, maybe three on occasion, but for all of it I've never purposely taken time off and spent time not thinking about writing. Enough is enough. Despite appearances to the contrary, I'm not a robot and I could do with a break so I'm having one. Over the next week, the odd video or podcast link might appear to tide matters over. I'll certainly be rounding up the month's by-election results (spoiler, they're not good for Labour so far), but unless something big happens I'm putting my trotters up and reading books, watching things, playing games, and finding other distractions from the class struggle.

Until then, see you in September.

Saturday 21 August 2021

The Class Politics of the OnlyFans Porn Ban

Banning sexually explicit content from OnlyFans is the 2021 curve ball no one was expecting. According to reports too numerous to count, the company, which has 150 million users and oversaw transactions worth $5bn last year are being forced to dump the porn by banks and payment processing companies. Soft porn content will apparently be allowed when the terms of service change from October, but for the hundreds of thousands of sex workers who've made OnlyFans tens of millions are out.

Is prudishness to blame? Apparently not. According to work done by the BBC, leaked OnlyFans documents showed inconsistencies dealing with illegal content. If posts contravened their terms of service, particularly underage material, then accounts wouldn't face an automatic ban, and leniency was shown to popular users. OnlyFans's client companies have also recoiled at the presence of extreme sex acts, escorting, and the use of drugs. It's worth noting Mastercard and Visa announced last December they would no longer process payments for Pornhub because of the prevalence of stolen content, depictions of sexual violence, and underage videos which Mindgeek, the parent company, has proven tardy at removing. Rather than ramping up its moderation capacity and cracking down on illegal posts, OnlyFans have obviously decided it's too much bother and/or not feasible to police a couple of million performing accounts.

This raises all sorts of issues. By cracking down on illegality, hundreds of thousands of sex workers, most of whom are women, are going to be robbed of their income. Particularly during the pandemic, OnlyFans and, to a lesser extent, similar sites like ManyVids and AdmireMe have provided a livelihood and/or much-needed supplementary income for workers who've had their workplaces shut down. Particularly for those already in the sex industry, it has become a safer alternative to survival sex work. None of this doesn't mean there aren't women manipulated and pushed into performing on the site, but by the same token testimony abounds of the control this affords content creators. They can choose their hours, their limits, their prices, and over what they offer. There is no pimp nor shady owner of a dubious "gentlemen's club" taking their cut. Therefore the anger content creators have at the decision is easily understandable. With an imminent cut to income, they either have to spend time building up a profile on one of OnlyFans's rivals amid the uncertainty of whether they too will get shut down, or run the risks of returning to more conventional settings - now with the added prospect of Covid.

Did OnlyFans have to dump on the workers that made them rich? Of course not, but avoiding their predicament would have meant breaking decisively with the political economy of platform capitalism. As Nick Srnicek persuasively argued, not only does surplus value materialise in plain sight of the worker who generated it (in this case, the 20% cut OnlyFans takes from every transaction on its platform, a feature of advanced capitalist societies more generally), but making money out of the internet depends on monopolising a particular market. As Twitter has cornered microblogging, Instagram photo sharing, Google search, and YouTube video, their continued profits depend on data harvesting and therefore the maintenance of market dominance. Our trendy Silicon Valley friends are distinctly old school when it comes to appetites for mergers and acquisitions, as well as extending the reach of their platforms. For example, it is quite possible - and is certainly the case for millions of internet users - to eke out an online existence entirely on Facebook.

The consequence of this is prickly, authoritarian corporate structures and cultures. Nick talks about the dirty tricks Uber, for example, undertook to drive potential rivals out of business. More recently we've seen eBay accused of harassing critics, reading like the low grade gangsterism of the 1920s as opposed to the ultracool techbro image of the 2020s. The people they make money from - the users - are so much bits of data to be manipulated, chopped up, repackaged and sold advertising to. They're somewhat less than individuals, so the default cognitive setting of social media managers towards their service users will be conditioned by this. Which goes some way to explain the disrespect OnlyFans has shown the pool of people who make it its money. It didn't have to be like this.

In the first place, OnlyFans acted like other social media companies, particularly Pornhub, when it came to extreme and illegal content. Their instinct was to indulge it, just as Twitter has long tacitly encouraged racism and fake news on its site for the clicks and attention. In other words, the situation the firm now finds itself in is thanks to management failure, of permitting everything to build its market. Instead of giving illegality the nod, OnlyFans might have democratised their platform instead. Moderators and service users could have been empowered to flag and ban members, albeit with a more robust and accountable appeals process. Allied to this would be moves to cooperatise the platform - no to "enlightened" management - and give performers a real stake in how it was run. Existing management would retain its stake as cooperative members on a one member/one vote basis. But naturally, the choice between running a successful service providing safe sources of income for sex workers versus a reduced service firmly under corporate dictation, management are always going to choose the latter. Happy, empowered workers and improved cash flow always comes second next to the class politics of command and control.

It is to be hoped that from the ashes of the OnlyFans debacle that enough sex workers club together to go down this alternative route, taking back the full value they generate and showing other social media users that platform management is not just unnecessary, but entirely antithetical to their interests.

Thursday 19 August 2021

The Politics of Foreign Policy Humiliation

Commenting on Tom Tugendhat's speech in the Commons recall debate on the humiliation in Afghanistan, centrist journalists, so-called decents and sundry Labour MPs hailed his bravery and courage to say what he did. As a tendency in establishment politics perpetually looking for new heroes to associate their vapid movement with, he was the icon of the hour. Yet, while such endorsements would hardly recommend what he had to say, Tugendhat's career as an army officer and descendent of the British and French state aristocracy makes his opinion a revealing one, given the section of the ruling class which he comes from he serves as a barometer of the unease rippling through these exalted circles.

There are two key points Tugendhat summed up. As a combat veteran himself followed by a stint advising the Afghan client state apparatus, his speech condensed the widely reported disgust and bewilderment other soldiers have reported. To have seen friends and allies killed, sustained injuries, experienced the heart-stopping terrors of ambush, the strain of wondering whether some obscure corner of Afghanistan will be your grave, attending the funerals of colleagues and comrades, and knowing the lasting consequences for those unable to adjust to civilian life after the military for nothing is galling. Some might put a brave face on it by talking up the numbers of girls in schools, but deep down there aren't many servicemen and women who think the lives lost and traumas endured were worth it. And this is a big problem for Boris Johnson. Despite the Tories only paying lip service to the military covenant they are happy to let ex-forces people rot on the streets. It's the Conservatives' open secret, and it's testament to their political skill (as well as the assistance of their media friends) that this rarely becomes a political issue. However, the UK/US withdrawal brings to the fore the real Tory attitude: that they don't give a damn about those who sacrificed themselves for their military adventures.

If this wasn't bad enough, there is the carefree attitude Johnson has shown throughout the crisis. Last week as the Afghan collapse grew more obvious, both he and Dominic Raab made themselves scarce by disappearing off on holiday - something Keir Starmer did not fail to make hay with. But even worse, Raab couldn't be bothered to lift the phone to speak with his Afghan counterpart - something the Daily Mail are going heavy on. With the likes of Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer harrying them from the backbench, and the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (ex-military himself) cutting an apologetic figure on the news broadcasts, pressure is now being applied on a previously safe and loyal segment of the Tory electoral coalition. If there's a moment Blue Labour social patriotism is going to work, this is it.

Then there's the second strand to Tugendhat's speech, the apologia for interventionism. Despite his veiled criticisms of the government, he does not question the right to bomb people overseas while trotting out the customary platitudes. Johnny Mercer, taking time out from his campaign to exempt British soldiers from war crimes charges, summed up the entitlement best. He said "These are new feelings we are not trained to deal with. We're not trained to lose." Indeed. It's difficult to think of another moment in the last 20 years, including Iraq, where the designs of the US and UK alliance have been so comprehensively defeated in full public view. As noted previously, this is significant: it makes the obscene doctrine of "humanitarian" interventionism much more difficult to push in the future, strengthening the hands of the anti-imperialist left and anti-war movement and the isolationist right. And if the domestic scene wasn't bad enough, equally devastating is the positioning of the United States itself.

In his speech on Monday, Joe Biden defended the rapid pull out of American forces and, somewhat distastefully considering the 65,000 Afghans killed fighting alongside the allied military, attacked them for "not having the will to fight." This might have appalled parliamentarians, but what has got the mainstream of warmongers properly spooked is the freezing out of the UK from negotiations by the US, and the refusal of Biden to take Johnson's call. As noted last November, for a number of bourgeois commentators Biden found Johnson distasteful because of his crude populism, his racism, and the devil may care stance to the Good Friday Agreement. Cut from the Trumpist cloth, in this instance it appears the President is closer to the style and leadership of The Donald than our Prime Minister. Cue the ritual jitters about the special relationship, but this has further ramifications. If Biden is happy to do America's own thing without consulting its closest military ally, this has direct consequences for the UK's ability to project hard power. If the US isn't interested, then the UK's posturing as the global bully's sidekick can only ever be that. You can understand how the Afghan debacle appals so much of the establishment on the government and opposition benches: their horizon, everything they've known about their privileged place in the world, looks like it's about to implode.

Image Credit

Wednesday 18 August 2021

The Taliban and Self-Preservation

The BBC called it "extraordinary". In reality, Tuesday's Taliban press conference was pretty banal. The media in this country tend to ignore coups and civil wars that have no impact on oil supplies, so I suppose a spokesperson making vague, reassuring promises about the new regime is something of a novelty. Five quick points about the Taliban's media offensive and what it means.

1. The Taliban have assured the populace and the Western media that everyone is safe, and there will ne no reprisals against those who were part of the previous government. Actions might be at odds with the words, but no insurgency riddled with factions and whose rapid advance is largely thanks to deals cut with localised militias and regional government are about to openly declare a reign of terror, even if this is what they will end up doing.

2. The Taliban's leadership are aware they must placate the Western powers, even as they continue removing their forces. 20 years of war has devastated the countryside in their rural strongholds, but many Afghan cities have been rebuilt. Bombed out central districts have been repaired, electrical, water, and road infrastructures renewed, and the capacities of the state apparatus modernised. The Taliban of 1996 had to build a ramshackle and repressive state from scratch in an utterly devastated country, while the Taliban of 2021 inherit something entirely different. Antagonising the West, for all they know, could unleash a campaign of air strikes that would easily rub all of this out. Therefore the reassuring words, their commitment to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists again, the retention of UN agencies and aid-related NGOs, and the more welcoming attitude to Western journalists is part of this. In other words, the Taliban are proving adept exponents of statecraft.

3. The position of women is central to this. Going from the previous horrors of their regime, large numbers of women in Kabul have taken to the burqa and have disappeared from public places. Except for some courageous women who have publicly protested in defence of their rights. Here, the Taliban have fudged the issue, with their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying "The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of sharia. Our sisters will have the same rights, will be able to benefit from their rights." Which can mean anything as there are as many interpretations of Sharia as there are Sharia jurists. However, while women have suffered appallingly in Taliban-controlled areas the leadership know it's good optics to talk up women continuing in work and education, and having a woman interview a commander for one of the news channels. This reduces the chances of antagonism with the West and keeps the aid money flowing.

4. Another good reason for not rubbing the United States up the wrong way is the service they and the West are rendering the Taliban. As awful as the scene at Kabul airport was on Monday, it appears the Taliban are utterly uninterested in preventing the evacuation of Afghan civilians who were variously employed by the previous government - apart from some warm words about staying and rebuilding. Here, a layer of the (mostly urban) population are removing themselves from the equation. Potential oppositionists, and potential points of tension with whatever form of Islamism they end up installing as the official ideology are gone. And while they might be an annoyance to the regime as they take to the airwaves safely overseas, the post-occupation recovery will be greatly assisted by whatever remittances they send to relatives remaining in Afghanistan.

5. What's the Taliban end game? It's the retention of power. As the last 20 years have shown, the Taliban leadership are far from stupid and are unlikely to make the mistakes that saw them ousted by the West. They can see from looking at Iran and Saudi Arabia, and how the military elites from Pakistan who've generously funded and supplied them that modernised Islamist states can support theocratic or religiously-aligned ruling classes and repressive religious doctrine. And as controllers of the state, they're well positioned to seriously enrich themselves from the scramble for rare earths. The Gulf states have shown official ideology is no barrier to wealth and (lopsided) capitalist development. The Taliban are unlikely to proves themselves any different.

Image Credit

Monday 16 August 2021

Afghanistan's Shadow

You will have seen the appalling footage. Dozens of Afghans swarming around an American military transport as it taxis down the runway. Some cling to the fuselage, desperately hoping the mass of humanity swarming about its wheels and grabbing at its wings would make it stop. It did not stop. Later shots showed the transport after take off, with the tiny specks of a couple of people falling from it to their deaths. This extraordinary sequence condenses everything about the West's military occupation of Afghanistan into a short social media clip - its indifference to the people our governments spent 20 years saying we went to war to save.

Readers of a certain age will remember the lead up to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan well. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, there was precious little public debate about the wisdom of going in mob-handed to seize Osama Bin Laden and put the regime that sheltered him to flight. Indeed, some might recall the infamous Question Time of 13th September where audience members refused to adhere to the niceties of official mourning and linked these attacks to the violence of US foreign policy across the Middle East and elsewhere. The BBC hurriedly apologised and ate humble pie, but the establishment backlash against this episode set the tone for the subsequent public debate. Critical voices appeared in the liberal press, but the newly-launched Stop the War Coalition and other anti-war oppositionists were out in the cold. The popular mood was hesitantly supportive of action, which was acquiescence enough for Tony Blair, and off to war went tens of thousands of British troops.

This time, however, we were told it was going to be different. The history of past military interventions and occupations were pored over, and the public of the UK and the United States were told this was no smash and grab (not that there was anything left of Afghanistan to grab), but this was a long-term state building project. You might recall, if you were around, that similar arguments were fielded about Iraq too. Our presence in the country was a commitment to bringing Afghanistan into the modern world, rescue the population from medievalism, and liberate women and girls. The practice said something else. More money was spent on humvees and daisy cutters than rebuilding a shattered country. The statelet set up with some autonomy was riddled with corruption the occupying powers not only turned a blind eye to but encouraged - cash binds better than liberal iterations of the white man's burden, after all. And little illustrates this better than the deposed president Ashraf Ghani fleeing to Uzbekistan with literal bags of cash in tow.

Could it have been different? Opinion punditry is awash with assessments. Some will criticise the egregious corruption of the state, and the failure of Western governments to match the commitments made with money. But ultimately this is besides the point. These are features, not aberrations of occupation authorities - a point that should be well understood following centuries of Western colonialism, all-out war, and the "police actions" of the post-cold war period. It couldn't and can't be avoided by enlightened military government, because the fact of invasion and occupation is its root. Hence Stop the War, who sundry cheerleaders of Blair's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are, with impressive violations of the laws of logic, holding responsible for the Taliban's victory, have been proven exactly right. Progressive social change, they argue, can only be durable if the dynamism for it arises from within. If it comes on the end of drone strikes, it's an imposition.

What now? Reports are filtering out of the Taliban going house to house in Kabul seeking people on their "list", despite promises given to respect human rights. The future for Afghanistan does not look any better thanks to the West, with the even worse outcome being the Taliban and its allies fragmenting and descending into outright warlordism not an unlikely possibility. As for us in the metropolitan heartlands, the utter waste of the last 20 years will cast a long shadow over future military adventurism - a new political reality warmongers everywhere are going to spend decades lamenting. And, at least in Britain, there's going to be a sense of revulsion and loss among former military and their families. Why have they suffered and what did their mates die if Afghanistan has simply reset itself to where they began? Matters are not helped by the characteristic lack of seriousness shown by the Prime Minister, and the government's refusal, up to now, to discuss the country's obligation to the tens of thousands of Afghans it put in harm's way as interpreters and support workers. There is a political price to pay, and the Tories will try their damnedest, as they always do, to offload responsibility for this mess onto something or someone else.

Sunday 15 August 2021

What Next for the Taliban?

"The Taliban will be in Kabul within weeks!" So went the media punditry on Friday just gone. And just a mere two days later the Afghan government has completely dissolved, the United States are evacuating personnel in scenes reminiscent of the embassy airlift from Saigon in 1975, and the Taliban are back in charge. 20 years of blood and treasure wasted for the situation to wind up where it began. To be sure, the rapid collapse of the client government and the humiliation of the Western powers underlines the bankruptcy of "humanitarian intervention". A point lost on sundry Tories and hand wringing centrists doing the rounds and attacking the withdrawal of military support. They have learned nothing.

None of this soft soaps the Taliban. This might be Taliban 2.0, one savvier when it comes to diplomacy and cutting deals with regional powers, not executing Western journalists and allowing aid agencies to stay, but their extreme gynophobia and suppression of select aspects of modernity remains. What happens next? In this discussion between Alex and Paul Rogers of Bradford University's Peace Studies department, Paul explores the difficulties the American-led coalition faced, the division in their foreign policy establishment, the stupidity of the occupation authorities, and how the Central Asian great game is going to play out between Pakistan, India, and China as well as the US. Events have unfolded rapidly since this was uploaded yesterday, but the analysis underpinning it is a must listen.

And don't forget to help support Politics Theory Other out via its Patreon.

Friday 13 August 2021

The Left and the Party Question

Some of the greatest nights out I've had have been with comrades, but the left does have a dour, super serious, and dull reputation. Most of its publications are didactic boring reads, and the culture of activism and "work" frowns on "distractions" from the class struggle. But, as Jem Gilbert argues in his discussion with Novara's Ash Sarkar the left would do well to get over this sniffy attitude and embrace the things that make life enjoyable.

Thursday 12 August 2021

Jameela Jamil: A Defence

No one is born a socialist, we are all made. A banal observation as such things go, but sometimes this is forgotten by self-defined socialists themselves. Twitter (where else?) has provided us with an occasion for remembering this truism. On Thursday evening, Marx briefly trended following the posting of this clip of Jameela Jamil in conversation with Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer. She said,
However much we hate capitalism, however we may acknowledge the evils of capitalism exist, currently money is freedom for women. And I know this is dirty and wrong and an unsocialist and unmarxist thing to say, but being able to know that if I have an emergency and I don't have to rely on a man, and I can make my own decisions and I as a businesswoman can hire other women and people of colour and people from other backgrounds that don't get hired for jobs, gives me freedom, ultimately.
A distillation of neoliberal feminism? She later clarified in a series of tweets that she doesn't make money for her company but rather funds it as an institution to platform activists, argues that lack of money was why the women who brought her up were trapped in a cycle of abuse, and says she's not au fait with the ins and outs of anti-capitalist etiquette. This hasn't prevented her from being criticised as not caring about women in the developing world, of bloating her bank account from the surplus value produced by others, as well as the girlboss jibes and all the rest of it.

Comrades need to decelerate and reflect about positionality and movement. The first words of her Twitter bio is "feminist-in-progress", openly acknowledging she's on a learning curve - just as we all are. What matters most in the clip is not an incorrect formulation that muddies the points Jameela was trying to make, but the trajectory she is on. If she had started out as a class conscious partisan of Marxism at its most nuanced and revolutionary, then this would be a cause for concern. But this is obviously not the case. Informed by her experience as a young, racialised woman who has become Hollywood successful and subsequently used her prominence to push causes close to her heart, including mental health advocacy and standing up against transphobia, the direction of travel is obviously clear. When someone's line of flight is into the left and poised to move deeper within it, are matters helped by trotting out the revolutionary purity tests? Is this how comrades greet new people casually interested in the labour movement and our kind of politics, but come with the baggage they bring from the outside?

One of the biggest threats to the vitality of the left comes from within the movement itself: the tendency to close up and treat the location of 'leftist' not as a strategic location but an identity in itself. And this is a property of the species of alienation that is common under the prevailing phase of capitalism. It's the sort of pathology that fetishises hardship and struggle as markers of authenticity, and/or a familiarity with the history of class struggle and capital T Theory as markers of personal, revolutionary excellence. And rather than working as something fundamentally open to connecting with others, building solidarity and forging a common socialist project, for too many "leftism" is the basis of animosity, individual recrimination, and demobilisation.

Do leftists have an individual responsibility to recognise the consequences of alienation and try and work against it? Yes, but there is a collective responsibility, of ensuring the popular culture of resistance we're trying to build is a solidaristic one too. Something that is critical not gullible, but doesn't attack people, like Jameela, coming into the left for not being the finished article at the outset.

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Geronimo Must Die

When Westminster packs up for its summer holidays, convention has it that politics-as-usual ceases. Into the gap rushes tales of the silly and the strange, not that the fearless British media don't already ignore the issues that really count as a matter of routine. And when there is proper news, their interest is casual and unserious. For instance, the IPCC report might, you could be forgiven for thinking, fill the news agenda for a few days. It managed a few front pages, including the Daily Mail's, but the column inches devoted to climate collapse and the doom this spells for millions of people are nothing compared to the hot button issue of August. Geronimo the Alpaca.

In case you haven't encountered the case, Geronimo was imported from New Zealand by his owner, Helen Macdonald. Unfortunately, our protagonist has tested twice for bovine TB and as per the law, he has to be put down as a precautionary measure to prevent its spread. Macdonald maintains the tests were false positives and has battled in court to save his life, with her last ditch efforts at the high court folding last week. The papers are signed and Defra officials are due at any time to carry out the sentence. This case has captured the media's eye, getting coverage on breakfast TV, acres of print, and the backing of The Sun's conservation correspondent, a certain Stanley Johnson. There's been a protest too.

And there is the politics. The environment secretary George Eustice has turned a deaf ear to the slow bubbling outcry, a decision that could do his standing more damage than destroying British farming. Boris Johnson appears to be losing his populist touch, as he's on the 'Geronimo must die' wagon too. And entirely consistent with Keir Starmer's effective opposition, not for the first time he's backing the government. It's "tragic", said the Labour leader, "but we have to keep TB under control."

Tragic or not, stories like the hapless Geronimo are useful for politicians. It gives them opportunity to prove themselves hard bastards. Starmer can do the whole 'with regret' thing, but for anyone watching no one is left in any doubt that he'll do what's necessary. Indeed, it's a wonder he hasn't volunteered to but on the overalls and take up the bolt gun himself. Still, he should be thankful this is the only moral quandary he's been asked about today. Sharper journalists might have quizzed him about his thoughts concerning the leader of the Labour group on Ashford council calling for border guard militias.

It does the same for Johnson too. While some might think there are compassion points to be won for saving the alpaca, and that this would be right up the Prime Minister's street, what matters most for Johnson is the preservation of his authority. If he's prepared for people to die rather than being seen to give in to Labour's process criticisms of his pandemic management, he's not about to let a tabloid TV campaign change his mind for him in the full glare of publicity. That looks too much like caving in, and if something as minor as the fate of an obscure farm animal can move government it might encourage others to prosecute their claims. As the governments of the last 40 years are utterly dependent on the authority of their PM, the Tories have quickly learned this must be preserved. Or electoral defeat raises its head.

Poor Geronimo. He cannot comprehend the storm swirling above his head, but we can. While quintessential silly season fodder, this episode reveals a lot about the state of politics in 2021.

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Tuesday 10 August 2021

Climate Change and Institutional Failure

Here are some of the headlines from the IPCC report on climate change, released yesterday (summary here).

* The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.

* Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.

* Many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming. They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.

* Under scenarios with increasing CO2 emissions, the ocean and land carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

* Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.

* From a physical science perspective, limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions. Strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 emissions would also limit the warming effect resulting from declining aerosol pollution and would improve air quality.

This makes for very grim reading. I remember being at school when the relationship between the fast food giants and tearing down the Amazon rain forest came to light. Around the same time what was then called the greenhouse effect came to public prominence, along with the holes in the ozone layer at the poles. Our geography teacher showed our class a film set in the near future of people going about their business on bikes, wrapped head to foot in swaddling to ward off the sun's deadly rays. And we were told global warming represented a threat to hundreds of millions of people. While we were learning this, the Green Party polled 15% in the 1989 EU elections, and so spooked were the mainstream parties that they began green washing their manifestos. Hit jobs were also duly commissioned on the Greens by the tabloids. I remember one future vision of Britain that appeared in either The Sun or News of the World warning us of a country that was once again a green and pleasant land, but people stood for hours in queues for rations. A fate that has come to pass thanks to deindustrialisation, 11 years of Tory government and the explosion of food banks.

The point is over 30 years on and very little has been done. Public consciousness about climate change and its dangers are acute, especially among the young who are going to spend their lives dealing with it, and more than ever politicians talk about green industry and green jobs while failing to deliver and carrying on favouring fossil fuels as if there isn't a climate emergency. Indeed, the only mainstream party to have adopted a programme committed to the action necessary to avoid catastrophe was roundly rubbished, denounced, and undermined by its own side. The government can point to the UK's fall in emissions over the decades, even joking about how Thatcher did the planet a favour by closing the mines. Yet they (self-interestedly) neglect to mention it's because what was Britain's manufacturing has been largely outsourced to places like China, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. And Tory MPs and commentators have the cheek to say we're but a minnow compared to the gargantuan amounts of carbon released by these industries when it's this country's and the West's demands helping power their growth.

The political failures of the last 30 years is staggering in its irresponsibility, and those heading up governments and boards of corporations will be lucky to not face indentured servitude on the environmental clean up units of the future. Perhaps Boris Johnson could wear the high-vis jumpsuit he's enthusiastic about for chain gangs. But while they have choices, and have made the wrong choices, the logics of their decision-making is about profitability and, crucially, the maintenance of prevailing class relationships - the ultimate root of their pandemic management too. What we're dealing with then is not institutional failure, because the institutions of state are set up to buttress minority rule. Government's default setting is to proceed as if climate change isn't a problem, because its raison d'etre is the management of populations, of making the populace safe for capital. Something the British state has proven itself to be very good at, even if it means exporting industry and importing developing world levels of poverty.

Capitalism as a global system only has one bottom line: the bottom line. In the competitive maintenance of surplus extraction and response to market signals, it is blind to the natural/social metabolism all human societies strike with their environment. As with demands of workers, capitalism has to be forced to take other priorities into consideration - something business doesn't like because it impinges on their right to manage, the relations of production themselves. In the three decades in which capital has enjoyed its unmitigated sway across the globe, the truth of this has become ever more stark. Capitalism cannot respond to or afford environmental protection, and therefore our species cannot afford capitalism. Climate change, properly tackling climate change is contingent on social and political change. Either governments adapt, the system undergoes fundamental change, or the epoch we face is one of wars and revolutions driven by the struggle to survive. Socialism or barbarism, never has choice the old slogan poses been so stark.

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