Monday 29 November 2021

Peddling Petty Politics

I've not known excitement like it. Over a period of hours, the new shadow cabinet was unveiled to us. Jonathan Ashworth, the great survivor at the top of the Labour tree has lost the shadow health brief to Wes Streeting, and will now diddle about with pensions. Kate Green has been banished with Bridget Phillipson rising to replace in education. Ed Miliband got demoted from the business shadow but given a fancy environmental job so it doesn't look like a sacking. Lyin' Lisa was let go from the shadow foreign office, replaced by David Lammy, and is heading over to hold Michael Gove's feet to the fire in housing and local government. Sadly, her fib count is unlikely to be affected by the posting. And the big news is Yvette Cooper has finally decided a bit more exposure to the limelight will do her chances some good as she takes on the home secretary role, a position she served in with zero distinction between 2011 and 2015. With such a team at the helm, victory is assured.

The bigger Labour news of the day, but certainly not the most interesting. What was were the jiggery-pokery between Keir Starmer and his self-identifying wayward deputy, Angela Rayner. Having gone hard on the Tory corruption row, Monday morning was to be Angela's time to shine with a keynote speech about standards. Her big ideas involved bans on former ministers taking work related to their portfolio for five years afterward, backed by fines that would claw back severence payments and pensions. Parliamentarians' behaviour would be overseen by an independent ethics and integrity commission which would also hold cabinet appointees to the standards set out in the Ministerial Code - a piece of paper, you will recall, that Boris Johnson has repeatedly disregarded when his henchmen and women have got found out. It was classic Rayner redolent of John Prescott's greatest hits: a tub thumping affectation of "authentic" radical anger she does so well married to straightforward constitutional tinkering barely anyone, apart from Tories, would find objectionable.

Unfortunately for the deputy leader, she was not allowed to have the headlines to herself. Reminding the public about Tory corruption came second to the opportunity to play silly beggars. As she began her speech, which has lived in the grid for a fortnight, news broke about the beginning of the shadcab reshuffle. Fielding follow-up questions from the assembled hacks, it appeared developments had caught her off guard, though Starmer's spox said she had been notified earlier that the hirings and firings were due to take place. What she knew and when she knew is immaterial: what is was the timing. We've seen in recent years how party bureaucrats would set timings for announcements and events to cause maximum damage to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, so it's hardly a shocker for the same stunts to get pulled to slap down the uppity Rayner. As a close friend is reported to have said, "Trying to sack Angela and make her the scapegoat for Hartlepool was stupid. But doing a reshuffle when she’s literally on her feet giving a speech attacking the Tories for being corrupt is just plain offensive." Yes, it is. And they'll do it again.

Except the wrecker on this occasion isn't a cackling minion scurrying around the leader's office, but the grand poobah himself. He's the boss, and so Starmer gets to determine the timings of his reshuffle. His appointment of the "top team" could, from the point of view of media splash, have taken place at any point before last week's Omicron variant announcement. He might have saved it for tomorrow, but chose not to. And so what does this tell us? That he's petty minded? That he bears grudges? That he can't have anyone on his shadcab team outshining him? It reveals, as if it needed revealing, all of these things. A peculiarly childish character trait for someone fancying himself the grown up of British politics.

The more Keir Starmer embraces the Labour right, the more complete his assimilation to them becomes. From ditching the ten pledges that got him elected, ruthlessly disposing of his enemies, and promoting and tossing aside lackeys who no longer please him, we've now regressed to constituency clique levels of pettiness. Like so many right wing councillors and student activists who believe themselves temporarily embarrassed Labour MPs, he's becoming a caricature of them - the sort that believes lots of swearing and shafting your own side because you can are positive proofs of the bastardry and tough decisions one has to make in politics. Starmer knows he can't sack Angela Rayner - he found that out the hard way. But the man has learned. She can't be shifted, but he can make life difficult for her. His deliberate attempt to drive Angela from the headlines is a foretaste of more to come. Though Starmer should be careful. In his deputy he has someone who also doesn't forget, nor forgives. Today saw the touching off of another low level conflict of briefing and counter-briefing just as we begin the long build to the next general election. Well done Keir Starmer for making your chances of winning that little bit more difficult.

Sunday 28 November 2021

The Fake Liberty of Anti-Mask Whinging

I understand Peter Hitchens's beef with the Conservative Party. His argument, reminiscent of the doctrinal disputes of the long abandoned Trotskyism from whence he came, is the Tories are no longer Tory. They have abandoned the tenets of conservatism as divined by Edmund Burke and have instead embraced liberalism. This was more than confirmed with the coronation of Dave in 2005, and Theresa May and Boris Johnson since have not departed from this point of view in the years since. Front and centre is the sovereignty of the individual and everything else - tradition, the common good - are nothing next to the crudities of gratification and self-indulgence. And as social liberalism is the de facto dogma of the early 21st century, conservatives have plenty of reasons to be miserable.

Peter should have paid more attention to his 1970s International Socialist educationals. The abandonment of conservatism for liberalism (or, more properly, neoliberalism) was part of the Tories' ideologically tooling up to take on the labour movement in the following decade. Or to put it another way, the shift to free markets, individualism, and authoritarianism under Margaret Thatcher was because the Tories were the political vehicle for the forcible reassertion of capital over labour. They are a ruling class party. But ideas, even when they're grafted onto a bourgeois political project can take on lives of their own as they stuck to the consequences of the Tories' sweeping, purposeful enterprise of social devastation. Despite her affecting Victorian morals, the dog-eat-dog governance and great property scramble Thatcher kickstarted inaugurated a new hegemony of I'm alright Jack, and nowhere does in manifest in more pathological and mind-numbingly stupid ways than among those fancying themselves as conservatives today.

Take Andrew Lilico, for example. Writing for The Spectator, he argues Boris Johnson's announcement of new mask mandates in shops and on public transport is, an "imposition on the public" and equates to "simple tyranny." There was an emergency situation at the beginning of the pandemic, and therefore a case could be made for extraordinary measures then. Now? There is no case to answer - the pandemic is virtually over. He argues infections have been flat since the summer, a claim that is demonstrably not true. He says there isn't the remotest risk of the NHS getting swamped, while ICU is still mobbed by the Covid ill and nurses and doctors driven to exhaustion by the relentless pressure of cases (we're currently at rates comparable to last March). Interestingly, he forgets to mention numbers of deaths, which were 848 this last week, and 1,029 the week before. And now we have the new variant. I'm sure these facts slipped his mind as he barrelled toward his first knock out point:
If the government had suddenly declared, in mid-2018, that it was making masks mandatory in all shops for no better reason than this might cut down on respiratory illness a bit, would you have complied? Of course not!
A textbook example of a facile comparison. 160-odd thousand excess deaths and around a million dealing with long Covid were enough for anyone to take notice. Especially someone whose day job involves shuffling numbers around. What's his excuse?

Having done the heavy lifting, he settles into the "hey, I'm a mask wearer too, I just bridle at government tyranny" shtick. He says it's simply not legitimate for the government to expect people to comply with public health strategies because there's no emergency. There has to be imminent danger. An argument as foolish as saying we shouldn't bother with seat belts because the chance of crashing our car is slim. It's very simple. The right to life is the most fundamental of liberties, and because we're not living in compounds walled off from one another, maintaining life and ensuring collective health is a responsibility for society as a whole - its institutions and, where appropriate, as per an incredibly infectious disease, with its members. Because we live in a capitalist society criss crossed by class struggle, this abstract communitarian standpoint acquires the flesh and blood of materiality when it is our class who are at the forefront of exposure, while the likes of Lilico and other right wing contrarians can pick and choose their level of risk. When the Tories fail to protect public health, they deserve condemnation not because of "incompetence" or "being wrong", but because of the interests they champion. The health of the property portfolio and the wage relation comes before that of actual human beings, and this too has been demonstrated time and again.

But with the freedom bit between Lilico's teeth, we should stand up for our liberties and refuse to comply. He might want to reflect on words he wrote early in the autumn: "When you are engaged in an illegal act you should have no protection from other citizens intervening in a proportionate way to prevent you from that illegal act, unless the police themselves are in the process of preventing it." I look forward to a maskless Lilico whining about getting fined on the tube and kicked out of shops. Assuming he has the guts of his convictions to follow through his clickbait stance.

Lilico, like most right wing commentators, is not only a latter day enthusiast for the blasted Thatcher and broadly aligns with that section of capital that wants to be free of all social bonds and obligations, he has to play the right wing commentator game where he competes with others for paid hot takes, profile, and attention. He and others like him typify the conservatism which Hitchens despises: individual self-interest and advancement dressed up as defences of liberty. On this, we can agree with our very erstwhile comrade, especially as his nonsense are the sorts of arguments Covid-19 finds congenial.

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Saturday 27 November 2021

Bringing Hegel Back

This is a superb discussion of Hegel from the Acid Horizon comrades. Well worth a listen.

Friday 26 November 2021

The Coming Omicron Omnishambles

Not the news anyone wanted. B.1.1.529, now christened the 'Omicron' variant sounds terrifying. Confirmed cases are very small, but so was the Delta variant, once. If the new strain is as infectious as the virology boffins suggest, we can expect it to show up on these shores in a couple of weeks, if it's not here already. But what makes it particularly worrisome is its reinfection potential and possibility its newly mutated protein spikes can side step immunity. Coronavirus bringing us the gift of vaccine escape this Christmas is the most miserable present no one was hoping for, but we're stuck with it anyway.

Having delayed action against the Delta variant, a timely red listing of India and applying elementary precautions to travellers coming from there, could have avoided hundreds of thousands of infections, tens of thousands of long Covid cases, and thousands of deaths. The lesson, at least superficially, has been learned. Sajid Javid was seen to act quickly to suspend travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, and Eswatini from lunch time this Friday. Speaking in the Commons earlier, he said it "may pose substantial risk to public health." Yes, so substantial a risk that passengers disembarking from the last flights into the country weren't required to take a PCR test or quarantine themselves for 10 days. Nor are there any plans to introduce these as mandatory precautions any time soon. British nationals can return from the red listed countries and they will be asked to self-isolate at home. Pathetic.

Unfortunately, if Omicron is as bad as feared we can expect the UK to be badly hit. With 150,000 people dead and about a million living with the long-term effects of the disease, it's unlikely the government are going to have a change of heart. Their public health strategy has long determined that property and class relations come before prolonged illness and death. From the moment the first lockdown came into force, Boris Johnson and his clique of super spreaders have worked to make sure the introduction of elementary precautions are next to impossible. Social distancing, mask mandates, adequate support for the sick, anything requiring more than "you're on your own" is too much of an ask. Perhaps chief medical officer Chris Whitty, moaning to the BBC about how people won't accept the need for Covid curbs, should have thought about this when he rubber stamped the government's scheme to run the pandemic hot and relying on vaccines only. 15,000 have died since so-called freedom day - many times than would otherwise have been the case if the UK had adopted the same sorts of precautions as France, Germany, Italy, etc.

Crimes enough that should have Johnson and his cronies in court, not level pegging in the polls. But their culpability does not end there. Along with the heads of all the rich nations, the Tories share responsibility for the new variant by hoarding vaccines. In August, it was reported the G7 had stockpiled a billion doses. In the same month, the Tories threw away 600,000 expired doses, doses that could have been shipped overseas, been administered, saved lives and who knows, a shot might have gone into the arm of someone destined to incubate the new variant. We can't ever know, but what we do is the more Western governments stockpile vaccines, the more the virus spreads, the greater the likelihood new, dangerous variants can emerge. Something even our fool of a Prime Minister knows full well, seeing as he warned against vaccine nationalism earlier this year.

It's become a cliche to refer to our current crop of Tories as the worst possible government at the worst possible time, but any incoming wave of the Omicron variant will underline it with a grim tally of thousands of more unnecessary deaths and serious disease. Given the Tories' gross ineptitude and skewed priorities, we're reduced to a state of helplessness, of hoping beyond hope that somehow the scientists' early warning signs are wrong and that the new variant will amount to nothing.

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Wednesday 24 November 2021

Politically Expendable Deaths

There is a hierarchy of racism in this country, and this is underlined by the death of 31 people in the Channel on Wednesday. Rather than a scintilla of sympathy, we see rightwingers taking to social media to do what they do best: blame the victims. They would not have died, they intone, if they had simply applied for asylum in France. The completely unsubtle implication that the dead have no one to blame but themselves. Boris Johnson went a step further, blaming the French for what happened, with his faithful henchwoman Priti Patel deploring the tragedy that took place in French waters.

There is blame to be apportioned, and it gathers about the steps of Downing Street. Their 11 years in office has seen the Tories grubbing in the linguistic sewer to portray anyone seeking sanctuary in this country as part-scrounger, part-terrorist. Unless they hail from Hong Kong and are politically convenient, of course. Having framed asylum seekers as unpeople, the Tories are effectively in a race to out do the extremism of the right wing press. Patel, herself a daughter of refugees, insults her own parents' suffering by promising to do her best in doing the worst. Her Nationality and Immigration Bill sets up fortress Britain, and will punish anyone deemed to help somebody seek asylum, refuse to provide safe routes into the UK, holds out the fantasy of setting up refugee camps offshore for asylum processing, and promises the multiplication of bureaucracy as successful asylum applications are checked and rechecked - a measure designed to make the system costly, inefficient, and miserable for those on the receiving end of it.

Patel and Johnson are grotesques for redoubling their cruel efforts. But they're aided by oppositions who never contest the substance of demonising refugees, and they dig a pit previously excavated by decades of governments playing politics with the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable. This is a responsibility shared by past Prime Ministers, Leaders of Oppositions, politicians who've lied about immigration and asylum seekers for a few minutes on television, and every single editorial office and hack who've belched the toxins of racism into politics like the four chugging towers of Battersea Power Station during its prime. It's an ugly politics. It's an utterly cowardly politics.

If Johnson and the rest of his gang truly cared about "evil" people smugglers and human traffickers, his government would set up multiple safe routes into the UK, so thousands aren't left at the mercy of criminals, nor have to risk their lives in trying to reach these shores. The gangsters exist, the smuggling across borders exist because Johnson and the Tories are supporting the conditions in which this blackest of markets can thrive. There's the small matter of many fleeing to the UK because of the consequences of what the UK is doing overseas, either directly as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan and what is happening now in Yemen at the hands of its Saudi allies. Or indirectly by curbing aid, or people living in societies scarred by the broken legacies colonialism left in its wake. As last year's Black Lives Matter/decolonial protests remind us, a proper reckoning with the British empire cannot be entertained.

What truly saddens about those 31 unnecessary deaths is that they won't make a blind bit of difference. The opposition won't contest the premise of Tory asylum policy. No mass circulation title or broadcast media commentator will make the obvious points and defend the right for people to come here. Instead, it's an opportunity for whetting authoritarian appetites and bedding down the hostile environment. An avoidable human tragedy repurposed for more dehumanisation and, inevitably, more deaths.

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Tuesday 23 November 2021

The Crumbling Blue Wall

The polprof chatter is about how the Tories are facing trouble in their previously safe county seats. Certainly, their annihilation at the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June briefly sharpened focus on difficulties in this direction, but since Boris Johnson's election as Conservative leader his position has been fortified by a more reliable and sturdy blue wall: the ring of protection thrown around him by the Tory press. That is ... until recently. There have been rumblings and complaints, but something has changed. The Owen Paterson case has jolted something, and since then much of the Tory press have ran with corruption stories, the betrayal of the north, and internal divisions. It's a lovely sight to behold.

This doesn't explain why normally reliable allies have turned their barbed words and not inconsiderable influence against the Johnson premiership. Some might say it's because Keir Starmer does not present a fundamental threat to the class relations they defend, which is true enough. But this is not and cannot be the whole story, because the Tory press, like their party, is not a monolith. Divisions in the Tories cohere around capitals and their alliances (under Johnson, an alliance of commercial, finance, and propertied capital have held sway), and debates - albeit sublimated and conducted through abstract concepts and populist phrasing - about how to manage bourgeois class power. This is true of the press too with their mass audiences of retirees, homeowners, and small business people. Some of whom are (or were) drawn from the ranks of the Tory-voting working class, and others from middle class, affluent, and professional backgrounds. The Tory press compete among themselves for this shrinking pool of readers, but as a rule they enjoy congealed and relatively stable readerships from discrete demographics. The Mail and its relatively affluent - and retired - middle class readers, which is also disproportionately female. The Sun and its intersection of retired working class and "muscular" petit bourgeois readers (White Van Dans, barbers, taxi drivers, truckers), and so on.

The Tory press had (and has) disproportionate power, because it can claim, with some legitimacy, to speak for these millions of people. This isn't because of brainwashing or some false class consciousness rubbish, but because they capture something of their life experience. Their propaganda is effective because it sticks to these experiences, rounds out their spontaneous outlooks, and through repetition and reiteration it sediments into more or less petrified ways of framing the world that are incredibly difficult to dissolve. But the press have to cater to this audience by presenting themselves as the defenders of their interests. Typically, the audience are hailed as taxpayers and their paper champions an inchoate desire for value for money - up to and including the perennial demand for tax cuts. But they are also variously interpellated as homeowners, motorists, bill payers, and their paper draws legitimacy as campaigners for the interests derived from these positions. None of which remotely threaten the class relations of British capitalism, because, effectively, the interest the Tory press articulates is a consumer interest that can never transcend its limits.

Boris Johnson and his bullshit is now in tension with the consumer interest. Brexit and Covid are delivering high prices and labour shortages. The social care shambles, despite Tory efforts at making it as regressive as they can get away with, hobbles many pensionable readers' estates. And the threat to the triple lock isn't far off. With these accumulation of contradictions, to keep their audience the press have to articulate the concern and anger of their readers - unless you're the Daily Express, the go-to for the diminishing layer of punch drunk Tory loyalists.

The political economy of the Tory press, under the force of wretched circumstance is compelling them to enter into an oppositional phase. But, again, this is not the whole story. At the level of Tory intellectuals - understood in the Gramscian sense as organisers of their class - there are big worries about Johnson's capabilities and where his government is going. And where are these intellectuals peddle their wares? In the Tory press as journos, commentators, "experts", etc. Seeing off the existential fright of Jeremy Corbyn by hook and by crook was all very well, but pulling out the stops to help one of his corrupt MPs and gut parliamentary accountability was a hubristic step too far. As is the casual authoritarianism thrown around by some of his subordinates, including the frighteningly limited Nadine Dorries. An unaccountable government doesn't mean that an untrammelled Johnson is going to clamp down on the Tory press's right to criticise their party, but it does suggest an effort at insulating the party from outside pressures. Which could include the clout they have with senior ministers and Number 10 itself. That Johnson was forced into a humiliating climbdown is not enough. The Prime Minister must be prevented from overreaching again, and a (temporary) open season on Tory corruption and incompetence is their collective effort at clipping his wings.

The Tory press can turn on a pin. Thus far, they have been very kind to Keir Starmer when there's been ample opportunities to put the boot in. And they could get the knives out for him and Labour. But why should they? It's the behaviour of Johnson that is posing the ongoing influence of the press over the Tory party some difficulties, and it's the policy menu and haplessness of his government threatening the consumerised interests the press have to articulate to stay relevant. It's a fascinating set of tensions that can only sap the strength of the Tory establishment and one that, if they persist, could present the Tory party a set of painful and insurmountable difficulties. Prime Minister, tear down that wall!

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Monday 22 November 2021

Torynomics Vs Starmernomics

For a while now, the CBI annual conference has become a fixture for all political leaders. The Tory Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition make their pilgrimage to talk economic policy and blow smoke up the seated backsides. But because it is a self-regarding serious audience and one that receives extensive press and broadcast coverage, it is an occasion for setting out one's policy vision, saying nice things about their record, criticising their opponents, and affecting an ostentatious chumminess business. Today's audience with our industry captains offered a rarity: an opportunity for direct comparisons to be made between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer in a set piece outside of PMQs, and what they're going to do for British capitalism's profit margins.

Johnson's speech was excessively, heavy-handedly Johnson. And, naturally, it stole the headlines with even the Daily Express, that most sycophantic of Tory papers, calling it the worst speech ever. Losing his place for 20 seconds was excruciating. The brum brum car noises an oh so hilarious light touch, evoking Lenin a head scratcher, and the aside on Peppa Pig was ... overwrought. There were a few polite titters in the hall as he bumbled through his vapid speech. The praise for business for stepping up to the Covid plate for churning out the ventilators and vaccines (cough, cough, public money and universities) was forced, but probably massaged a few egos. But the rest was stuff we'd heard before. Naturally, there was silence where the reneging of northern rail promises. And apart from nice recollections of the roads travelled by the UK's green modernisation, it unlikely many CBI regulars were carried away by the Boris Johnson show this time.

The media chatter's concentration on the bumbling and Peppa Pig was followed up with the BBC asking Johnson if, effectively, his mental health was okay. Others of a more cynical bent were keen to point out how the performance was contrived to crowd out weightier headlines. Such as the Commons vote on the NHS bill off the agenda. I'm not buying it. The Tories in general and Johnson in particular are having difficulties, but even when there is nothing happening, the British press and broadcast media, apart from the couple of liberal broadsheets, don't give nuts-and-bolts NHS votes the due prominence they deserve, even ones as far reaching and as ruinous as this. Not everything is a dead cat. Knowing most of the public, and particularly Johnson (as opposed to Tory) voters will find their attention drawn by the theatrics over the detail, it's a way of re-establishing his clownish standing after a torrid couple of weeks. Silly old Boris screwing up and capering around in front of a VIP audience. What a card.

The Prime Minister wasn't the only one playing politics at the CBI. Opposed to popinjay populism was the cool and showy competence of technocratic managerialism, Keir Starmer-style. Trailed beforehand with the usual right wing framing of public spending (no blank cheques, fiscal discipline, no hand outs, no nationalisations), Starmer's actual speech was calibrated for a business audience. The jokes were lame (the Geoffrey Cox line) and cringe ("the only F words I'll be using are foreign investment, free trade, fiscal policy, and fiduciary duty"), but this was more substantial than Johnson's recycled offering. It went big on shared interests and pro-business, pro-worker talk (what used to be called "partnerships" in New Labour speak), and industrial policy. Johnson went for windy rhetoric, while Starmer was keen to show a grasp of detail. This might, for example, be the first time a leader's CBI speech touched on a veterinary agreement for agricultural products, but it affects a sense of someone across the economic brief. Also of interest was the repeated pledge for a revaluation of business rates, something the Tories are afraid of touching because layers of their existing petit bourgeois support are bound to lose out. Brexit was wheeled out as well, but only to assure the CBI Labour won't be risking instability and turbulence by reopening that particular wound.

Substantively, the audience were treated to an expansion on the pre-conference essay. Going hard on fiscal rules and making sure every pound spent can be accounted and explained opened the door to the Starmerist future: one in which the state is industrially active and building up the work force's skills capacity (interestingly, "critical thinking, creativity, communication, and the ability to work in a team" are singled out). There's the patriotic purchase option, in which public procurement privileges British firms, a reaffirmation of Rachel Reeves's green spending plans, which she has inherited almost wholesale from Rebecca Long-Bailey, and promises for sector-by-sector strategies and investment to match. The CBI, of course, have heard not dissimilar from the past two Labour leaders. Like them, Starmer is offering a view of a rounded development of British capitalism which ticks the boxes of full employment, and consequently new markets and new opportunities. The key difference is that for the blessed Ed Miliband, the horses were well and truly terrified by a sudden break with some of the tenets of the neoliberal settlement. Such as, for example, the predators versus the producers line, and the fact the Tories were more credible on the question of reinforcing class interests. Jeremy Corbyn went to the CBI on five occasions as the man who would save capitalism from itself, and pushed dozens of policies much friendlier to business than anything the Tories have and will ever come up with. The problem: these also would have affected the balance of class relations, and so off he was packed.

Starmer's speech combined the ritualistic flattery with a policy menu that completely sidesteps the issue of property ownership. The fudges over "common ownership" versus nationalising things isn't evidence of cowardice as such, but right wing lessons drawn from the previous three elections. I.e. Don't upset business. This is why another absence was the measure of economic democracy promised in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, and also favoured by Blue Labour. Starmer's Fabian state is a friend to business because it accepts their unquestioned supremacy in the economy, and their prioritisation in society at large. Starmerism is a friendly hand on the shoulder, a more understanding and approachable caretaker to their needs than the Tories by offering them incentives, inducements, and outright bribes. But it goes a step further by promising a stable policy and capital investment environment with an equally predictable and becalmed economy and labour market. This hand is not invisible, but it is eager to help.

Comparing the two, there's much more to recommend Starmer's pitch over Johnson's. Serious times call for serious solutions, after all. Labour's commitment to full employment might make the more hyper-conscious sections of British capital a bit sweaty, but Johnson's relaxed attitude to Britain's deep rooted economic problems, exacerbated now by Covid mismanagement and Brexit uncertainty, certainly has not been helpful where most businesses are concerned. Similarly, if it is mentioned at all in the media Starmer's plan is more congenial to centrist and centre right commentators and editorial offices. The mission, as it has been from day one, is to neutralise or dampen the threat coming from this quarter by making them unafraid of an incoming Labour government. If this means ditching commitments to expanding the collective power of workers, that's absolutely fine.

Yet the question remains. Starmer probably won the day fighting on his chosen ground of managerialism, but there are limits to this strategy. Labour does need to win over chunks of voters who previously supported the Tories at some point these last 10 years, but these are not enough if one is demobilising the inherited base. Putting out the message your party isn't in the game of reforming the fundamentals, particularly in the face of climate change, is not going to cut the mustard. It's not a case of trading in supermajorities in the cities for advances in the marginal seats for Labour's natural support is spread (albeit unevenly) everywhere. Gaining Tory voters while losing Labour voters is the price for "sensibility", but there's no guarantee the former will come. In trying to look "respectable" on the economy, the party could well be practising a false economy of its own.

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Saturday 20 November 2021

Triangulating on Channel Crossings

For the first time in a long time, Labour can sniff Tory blood in the polls. With Boris Johnson's cover for corrupt colleagues flushed into the open, and after a week where the Tories have visibly, some might say ostentatiously, betrayed their levelling up promises where northern railways are concerned, those who plumped for the Conservatives these last few times might be taking another look at Labour. And how does Keir Starmer respond? With some red meat.

From the moment he entered the leader's office Starmer has always been more comfortable making process as opposed to political criticisms. This is why he stuffed up Labour's response to the Coronavirus crisis right royally. But venturing into an area of traditional Tory strength - asylum seekers, immigration, and the barely concealed racist dog whistles these entail - to peddle more of the same was an opportunity too good to miss. And one that might, in the circumstances, play well. With the numbers of people crossing the Channel at around three times the level versus the same period last year, Starmer chose the Today programme to set out his stall.

Characteristically, his critique of Priti Patel was of the "get a grip" sort. As the Tory party's poster girl for spiteful authoritarianism, attacking her as being "too liberal" was an obvious non-starter. Likewise, a principled critique of the whole framing of the issue, as per promise number six of his leadership contest pledges, was off the agenda. We can't well have a Labour Party defending the wretched of the earth, after all. He said the deal the UK struck with France to stop Channel crossings was not good enough, contrasting Patel's performative toughness with the growing figures. He also attacked the Home Secretary following her remarks in the wake of the Liverpool suicide bombing in which she said the asylum rules were clearly not working. Starmer observed that as the Tories had been in power for 11 years, if the regs are "bust" then it's obvious whose fault it is.

And then the switcheroo. Avoiding a bidding war about turning dinghies back or finding cruel and unusual punishments for human traffickers, he said "You have got to do the work upstream otherwise you will never solve this problem." In normal speak, this is Starmer linking record crossings to Tory cuts in the foreign aid budget, monies that might be used to deal with some of the difficulties pushing migrants away from their homes. And just in case anyone missed the point, the "upstream problem" was mentioned twice more. Et voila, triangulation in action. Reproaching the Tories for not living up to their over-the-top rhetoric, but offering a fluffy and apparently non-racist solution that would sit easily with curious centre right voters and who Starmer imagines is Labour's bedrock support. And, more importantly, the columnists and hacks who market themselves as representative of these layers.

Having got wide coverage across broadcast news sites with feeble rebuttals from the Tories, Starmer will be satisfied with an intervention well done. It has also prompted more tough promises from Patel and Johnson giving responsibility to tackling migrant crossings to Stephen Barclay. In other words, an approach which means the status quo and more easy targets for Starmer in the future.

This is a reminder that anyone hoping for a left turn are going to be waiting a long time. Having determined that alienating the core support from the Corbyn years is something the party can still do and win (spoiler, it can't), what happened in Germany and the tentative turns toward Labour in the polls is the Starmerist road map to Number 10. Portray one as a competent administrator who, despite his party, leans right on "culture" and public spending, and the Tory voters will surely come. And those who are discontented? Former Labour supporters playing footsie with the Greens or new left parties will drift back to keep the Tories out. And while all this is going on, people are suffering and dying as they try to reach these shores: tens of thousands of tragedies that don't merit an acknowledgement as all these clever-clever games are played out.

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Wednesday 17 November 2021

Revisiting the Cyborg Manifesto

Leafing through notes written 20 years ago about a key work in social theory is a strange experience. Only a few embers of recollection glow in the gloom of distant memory, and one's reading and appreciation of the heavy stuff has become discerning and (perhaps) more sophisticated with the passage of time. What was once difficult is now, comparatively speaking, a cinch. This was in mind when returning to the pages I'd scribbled on Donna Haraway's seminal A Cyborg Manifesto, which booted up for the first time in 1985. What attracted me to the manifesto was its locating itself in the socialist feminist tradition, and its grappling with the question of political subjectivity. I.e. What is/should be the vehicle for realising leftist politics if the old notions of class were obsolete and was joined in the scrapyard by essentialist notions of 'woman'? And the answer was something I didn't properly appreciate at the time.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Haraway's manifesto appeared at a moment of flux and defeat for progressive social movements in the United States. Old Ronnie had been re-elected by a landslide over the hapless Walter Mondale, and the power of Christian fundamentalism (styling itself as 'evangelism') exerted a huge conservatising cultural pull. If this wasn't bad enough, there was a renewed emphasis on the privatised (patriarchal) household just at the moment of its crisis, a roll back of social gains made since the late 1960s - particularly off the back of the AIDS crisis, and the new Cold War saw the US ramp up military spending and hype its so-called 'Star Wars' technology as a means of knocking Soviet missiles out of the sky. It was for many a grim and frightening time. Coincident with this moment was the retreat of feminism, or rather what has since become recognised as its "second wave", as women of colour, lesbians, and working class women came out forcefully (and relatively prominently) against the class and racial biases that often constituted "mainstream" feminist politics. Other bits of feminism were absorbed into the academy, and/or developed its own institutions that (usually) provided an alternative but limited social security net for women. Into this juncture, Haraway brought her own feminist critique of masculine rigidities in science and scientific culture. Her concern was to make sense of these events by thinking through the dissolution of the relatively firm and discrete categories that underpinned inequality and social inclusion/exclusion, what opportunities they open up for a feminist and socialist politics, and how we can overcome the thorny problem of subject/agency.

Social and technological developments had thrown into crisis three crucial cultural boundaries that foregrounded Western thought, and with it scientific practice. These were the distinction between human and animal, that is the recognition that the qualitative difference we presuppose between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom is itself a cultural distinction. It isn't something that can be asserted biologically. The second is between organisms and machines, a divide that had grown increasingly problematic with the rise of machines that have agency - such as automated and computerised systems, and latterly algorithms. And lastly the collapse of the physical/non-physical. Traditionally played out in mind-body dualisms, wearable machines, software, actual miniaturisation and the semiotic reduction of machines to floating signifiers ready to be invested with meanings in different combinations. These dissolutions work together to dissolve the knowledges previous structures capital and state power relied on.

Haraway expands on this point by introducing what she refers to as the 'informatics of domination'. Here, the Manifesto sets up a series of oppositions: examples and aspects of "old" forms of domination and their replacement by the brand spanking new. For example, riffing off Baudrillard, the logic of representation is replaced by simulation. Unpacking it a little more, one might contrast power politics in a liberal democracy by parties ostensibly competing by articulating different interests to today whereby parties create their own realities or simulacra of representation, and invite electorates to participate (right wing populism and technocratic centrism are examples of this species). Another is the shift from concerns with physical, embodied hygiene to "stress management". I.e. Anxieties (and instructions) aimed at the physical body moving to the soul itself, a preoccupation with mental health entirely consistent with neoliberal subjectivation and its attendant individuation of inequalities.

These couplets, of which there are a few dozen, mark two important developments for Haraway. Firstly, they're overly artificial. The power enjoyed by social media platforms derived from their control of digital infrastructure is a transparent accomplishment. They outcompeted and, in some cases, out-intimidated their opposition to establish themselves. Their power is visible even if the forms of exploitation on which they thrive are not, and it's highlighted not least by the animosities stirred up by previous, declining powers. This is important for Haraway because if new patterns of domination and power are perceived as synthetic, it allows us to start asking questions about new ways of thinking through and organising the social world. This comes with a bonus too: it shows up past (and persisting) "traditional" power structures that rest on naturalisms, essentialisms, and conventions as equally arbitrary. New forms of domination don't just threaten to crowd out "old" powers, their very existence calls into question the illusios they depend upon. The second is the target of these new powers. The 'informatics of domination' aren't particularly concerned with the whole subject identified with certain whole bodies, but bits of the subject. Power patterns and arranges us according to abstract criteria. There are standard benchmarks and our bits and pieces generate metrics that measures and effectively judges us. In other words, a pre-emption of Deleuze's discussion of dividuals.

Enabling this is a new wave of the industrial revolution. So-called post-industrialism and deindustrialisation has been written about enough on here, but for Haraway this has three important consequences: the deepening of the global division of labour, a reconfiguration of lifestyles around jobs (i.e. jobs/careers do not determine nor generate identities, but conditions them around axes of consumption, identity, and childcare. She also notes, along with other feminists and mainstream economists, a certain feminisation of work. This is in the sense the competencies new forms of work mobilise - affective labour - have traditionally been coded as feminine, and the fact work and jobs are becoming precarious and vulnerable, as per the historic lot of women. Labour therefore passes into what she refers to as 'homeworking', the catch-all term for this phase of proletarianisation in which the stable gives way to the temporary. But a further consequence is how the changing political economy corrodes traditional family structures. Poverty might be increasingly feminised too, but more women have economic independence and more are the head of their households. Haraway is also at pains to stress the feminisation of labour is experienced by men as well who were disproportionately losing their jobs in the old industries and finding job markets growing tighter, the range of occupations conforming to these gendered (feminised) characteristics. Another important feature of homeworking is the embedding of these labour processes into an 'integrated circuit', which works in a double sense: the social relations that ties together the new division of labour, and their subsumption by an expanding sphere of politics. Because the feminisation of labour is, as per the informatics of domination, a synthetic and deliberate effort the existing axes of inequality accompanying its devaluation by and through gendering are newly politicised. Therefore another category passes into obsolescence: the distinction between the public and the private. This leads to an uneven political geography. The individuation of class that accompanies its feminisation finds workers variously atomised and relatively advantaged and disadvantaged.

Synthetic problems require synthetic solutions, and this is where Haraway's notion of the cyborg comes to the fore. It's worth noting that she employs an expanded notion of a cyborg:
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence and about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 1991, p.154)
A cyborg feminist politics draws deeply on the advances made by black feminism and what later became known as intersectionality. Additionally, the new informatics of domination with its will to dissolution (of the old, at least) creates conditions that invites a cyborgic response. Black feminism's critique, particularly in the work of bell hooks and Angela Davis, argues the essentialisms and focus of prior theorists didn't just downgrade or ignore the experience of black and working class women but were significant barriers to apprehending the reality of oppression and power, and therefore how to go about tackling them. Using this as the jumping off point, Haraway draws on Chela Sandoval's ideas around oppositional consciousness. Simply put, organising doesn't begin with presupposing an identity but looks at the structures that position and hold women in certain locations. A feminist politics then proceeds not from identity but affinity.

This, however, cannot happen spontaneously. Resistance is as much an accomplishment as domination. Its synthetic character grants it the designation of cyborg. For example, Haraway discusses the importance of writing, which is simultaneously the process of finding and articulating voice and signifying the emergent locus of resistance and counter-power. It also means resistance is a creative act too. To be cyborgic it to reject ‘innocence’ (i.e. ignorance of the social) and ‘monotheism’ (i.e. monocausal and totalising explanations), and as it weaves its own meanings and proffers its own analysis of apprehending the world it disrupts and rewrites the categories of received modes of domination while resisting the blandishments and efforts at incorporation by the new.

For example, such a subversion is carried by Haraway's notion of the cyborg. Cultural tropes of 'the cyborg' as a fusion of flesh and machine, exemplified in 70s television by the The Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man, 80s cinema with The Terminator and Robocop, and into the 1990s with Star Trek antagonists The Borg remains the most popular notion of what a cyborg actually is. But their subversive potential for boundary blurring are immediately shut down in as they are deployed as super heroes upholding (white, imperialist, anti-communist) American values, as robot soldiers, as literal law enforcement, and as mindless automatons. Each case represents a shutting down and a narrow channelling of potentialities. Haraway's cyborg offers a possibility that is altogether more subversive: a living construct allying different social locations, histories, dividuals. The Harawayan cyborg is collective, not singular, networked and networking, a recombinant force appropriate to the challenges of the cybernetic capitalism of the 1980s - and its reboots and updates since. Because cyborg politics are a form of writing that is, in a sense, never written, it's appropriate Haraway's intervention is A and opposed to The Cyborg Manifesto.

Coming back to it again, it did surprise me how much Haraway thought in parallel to contemporaneous poststructuralists. For example, it's my understanding she didn't encounter our friends Deleuze and Guattari until much later, and probably helps explain why her friend and Deleuze (and posthumanist) scholar Rosi Braidotti was drawn initially to her work. The parallels and anticipations are uncanny. Likewise Hardt and Negri, whose application of Deleuzian Marxism to politics, thinking through of the multitude, and the flexible but reactive power of Empire and apparatuses of capture is anticipated by the cyborg and informatics of domination respectively.

A Cyborg Manifesto has inspired its own pulse of writing, not least from Haraway itself. Her latest major work from 2016, the interesting-sounding Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin with the Chthulucene is a meditation on the first distinction made in her manifesto and the need to adopt an interdependent and continuous approach to life on this planet, how our species' actions have affected it, and that only a multi-species perspective can see off the threats pregnant in the 'Chthulucene'. Which include climate change and mass extinctions. The same themes are there, as is the same playful, provocative polemic.

Advances in the social sciences and philosophy are haphazard and non-linear, and abiding by this truism A Cyborg Manifesto remains some of the most advanced - and readable - social theory there is, despite being almost 40 years old. Especially set against a recrudescence of reactive and anti-productive "theory" that seeks to close down possibility, stymie potential, and force human beings back into naturalistic and identarian moulds.

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Tuesday 16 November 2021

Anticappella - 2√231

Tuesday is a strange evening for a tune, but when writing time is stuck between a late night at work and an early start, what is a blogger supposed to do? Rest assured there is something meaty in the works.

Sunday 14 November 2021

The North Shropshire Stitch-Up

As a good Labour Party person, I would ordinarily congratulate a successful candidate on their selection for a seat. This time the upcoming North Shropshire by-election, which Labour selected for this Sunday afternoon. Except, just like Hartlepool the heavy hand of the leadership intervened and stitched the constituency up. This seems excessive considering the seat has never returned anything but Tories.

Graeme Currie, Labour's candidate in the seat these past three general elections has complained that he was barred from the shortlist by Labour's NEC. Graeme said "Under the guise of “due diligence” they raised spurious concerns regarding a tweet 2018 of a Palestinian badge and a Facebook post in 2020 where I quoted Jeremy Corbyn calling for calm following the Equalities Commission’s report on findings of Institutional anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. I consider I have been unjustly slurred as anti-Semitic." Graeme has indeed has his character impugned, but this is to be expected from a leadership that lies brazenly and has contracted out its policy on the Israeli occupation to the gentile-owned and directed Jewish Chronicle.

Two who did make it through to the selection were David Hallam and Ben Wood, the successful candidate. David is well known to West Midlands Labour members who've been around the block for a while. A stalwart of the old Labour right, he was an MEP for the WestMids region between 1994 and 1999 and was a victim of a Blairist clear out that dispensed with the services of other Labour MEPs, such as Christine Oddy (who subsequently stood as an independent) and Mike Tappin, who before and since had a career in Stoke's local politics. David went on to write several books and work as a press officer for WestMids regional office, being very much part of the rightwing/"Watsonite"/Labour First power base who survived the Corbyn interlude. His support for Iraq Body Count, which was based out of Keele University, and upsetting His Blairness in opposing the rewriting of Clause IV was as left wing as his politics got. Ben Wood, who hails from Oswestry, is very much the London candidate despite the local pedigree. Getting his break in Labour politics interning for Neil Coyle, as a youngster he did constituency work experience for the unlamented Owen Paterson. He currently works in the Lords for the opposition leader Angela Smith and chief whip Roy Kennedy as a special advisor.

Why the stitch up? With the Tory reversal in the polls, as the second placed party in 2019 and ahead of the Liberal Democrats by some distance, there is an outside chance Labour could scoop the seat. And if this was to be the case, there's no way Keir Starmer is running the risk of another leftwinger entering into parliament. Second, Ben was obviously the leadership's preferred candidate. He's young, relatively inexperienced, has climbed the university-intern-spad ladder like so many sitting Labour MPs, and shares their outlook and understanding of how politics works. And undoubtedly his bosses - both of whom attend Shadow Cabinet - would have put a good word in for him. By allowing David on the list, if Ben had come unstuck in the selection meeting having someone with good Labour First creds would be a consolation Starmer and co could live with. Whether having Graeme's story splashed all over the local paper already harms Labour's chances remains to be seen, but it certainly didn't help in Hartlepool.

The lesson here for the left? I don't know Graeme, but the NEC were able to easily sideline him because he did not possess sufficient institutional pull. Decades of activism and loyal service means nothing to these people. If Labour members are serious about contesting selections because they want to prosecute socialist politics and working class aspirations, it's going to take more than a spring clean of one's social media (besides, someone will have the receipts on everything any half-prominent local leftist has said online - there are a few amateur Stasi agents in every CLP). The only way of taking on the Labour machine and winning is if another machine is in your corner: trade union backing. It's much easier to dismiss an "isolated" leftwinger than someone who has strong and long-standing relationships with one or more of the big trade unions. In other words, North Shropshire was stitched up for political reasons, but also because Starmer and his NEC minions could do it. If staying and fighting means anything, it's about not letting them having their way easily.

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Saturday 13 November 2021

Is Boris Johnson Doomed?

A six-point lead for Labour? Its widest margin since May 2019? Nice. It seems the events of the last fortnight are taking their toll and pushing the Tory numbers down accordingly. With some looking nervously st the polls - the third in a row refusing to give the party a lead - and looking to see what the damage will be in North Shropshire and Old Bexley and Sidcup, some are starting to think about life after Boris Johnson. New MPs particularly are apparently looking forward to a solid clear out of the party. But the question, last asked here two years ago, is whether we can start talking about the end of Johnson's time at the top?

It's worth noting a few things. Unlike the situation facing his precarious predecessor, the Tory wagons aren't circling a beleaguered leadership. It's tempting to read things into the quiet disappearance of Rishi Sunak from the scene, but this is hardly unusual for him. Of course he'll want to avoid association with the corrupting stench wafting about Johnson's administration, but this isn't indicative of a plot. Nor is anyone apart from the new Tory backbenchers out to make life hard for the Prime Minister. Therefore, while Johnson isn't loved by his MPs his position in the party can't be described as weak. And what determines "weakness" is tied to poll ratings, which leads to a further question: is Johnson's position recoverable?

Time for a trip down memory lane with visits to Thatcher's, Major's, and Brown's polling. From the 1987 election, the Tories led more often than not up until summer 1989. After then the polls slowly widened until the point Neil Kinnock and friends were posting leads in excess of 20 points. The only time Thatcher's Tories enjoyed a poll lead again was after she had announced her intention to resign and John Major was poised to take over. For Thatcher, there wasn't just one thing that did her in. The Poll Tax certainly damaged her a great deal, particularly among the layer of working class voters she had won over with bargain basement council houses and cheap mortgages, but there were other things too. By this time negative equity was starting to bite, along with a slowing economy, and examples then (as now) of Tory corruption and sleaze. It was ructions over Europe that brought things to a head. Obviously, Thatcher would have seen off Geoffrey Howe and the subsequent leadership election if it weren't for these failures hanging like a millstone around her neck. Her defenestration was a process and made inevitable by decisions she didn't need to make.

Major met the same fate. With a promise to abolish the Poll Tax and a more emollient style than Thatcher's brash bullishness, the Tory polling position immediately recovered once he took over. Despite presiding over the initial stages of the recession, throughout 1991 neither party could establish lasting poll leads and it remained this way right until the election, which saw Major win a new majority as well as the highest number of votes ever cast. Legend then has it that Black Wednesday, the day the UK humiliatingly crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, destroyed the Tory reputation for economic competence and from that point they were doomed. True, the polls did begin their decisive swing away, but according to Major himself recovery was decisively set back by the announcement of Michael Heseltine's pits closure programme, which came across as overly vindictive. And the later intention to introduce VAT on pensioners' fuel bills. This triple whammy ensured a slippage became a rout, reinforced by a never-ending parade of delicious Tory scandal, humiliating by-election defeats, and infighting over Europe. Funny how someone presiding over the most egregious sleaze and corruption is, today, a pin-up for many liberals.

And then Gordon Brown. This was a curious one because it appears his fateful misstep was the election that never was in Autumn 2007. In the BBC's The New Labour Revolution, Brown adamantly denied he was never going to call an early election - his mistake was to allow speculation to get out of hand, to the point a couple of unions and the party itself was put on campaign footing. When he finally ruled an election out, the poll slippage began and only widened over time - with the exception of the response to the 2008 crash and the lead up to the election itself. Why did this prove fatal? The point is it didn't have to. The most precious commodity for a government is its authority, a point Boris Johnson understands very well, and one that led him into his current difficulties. Brown's apparent dithering wounded his government, and the Tories looked credible with a blue-blooded adman at the helm to the Tory-curious voter. But it might have been reversed, but for the abolition of the 10p income tax rate, continuity New Labour in most respects, and a general malaise of tired ineptitude. Perhaps a more decisive policy shift once Brown had taken over might have saved his premiership and reversed the polls, but like his predecessors he compounded his errors and the great politics dustbin awaited.

It has been a mystery to many how Johnson has been left largely unscathed by the Brexit balls up, the Covid catastrophe, Dominic Cummings, and the egregious stupidity, not to mention incompetence, of his government. A friendly press only goes so far, and so we must consider the Tories' adroit politics on matters pandemic, and the usual divide and rule for the rest. But a camel can only bear so much, and a government straining under such weighty baggage is vulnerable to any number of straws. And this one, the reality of Tory corruption, was avoidable had Johnson chosen not to make a stand on it. It's not just the substance of the corruption either, the arrogance that came with it inadvertently knocked a few chunks out of the only blue wall that matters: the Tory press. With Keir Starmer now considered a safe pair of hands for the bourgeois interest, it's safe to clip Johnson's wings, which they're doing with alacrity. IDS, Javid, and now Jacob Rees-Mogg have serious questions to answer. As the scandal rumbles on any immediate recovery seems unlikely.

But is this the dam failure through which the 2023/24 election hopes flood out? Nothing is inevitable in politics, but it is possible the corruption charges could change the framing of the Tory record up until now, undoing all the work of the last two years. And there's more. There are signs inflation is edging up and with it the chance of rising interest rates. If there is a cold snap, high energy prices and lack of gas storage capacity - thanks to Tory sell offs - could result in winter fuel shortages and pensioners freezing in their homes. And further down the line there's the National Insurance increase to look forward to, and a possible, unwinnable trade war with the EU as well. Johnson is a proven slippery customer, but grease does not counteract gravity and at last his misdeeds are pulling him down. It's too early to say if this is a turning point in his political fortunes, but if the past is anything to go by the doom could well be upon him.

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Thursday 11 November 2021

Second Jobs and Ruling Class Reproduction

When the expenses scandal erupted in 2009, one of my comrades said MPs' second jobs would be the next crisis of their "profession" they'd have to face. 12 years on the prediction is fulfilled. Whereas Gordon Brown's hapless government bore the brunt of moat cleaning and duck houses last time, in 2021 the Tories are wriggling on the hook. If only Boris Johnson hadn't pulled out the stops to defend Owen Paterson, he might have avoided the Tory party's corruption becoming newsworthy and buried its toxicity in landfill for his successor to deal with. Too late. The appetite for more scandal has well and truly been whetted.

To take the heat off Johnson, it is said that Geoffrey Cox was thrown to the wolves. Best known for his colourful but brief tenure as Attorney General during Theresa May's blighted years, making £1m/year from his outside interests, including representing the British Virgin Islands against his own government, ir's safe to say he now has a better claim to fame. If that wasn't bad enough, not only is he a legal whiz who can command top dollar from corrupt tax jurisdictions, he's a dab hand at juggling properties too.

The worst conflict of interest since Paterson voted against his own suspension? Yes, but there are plenty more. Consider Sajid Javid and £300k for three weeks work he did in 2020. Paid for by, a Silicon Valley AI firm for advice on the global economy and market opportunities, one can only wonder what insider knowledge and connections he drew on, and to what end. John Redwood gets £193k/year for around two days' work per week chairing a "wealth management" firm. Our old friend Chris Grayling pockets £100k for advising a harbours business, which of course has nothing to do with his enthusiasm for the government's freeports wheeze.

Perhaps more egregious, though chicken feed compared to these titans of industry, was Laurence Robertson trousering £24k from the gambling industry. Again, his propensity to argue against restrictions on betting and casinos undoubtedly gushes at the behest of a deep well of principle. And Iain Duncan Smith, one of the most odious creatures to have sat on the Tory benches, gets £25k from a hand sanitiser company. Coincidentally, the committee he chaired recommended the government approve the non-alcoholic sanitiser his paymasters manufacture. And the capstone on this pyramid of corruption is the grand poo-bah of money grubbing himself, a Prime Minister whose appetite for infidelity is eclipsed only by his roving eye for gift, grift, and gratuity.

The defence of this is well rehearsed by now. We've even had the old chestnut of it was within the rules. But the one the Tories rely on the most is the need to maintain outside interests to keep one grounded in the realities of the day-to-day. The undeclared millions of Jacob Rees-Mogg, apparently, helps keep his fingers on the pulse of Britain. In reality it keeps him in the style to which he is accustomed: that of generations of city spivs and speculators pretending to the mores and "authenticity" of the British landed aristocracy. The same is true of all the top earners. They pave the way for deepening connections between the sectional interests of whichever part of the bourgeois class they hail from or aspire to, and the general political interests of capital the Conservative Party articulates. And they don't think they're doing anything wrong because this is what Tory parliamentarians have always done. Capitalism separates politics and economics, but in practice it's standard ruling class practice to overcome this by stuffing their chosen parties with actual capitalists, their lackeys and their agents. These relationships are personally lucrative for the MPs concerned, but helps ensure the Tories remain the favoured vehicle of the British bourgeoisie.

But this is not a smooth process, and reproduces a pecking order within the party - one pregnant with tensions and potential dangers. For them. For every well-heeled ex-PM who can effortlessly leverage their dodgy connections to pad out their Swiss bank accounts, there are others who aren't so blessed. The IDS-types of this world selling their wretched political souls for a mere £25k. The Esther McVeys who'll gobble up tickets to sporting events, and the others who'll take five grand here, eight grand there, these often enter parliament without the networks or the "skills" of the upper tier bung takers, and prostrate themselves with a planted question here or a helpful recommendation there. Services rendered now might mean favours returned later - a few non-executive chairships to see them through their dotage.

There is an unseemly and behind-closed-doors competition for these sinecures, lubricated by coffee mornings with the CEO and liquid lunches with the money men. But thanks to the scale of the last Tory general election victory, we've seen the introduction of new agonisms within the Tories' parliamentary ranks. Consider the rumbles and bellyaching from the red wall contingent. Many of these new MPs were frustrated by the three-line whip on the Paterson vote, with one complaining about having been "hung out to dry to protect someone who wouldn’t even recognise me in the corridor". My heart, it bleeds. But many of these MPs are (mostly) from humble backgrounds. Their parliamentary existence is coloured by the fear they are one-term Tories, and the knowledge that once they're out of the Commons there's no chance they'll see £82k/year again. No matter how hard they work, or diligent a constituency MP they are, ultimately their fates are tied to Johnson. If he or his blue-blooded chums screw up through their carelessness and hubris, they know it will be the marginals who'll pay the price. No wonder the new Tories are hopping mad.

This tension can play to Labour's advantage, if the corruption revelations continue to depress Tory polling. There are questions for Labour too given the unerring tendency for some to end up in nice jobs post-parliament. This obviously does have important corrupting influences and fires the career aspirations among layers of the Labour right, but the scale of the corporate troughing are a mouse's snack against the hearty feasts top Tories trough on.

The Tories will fight tooth and nail to prevent bans on directorships and "advisory roles". They benefit personally, its keeps the links between party and class alive, and it says to business-types with political aspirations that they won't have to slum it on a much reduced salary to meet them. The threat to make this more difficult isn't a minor inconvenience, for them it's potentially existential and cuts to the quick of what the Tory party is about. All the more reason to back bans on Tory MPs' second jobs.

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Wednesday 10 November 2021

Cynically Exploiting Antisemitism

Another day, another cynical display. Tuesday night's visit to the LSE's debating society by Tzipi Hotovely, Israel's ambassador to the UK, drew the sorts of crowds she'd probably rather not have. A modest groups of student protestors descended to express their solidarity with Palestinians, and challenge the grotesqueries of Hotovely herself, a woman whose extremism finds no parallel in British politics except on the furthest reaches of the far right.

According to Anshel Pfeffer, writing in Haaretz on the occasion of her appointment, she was groomed for high office by Benjamin Nethanyahu precisely because she's a far right fanatic. He says, "Hotovely is an unabashed Islamophobe and religious fundamentalist who denies the existence of the Palestinian people and supports annexation of the entire West Bank and Jewish control of the Temple Mount." She even criticised the British Board of Deputies for "working against the Israeli interest" because it backs a neutered form of Palestinian statehood. Anshel concluded that her ambassadorial appointment should be welcomed because she will show British Jews the rot eating up the Israeli state.

Unsurprisingly, and not for the first time, choosing between an oppressed people and a shameless oppressor, Priti Patel threw her lot in with the powerful. She's backing a police investigation of the protest, saying antisemitism has no place in Britain. The Israeli embassy itself condemned the non-existent violence that supposedly greeted Hotovely as she left the building. Which is exactly what you'd expect the Tories and Israel's official channels to do. For their own reasons, both are happy to inflate the sense of peril British Jewish communities feel. For the Tories, it's electoral reasons. Having won disproportionate support among Jewish voters since at least 2015 they'd quite like that to continue, and by presenting as the community's best defenders is they way they're going to do it. Even if it means amplifying threats and dubbing events antisemitic when they clearly are not. And Israel, particularly the wing of the Likud establishment Hotovely embodies, want more of the diaspora to "come home" to power its expansionism further.

The usual cynical rubbish, in other words. And then the Labour leadership got involved. Lyin' Lisa Nandy condemned "the appalling treatment of the Israeli ambassador", adding "any attempt to silence or intimidate those we disagree with should never be tolerated." A reminder, if it was needed, that Nandy is to honesty what Geoffrey Cox is to probity. Apologists for murder, Labour Friends of Israel tweeted a string of drivel from the shadow cabinet. Keir Starmer wibbled that intimidation is not acceptable. The usually invisible Nick Thomas-Symonds wrote that "antisemitism has no place in our society", while the LFI's vice chair, Diana Johnson, tweeted "I hope arrests are made." For what? Booing too loudly?

It's all so synthetic and see-through, but they've allowed Labour's official positioning on matters Israel/Palestine be hijacked entirely by the same extremism that fuels Hotovely's far right politics, a position now determined by the foaming bullshit of Jewish Chronicle editorials. It's a story of cowardice and factional convenience. We know the story about Jeremy Corbyn's suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party, and how Starmer reneged on the deal done to readmit him after Margaret Hodge and her mates threw their toys out of the proverbial. Rather than challenge her small and unrepresentative clique, and how she might torpedo his efforts at undoing the damage the inflated and exaggerated antisemitism crisis did the Labour Party, Starmer caved in. But, happily for his leadership, having Hodge, the JLM, and self-appointed gentile guardians of what can and can't be said about the occupation of Palestine onside meant the party would no longer be vulnerable to dishonest Tory and press attacks. Yet this meant only one position was tenable - an ever-increasing philosemitism. As friendly visits to synagogues are unlikely to make headlines in the Jewish or the national press, ostentatiously eliding penance with apologism for and the white washing of Israel could be the only outcome. Their condemnations of antisemitism are neither genuine nor heartfelt, they're a ritual, a must-do to try and secure the Labour right's grip on a diminishing and increasingly cash-strapped party.

Starmer will be happy with today's posturing. No press attacks, not even the smidgen of a suggestion that he's soft on the critics of Israel. His comfort zone is the space of non-punishment the Tory papers reserve for the establishment's most loyal lackeys, and the shadcab's lying about the LSE protest is good for a few more warm baths yet. And, bonus, the right people on the left are upset, with a few thousand more tearing up their membership cards up in disgust. So what if Israel is emboldened to imprison, shoot, bomb more Palestinians because politicians from both UK parties flatter its brutality and ethnic cleansing efforts? It's not their business, and they've made it clear they're happy for it not to be.

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Tuesday 9 November 2021

The Limits of Artificial Intelligence

I have something bubbling away on revisiting Donna Haraway's Manifesto for Cyborgs. Until then here's something from Politics Theory Other in which Alex interviews Kate Crawford about her latest book.

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Monday 8 November 2021

Is Left Media in Decline?

"What next for alternative left media?" asks Harry Clarke-Ezzidio in The New Statesman. What indeed. Four years ago several breakthrough media outlets were the toast of the Corbynist town. Skwawkbox, The Canary, Evolve Politics, Another Angry Voice, Novara Media. Even an old fuddy-duddy like me, child of the long-faded blogging revolution was forced to comment. And today, how are things? The times have a-changed, certainly. Corbynism turned out to be an interlude, though arguably the left remains much stronger than it was before Jeremy's name was on the nomination papers. Yet the flood has visibly receded, leaving behind the parched dust bowl of Starmerism. Are these media projects beached like rusting hulks in what was the Aral Sea?

No. Harry's piece shows there's life among these breakthrough projects, and some of it is thriving. Novara, for example, is seeing subscriptions up, donations up, viewers up, and is expanding its worker collective while managing to pay staff more than the £15/hour living wage. In the immediate aftermath of the YouTube shutdown, it's in rude health. Discussing audiences with Skwawkbox's Steve Walker, he more or less admits audiences weren't what they were but is philosophical about them coming back when politics gets more favourable. Be that as it may, I'd suggest his blog occupies an unfilled niche in the media ecosystem by providing an outlet for leaks and off-the-record briefings for Labour insiders and the cognoscenti in several trade unions. The Canary, however, seems to have come off worst, going from eight million views per month to around 250,000 today. Figures I wouldn't mind, but much faded to be sure. Could we see the return to glory days at some point?

A couple of things the article doesn't touch on are worth noting. Novara is a multi-media project with a heavy emphasis on video. Double Down News and the new(ish) Owen Jones Show have the same slant, and are reaping the rewards. In other words, there's a shift from the printed word to the talking image - a strange repetition of trends online that we saw with analogue media about a century ago. There's no reason to think this won't continue. Spend 10 minutes reading an article or an hour with watching and, in some cases, interacting with a show as it's broadcast? No contest.

There are other reasons why the written output of new left media isn't pulling in the numbers that aren't reducible to politics. Firstly, work patterns have shifted for millions of workers due to Covid. Fewer people are commuting to work every day, and who might have filled their journey genning up on the latest leftist hot takes. With that reduced, some are finding other things to do at home instead. Perhaps spending more time watching broadcast news, leftist or otherwise as part of the breakfast routine. I know how much Covid has disrupted my routines, which means I don't read as much, and since Covid struck the numbers have declined here too - pretty much along the same lines as temporary audience blips every time there was a public holiday.

The second issue comes down to content. In 2017 millions of people were newly politicised and hungry for a left wing take on the big issues of the day. Four years on it's not that these audiences have lost interest in politics, though undoubtedly some are disappointed with the 2019 defeat, but that the same stuff won't cut the mustard. I'm thinking of The Canary, Evolve, and AAV here. The latter has proven adept at producing viral content for the absolutely humongous Facebook page, but the first two are doing what they've always done. The Canary posts as frequently as ever, Evolve much less so. The content remains focussed on nefarious deeds by the establishment and highlighting stories largely ignored by the mainstream, but I suspect most of its former audience simply use Twitter directly for their alternative news and analysis fix. It, like the broadcast efforts of new left media, offer the possibility of connectivity and conversation - though one might suggest the platform's well-known pathologies stifle and frustrate radical enthusiasm rather than cultivate it.

A dual picture then, a new left media of two halves with video charging forward and written journalism/opinion left in its dust. Is the latter doomed to remain the poorer? Probably - more have always tuned in to watch legacy media broadcasts than read papers, after all. The trick for any left wing writing project, whether Trot paper, a semi-obsolete blog, some sort of magazine, or a news outlet is to keep churning out fresh content regularly. Audiences will come and go with the flows of politics and the pertinence of issues, but one thing's for certain. No one will read and reflect on the information and analyses presented if leftist writers give up.

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