Sunday 27 February 2022

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

The first casualty of war, they say, is the truth. Anyone trying to follow Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine knows exactly what this is about. Past footage of actions in the east of the country are posted up and badged as recent fighting. A scene from a video game has purported to be a Ukrainian jet fighter in action. And then there are all sorts of claims about casualty figures, where Russian troops are, and the whereabouts of Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It's a complete mess, but what we should expect from the fog of war.

There are others taking advantage of the situation too. As the crisis broke on Thursday, the Labour leadership found time amid a hot war to issue threats against Labour MPs who signed Stop the War's latest statement. Pull the signatures or we pull the whip, said the party's leadership. The 11 names were duly dropped. The letter focuses its criticism on Britain and the bellicose role the Tories played in the lead up to Thursday's invasion. On the question of Ukraine's right to defend itself, let alone whether it deserves solidarity in the face of Putin's aggression, nothing is said. By focusing its critique on Britain, they say "In taking this position we do not endorse the nature or conduct of either the Russian or Ukrainian regimes." A weak statement then whose advice leaves those who take their cue from it rudderless on the central question of the conflict, in my opinion. But even this was too much for Labour's new management, who are ostentatious about their pro-NATO enthusiasm than the Tories.

On Sunday morning, the Labour right stepped up its war on the left with the comments made by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy on Times Radio. He accused Jeremy Corbyn of "effectively parroting the lines that are coming from Vladimir Putin that suggest that this is because of threats from NATO, or NATO expansion." Yes, because "no to war in Ukraine" is the slogan emblazoned across every Russian tank as it heads into battle. Another example of using Corbyn to put what they think is electorally favourable distance between the party of its leftwing interlude and now? Yes, and they don't care if it, by insinuation, portrays people they share the green benches with as "traitors". It's not as if two MPs have been murdered in recent years or anything.

But there's also more to it than the usual rank manoeuvring. It's done with an eye to recasting politics. Starmerism, as much as it is a thing, isn't "Toryism" in a red rosette nor, for that matter, a rebranded Blairism. It is an authoritarian project that treats the party like a managed democracy. It has no time for members who expect to be more than leafleting and canvassing fodder because, in the best traditions of Fabianism, the big brains at the top have all the answers. They will make people's lives better by spending a bit more money here, a technocratic fix there, and getting on with the complicated business of government while everyone else carries on with their lives. For it to succeed, this project requires two things. A restitution of trust in state institutions. And new enclosures around what is "permitted" political debate. That is shutting down the spaces the Corbyn moment opened up and squeezing it into a circumscribed range of views. By shrinking the mainstream and forcing it down prescribed channels, Starmerism is working to restructure politics more broadly in a reverent direction. It's not about Blair-style cults of the personality, but ultimately closing off future avenues of dissent that will be politically costly to deal with. It's a politics of preparing ground for having faith in the leader and the state, and one that will allow him to govern as he sees fit.

Whether Russia achieves its objectives or Ukraine exacts a heavy price from Putin's forces, politicians away from the theatre of conflict are determined to have a good war. Keir Starmer is one of them.

Friday 25 February 2022

Local Council By-Elections February 2022

This month saw 40,767 votes cast over 25 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Overall, 10 council seats changed hands. For comparison with January's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Feb 20

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There was one Independent clash this month
**** Others in February consisted of For Britain (45), Freedom Alliance (28), Reform UK (64), SDP (12), TUSC (70, 22, 69)

After the excitement of December's elections, which saw the worst Tory performance in years, it looks like stabilisation is in the electoral air. Their vote has consolidated and national scandal, it seems, has not percolated downwards to the local scene. The Tories dropped seats to the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but balanced things out by taking one back from the yellow party and the Indies - who didn't have a good month at all.

Things didn't look good for Labour either, if you look only at the vote tally. Trailing third behind the LibDems is never a positive sign, but one must be fair in these situations. These seats were not good ground for Labour, and so those who care about such things must be chuffed it netted two seats in unfavourable circumstances. And the LibDems' winning ways are pretty standard now, which must be encouraging for that party's nerds as well. Also worthwhile noting is Thurston in Mid-Suffolk, which was a Green hold.

There are 19 seats up in March and, like this month, they don't look like particularly fertile grounds for Labour growth. But we'll see what the ballots deliver up.

3rd February
Cotswold, Campden and Vale, Con hold
Dacorum, Berkhamsted West, LDem hold
Dacorum, Boxmoor, LDem hold
Leicester, Evington, Lab hold
Manchester, Ancoats and Beswick, LDem gain from Lab
Tamworth, Spital, Con hold

10th February
Eastleigh, Eastleigh Central, LDem hold
Somerset West and Taunton, Alcombe, LDem gain from Ind
Wealden, Hailsham South, LDem gain from Con

17th February
Allerdale, Stainburn and Clifton, Lab gain from Ind
Bristol, Southmead, Lab hold
Mid Suffolk, Thurston, Grn hold
Newark and Sherwood, Collingham, Con gain from Ind
North East Lincolnshire, Park, Con hold
Nottinghamshire, Collingham, Ind hold
North Northamptonshire, Oundle, LDem gain from Con
Oadby and Wigston, Wigston Meadowcourt, Con gain from LDem
West Devon, Tavistock North, Con gain from Ind

23rd February
Spelthorne, Stanwell North, Lab gain from Con

24th February
Castle Point, St Peter's, Con hold
Durham, Ferryhill, Lab gain from Ind
Lincolnshire, Colsterworth Rural, Con hold
Maldon, Wickham Bishops and Woodham, Con hold
South Kesteven, Aveland, Con hold
South Kesteven, Isaac Newton, Con hold

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Thursday 24 February 2022

Against Putin

I was wrong. Given the size of the military forces Russia had in the field versus the larger Ukrainian army plus irregulars and reserves, I didn't think Vladimir Putin would prove stupid enough to launch an invasion of Ukraine. He has calculated the lack of enthusiasm for war in the West, divisions among the Western powers, and the armed forces of Ukraine themselves aren't much of a deterrent, and so here we are. As of 5am local time Thursday morning a barrage of missiles, air strikes, and cross border shelling were followed by armoured incursions and helicopter drops. Putin has brought large scale war to Europe for the first time since 1945.

Following the government's previous tepid response, in the Commons this afternoon Boris Johnson announced a further round of sanctions that will exclude big Russian firms from the City. No word on sunk assets yet, which are still too close to the Tory bone. On this specific issue it was difficult to disagree with Keir Starmer when he said "For too long our country has been a safe haven for money Putin and his fellow bandits stole from the Russian people", echoing but not acknowledging words made by his predecessor during a less serious crisis four years previously. Johnson also announced that a similar sanctions regime is also now in force against Belarus, who has allowed its soil to be used as a firing post against targets in Ukraine. Presumably it's Lukashenko's payback for Putin's valued support during the uprising 18 months ago.

The violence unfolding on our screens is an open and shut case of big power bullying. Not content with lopping bits off Ukraine eight years ago, Russia is back for another bite. Putin has simultaneously described the country as an invention of Lenin and a nest of Nazi vipers, while his useful idiots - knowing or otherwise - wax lyrically about the self-determination of the peoples of the east, namely the Donetsk and Luhansk "peoples" republics. Putin cries foul over NATO's expansion, citing a non-existent agreement not to take on former Warsaw Pact nations and soviet republics as members at the end of the Cold War. But all of this is complete flim-flam. It is a straightforward case of land grabbing to stabilise the region under the hegemony of Europe's largest military power. Something that should be straightforward if we borrow the thinking of a certain Ukrainian Marxist well known to the British left: in the conflict between an imperialist power and a country it's trying to take into vassalage, the left have a duty to oppose that imperial power. Whether Putin aims to occupy Ukraine in its entirety, sling out its government and replace it with friendly faces, or carve out more territory for his puppet republics is immaterial: none are justifiable, all should be opposed.

"But", says those for whom Russia will never cease being the USSR, "the West have pushed Putin into it. They've expanded NATO and supported the so-called Orange revolution that overthrew a democratically elected president and replaced him with another congenial to their interests." And? Wasn't the whole point about the schism on the European left over a hundred years ago that inter-imperialist tensions and conflicts weren't a matter for taking sides, except our own? The encroachment of NATO to Russia's frontiers were a matter for the left in member countries to oppose the alliance and its expansion, but that does not mean governments joined NATO because fears of Russian revanchism were fake. And it certainly doesn't mean there is an "anti-imperialist duty" to side with Putin and provide his machinations left cover. The alternative to NATO membership in the east is the acceptance of Russian hegemony, neither of which carries forward the socialist struggle.

No doubt some small sections of the left will be favouring "military support" for Russia, imagining they have their own equipment and personnel they can parachute into the breakaway republics to strike a hammer blow against "imperialism" - or at least sell a few papers to the front line troops. But meanwhile, in real world politics the labour movement in this country finds itself confronted with a set of practical tasks. Building solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russian labour and civil society movements, mobilising the largest numbers possible against war - with this Saturday's demonstration a start, and opposing our own war hawks while continually worrying the Tory party over its Moscow Gold - and what influence this cash bought those who splashed it out. We have to be modest about our ability to direct the course of events, but these are good places to begin.

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Wednesday 23 February 2022

The Birmingham Trojan Horse Scandal

Another evening, another break from writing I'm sorry to say. But there's always plenty of good stuff worth viewing. Such as this Novara piece on the Islamist Trojan Horse "plot" in Birmingham's schools, how a pair of New York Times journalists did some proper journalism and uncovered the fakery, and how The Observer's Sonia Sodha has provided liberal cover for the press and the politicians who lapped it up. A reminder, as if we needed one, about how we must build the depth and reach of our own media.

Tuesday 22 February 2022

Appeasing the Oligarchs

It's curious.

Last week, Boris Johnson talked tough about the Ukraine crisis and threatened all kinds of serious consequences short of military action. The Prime Minister was even happy enough to let Defence Secretary Ben Wallace muse out loud about "Munich" and the "appeasement" efforts of his NATO counterparts. And then in a rambling, chauvinistic, and purposely wrong speech on the history of Ukraine on Monday night, Vladimir Putin announced Russia would be recognising the two breakaway republics and pledged them military assistance.

In reply German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to some considerable cost and inconvenience to his country. At the behest of the Germans and the French, the European Union have announced sanctions on members of the Russian Duma, 27 named individuals, and restricted access to EU capital markets.

And non-nonsense plain-speaking Britain? Travel bans issued to three oligarchs already sanctioned by Washington, and the freezing of the assets of five minor banks. And that's it. For all the chest beating, Boris Johnson's government have not matched their walk with their talk. The "appeasers" have made their stand, while the Prime Minister opposes Putin with nothing more than a token gesture and a pledge he'll mean it next time.

Attention has been drawn to how compromised the Tory party is by oligarchs' money. When someone else spoke about this four years ago, it was the cue for Labour back benchers to pick up where they left off with their factional war. Considering the influence Putin's cronies have over the Tories via the party's coffers were out of bounds. But now, everybody is doing it. Perhaps even Keir Starmer will go as far to raise it at Prime Minister's Questions. While the penetration of these funds, the details of interests lobbied for and favours granted should be revealed, the Tory enthusiasm for Russian money in more than individual corruption and wrongdoing. It goes to the heart of the party's coalition, its institutional articulation of class interests.

Underneath the mass support, and the particular coalitions of capital supportive of the Tories at any moment, the party owes undying fealty to the City of London. The City is not a singular entity that controls the party, but it does have common interests. These are its continuation as the number one global destination of money seeking quick returns or looking to raise further finance, and all the firms and their individual players have clear interests in ever increasing volumes of trades from which brokerage and handling fees can be extracted. This commercial capital, often misread as finance, is the dominant fraction of British capital. Its personnel constantly circulate from city firms to the Bank of England to the Treasury, and with not a few of them washing up on the Tory benches. Their party, and to a lesser extent Labour, have historically been committed to its pre-eminence. For the Tories, it's the lynchpin of their class power. For others who tell themselves technocratic fairy tales to avoid confronting the class-bound character of the system they manage, it's the goose that lays the golden egg. The health of the City is good for the country because it keeps the taxes coming in, and grants the UK great power status. The rest of these islands can go to the dogs as long as the City remains.

As the premiere clearing house for money, untold billions of looted Russian assets have passed through the City. Some of it went directly into London's overheated property market, others have engaged the services of brokers and hedge fund managers, and some has bought directly into these firms themselves. The panic of the 2008 crash was driven by not knowing the difference between good and bad debt thanks to the investment vehicles cobbled together from mortgages and other obligations. Oligarch capital has spent 30 years sloshing around the City. Finding where it all is, who owns it, and how much of it is essential for the operation of the City is deeply compromising and would expose the corruption at the heart of the "rule of law" in this country. Tough measures against Russian capital also means tough measures against the City, in other words. There is no way Johnson is going to voluntarily sanction the Putin regime and its hangers on. He will have to be dragged into it by his American and European allies - as this round of tentative "sanctions" show.

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Monday 21 February 2022

Wishing Covid Away

On Sunday evening, the Prime Minister said "Covid will not suddenly disappear, and we need to learn to live with this virus and continue to protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms." A preface to a sensible plan for coping with the disease as we head into the Spring months? Not in the slightest. This Thursday, all legal measures for mitigating spread and supporting people while infected with Covid will cease. And from 1st April, appropriately enough, free testing for the public is going to end. Boris Johnson said now was the time to move away from restrictions and rely on personal responsibility, a position the Tories have been manoeuvring for since the beginning of the outbreak.

I know some people think it's boring to bang on about Covid, but that might reveal something about their position to insulate themselves from or cope with infection. But for others, it's terrifying. The immune-compromised and clinically vulnerable, of which there are half a million of the former and 3.7 million of the latter, are not considered by Johnson at all - except for a promise to roll out a fourth shot for them and the over-75s. While the added protection this affords is welcome, vaccines can only go so far minimising risks for the clinically vulnerable. One cannot dive into a mosh pit at a Covid party and expect to emerge uninfected or with an inconvenient case of the sniffles: vaccinated people succumb to the virus every day, and others are left to cope with sometimes debilitating long-term effects. There is also no thought given to the mental health of millions who imbibed an entirely reasonable fear of infection, and are anxious about the enforced return to normal when collective efforts at mitigating spread are actively undermined by the government.

The Tories scrapping of the self-isolation payment and the end to its legal status has been trailed for a while. "Self-responsibility" here means employers forcing people into work where they risk damaging the health of the infected employee and passing Covid on to other staff, some of whom might be vulnerable or, for whatever reason, haven't taken up a vaccine. This was estimated to stand at around 6.4 million people in December. Naturally, those without second jabs or boosters to their name are higher. And even if someone has an employer who respects positive tests, they cost. The hundred quid they were originally floated at appears to have gone away, but making them available to purchase at pharmacies means the low paid, again, are going to find themselves priced out of taking care of themselves. Self-responsibility, but only if you can afford it.

The class politics of the moment could not be more stark. The state is withdrawing all support to prevent people from "getting ideas", an approach the Tories have extended to energy bill relief. The removal of Covid isolation pay, in the words of the GMB, "will keep people with Covid at work ... It will prolong the pandemic with more outbreaks." It's so obvious that simply pointing out how these two measures strengthen the hand of the boss class is to insult the intelligence of the reader. And the people most vulnerable to infection? Our people. Our class is most likely to suffer poor health, are unable to isolate or take time to recover, or even be vaccinated, and they deserve the support, sympathy, and solidarity of the rest of us. They certainly don't need a Tory government's talk of "restoring liberties" as their cabal tightens the screws on trade unions, clamps down on the right to protest, and works to muzzle the elections watchdog.

The Prime Minister can say he takes Covid seriously, and the Devil can cite scripture for his own purposes. Johnson's actions betray his intentions. He could not care less for the suffering his government has caused, the people maimed and the people who are dead, or for the misery with which millions are contemplating the immediate future. And for what? So employers can keep an eye on their workers? So commercial rents start flowing again? So the Treasury's deficit hawks can colour code some lines on a spreadsheet green? And that his appalling backbenchers are placated? We are in a damnable situation with those in charge caring for everything but mitigating the mass casualty event we continue to live through.

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Sunday 20 February 2022

Deleuze Vs Representation

No time for proper writing tonight, which is just as well as I've been looking for an excuse to share this vid. Having braved A Thousand Plateaus last year, I know how difficult Deleuze and Guattari can be. Especially if, like me, you're not steeped in philosophy. This video from Jonas ńĆeika, author of How to Philosophise with a Hammer and Sickle is about as clear an explainer you can get for breaking open a crucial aspect of DeleuzoGuattarian thought: their critique of representation in art, music, and politics. As such, his video explaining their argument with drum machines comes highly recommended.

Saturday 19 February 2022

Hooters Road Trip for the PlayStation

It was announced yesterday that Nottingham will no longer be the only UK city playing host to Hooters, the US "breastaurant" concept chain known for employing "endowed" young women as waitresses. Liverpool can look forward to being the second pin in the Hooters' map. Entirely by coincidence, I started playing their officially licensed video game last week, Hooters' Road Trip. Why? Misplaced curiosity, just seeing how a business that revels in its oh-so funny "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined" marketing would translate its concept into a racing game. And the result, predictably, was anything but delightful.

Like practically all racers, there's precious little foregrounding. The aim is to simply pick one of three default cars - up to 16 vehicles can be unlocked - and race from A to B, meeting the qualifying threshold. Which is usually fourth place in most races on easy mode. It's worth noting that the computer-controlled opponents only stretches to five. Manage this feat of Herculean gaming and you make it to the next race and, ultimately, the next stage in the "road trip". That's all there is to it, as simple a racer as can be.

Where do the women of Hooters come into it? Loading screens get poorly digitised images of grinning and posing waitresses in branded gear as the disc spins away, while the old Hooter Owl logo pops up to denote loading. Occasionally, when starting a new race a bit of FMV pops up with a hostess, presumably from the localities concerned, welcoming "y'all" to their neck of the woods. And if one wins a race a bunch of beach-clad women bounce up and down, excitedly shouting "you're number one!". And that's pretty much as far as it goes. Whoever bought this on release in 2002 for scopophilic reasons were sure to be disappointed.

I'm not a forgiving man, so even if this game was a good play I would not have overlooked the misogynistic branding. But this is not a good game. Among the PlayStation cognoscenti, it's held up not just as one of the worst titles on the system but should be lumped in among the fraternity of famously terrible games. I wouldn't go that far as there is much, much worse, but this is a very deeply flawed piece of programming. The first of its main issues are the controls: they are absolutely dreadful. When selecting a car, you are treated to its vital stats represented as bar graphs. The longer the bar, the better it is, one would assume. But choose a car with good speed and good handling and you're done for. The merest tap of the wheel sends the motor barrelling all over the road. For example, you can earn licenses to drive unlocked cars by taking them for a test spin. I picked a speedy-looking beastie with (apparently) good handling and I couldn't keep it straight on a course entirely free of sharp bends. Trying to drive truly is an exercise in frustration. Therefore, choose the car with the stiffest, worst handling and the game becomes more bearable. But despite the rubbish controls, it is still pretty easy to win a race. Even as you careen from one crash barrier to another, the opponent cars are so pitiful no one should have any problem qualifying. On higher difficulty levels they get a touch faster, but that's it.

In other words, Road Trip commits the most egregious sin a racer can commit: it's boring. To be honest, I hadn't been this bored with an "entertainment" product since watching the last Indiana Jones film. It's easy, the tracks are poorly designed with too many short hills and sharp bends (though some of the scenery is passably nice) and the whole experience is so forgettable I'm having trouble conveying it with words. Ubisoft, the publishers, knew this wasn't any good and it was released for $10 in North America. But it is still unforgivable. With arcade masterpieces like Ridge Racer Type Four tearing up the track for three years prior to this on the trusty PlayStation, what excuse does it have for existing? What were the developers trying to achieve?

It seems Ubisoft slapped the Hooters licence on the game to help it shift units. But with the "charms" of internet pornography widely available at that point, it was hardly going to attract the attention of a horny customer base. Taking a more generous reading, you might say it was an attempt to conjoin fast cars with conventionally attractive women - a lifestylist ploy that part-underpinned OutRun's appeal, and sucked deep from the bong of Hollywood chaser movies. But while Sega's arcade hit was questionable and undeniably stylish, the two elements of Hooters Road Trip, the brand name and the bland game, are mushed together with all the subtlety of a pile up. And in this sense, the finished article is true to the spirit of Hooters as a flogger of fodder. It objectifies young women, exploits their labour, and serves up fare that is neither interesting, original, or enjoyable.

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Thursday 17 February 2022

Can Labour Trust the Liberal Democrats?

It's progressive coalition time again! Thursday's edition of the FT reported on talks taking place between Labour and the Liberal Democrats with a view to running an informal pact at the next election. If the overriding goal is the removal of the Tories, this is smart politics. For those who don't pay much notice outside of the general election, Tory accusations they're being ganged up on has plausible deniability. Everyone everywhere will still have the opportunity to vote for either of these parties, but they pare back their resources and concentrate them in their target seats - obviously a boon to cash-strapped Labour without any rich donors ready to step in to replace trade union money. And the early ruling out of a coalition by both leaderships, provided they keep repeating it, will also make matters a touch rougher for the Tories. I.e. They have two parties almost exclusively gunning for them. What could go wrong?

The biggest problem, from a Labour perspective, are the LibDems themselves. If we've learned anything these last 15 years, it's that this "progressive party" isn't that progressive when it comes to the crunch. They preferred to throw their hard-won electoral support into the burning oil drum when the Tories offered them a chance of ministerial office. And in power, if their party stayed the hands of Dave and Osborne at all there's very little evidence for it. More recently under the wise leadership of the blessed Jo Swinson, they saw putting the boot into a Labour Party bedevilled by paralysing faction fighting as their route to the big time without any wider considerations. Such as being more accepting of a Boris Johnson government and everything that entailed than a bit of social reform under Jeremy Corbyn. Given what has happened and their constitutionally snakish formation, would Labour be daft to trust them?

The answer depends on context. In some localities the LibDems present as very anti-Labour because the local council is run by Labour. And, unsurprisingly, are vociferous foes of the Tories in Tory-run areas. It will be forever thus for as long as the party persists. But right now, the vibes are more favourable for Labour's chances. As this place has long argued, local election results and council by-elections show that Tory voters are more likely to dump blue to go yellow - a point forcefully made by formerly safe Tory areas. It therefore makes sense to go after the Tories. That and it's the only place the LibDems can go: of their top 30 targets, 26 seats are held by the Tories and just two by Labour.

Additional to electoral realities, there are two other very good reasons why the LibDems are unlikely to do a 2010. Then, Gordon Brown was a busted flush and everyone knew it. Plus the position built up by Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, and Nick Clegg during the decade was on its opposition to Labour. They might have made a plausible argument that coming to an arrangement with Brown would have jettisoned its support just as well as their alliance with the Tories did. And, as far as they were concerned, Corbyn was so far beyond the pale to not even consider. But now Labour is in the process of being made safe for bourgeois politics again, electoral interests align with an affinity in the outlooks of both party leaderships. And lastly, there have been constructive relationships between the two parties for some time. The LibDems had the education portfolio in the Welsh Labour government until last year, and there are those not terribly quiet "informal" deals cut in last year's by-elections and in the upcoming Erdington contest not to do much campaigning and avoid harming each other. The de facto alliance, which Starmer said warm words about in December, is already operating.

This alliance can work, but it depends on the politics. Labour are going to have to do the heavy lifting and recent polls have reported significant slippages in the party's lead. Which isn't surprising as it's operating with a strategy of saying nothing apart from the most abysmal right wing positions. Like Angela Rayner's sudden enthusiasm for shoot-to-kill, for instance. A quiet compact with the LibDems makes things easier, but the question of winning and losing depends on the politics the party is peddling. And, at present, it's still doing all it can to repel its core constituency. Which, when Labour needs every vote in what will be a tight election, doesn't strike one as a terribly wise idea.

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Wednesday 16 February 2022

Wishing War on Young People

I suppose Oliver Dowden's speech on woke was always going to embolden others on the right, and so it was with Jane Moore's Wednesday column in the soaraway currant bun. With the unhinged title, 'Ok kids, let's see how you deal with REAL problems - like a posting on Ukraine's front line', you can see why young people don't bother with newspapers any more. Having necked the windowlene of Dowden's speech, Moore has worked herself up into a frenzy directed against an entirely imagined caricature. With a touch of levity she no doubt thought comedy genius, she proposes a game show for the whingeing woke. Riffing off the popular but long-cancelled Wife Swap, perhaps we might imagine Strife Swap. Be still my splitting sides. She writes,
For episode one, a bunch of Gen Zs might be torn away from their war on free speech in our universities for a lesson in how so many young lads their age fought in the Second World War precisely so they could enjoy the freedom they have today.

Perhaps a posting to the Ukrainian border with Russia might help them to understand the fear of facing down a deadly force that might kill you?

Here’s a gun, kids. You have a choice — kill or get killed.
She then goes on to fantasise about young people getting tortured by the North Korean regime and the Beijing plod. All of this to make a very important point Dowden could only allude to: be grateful for what you have and shut up, because your opinions about "values" will drive the country into the ditch of dictatorship.

Where to begin with such a psychotic imagination? First of all, Moore is paid to write this trash. It'a always been part of The Sun's appeal that it draws on the prejudices of its readership, amplifies it, and repackages it back to them. As most of the paper's readers tend to be older she plays on generational resentment. Cut off from the everyday life of being young, their vicarious experience of 21st century youth culture is mediated by the nonsense in their paper, and representations of young people in other media. The actual life experiences of their children and grandchildren, despite knowing millions of them can't get on the housing ladder, barely make enough money to support themselves and their families, and deal with the epidemic of mental health problems comes second because what their parents read in the paper and see on their screens is more real and visceral to them than what their kids say. It's not that they don't love their children, but because living standards have appreciably risen over their life time the assumption is it can't be that bad because their kids have never had baths in wash tubs, not had to break the ice on the inside of their bedroom windows in the morning, and have mobile phones and flat screen TVs. Moore, as part of the generation that benefited from living through the post-war boom knows well the gap between where her generation started and where they ended up, and can play on the privations of her readers' early years to paint those that have come after them as spoiled brats.

It's a cynical exercise, but one that also plays to the authoritarian longings The Sun has done so much to inculcate. The idea of packing young people off to war is, like so many things, based on a rose-tinted view of the Second World War. Their parents of the wartime generation worked together in a common endeavour and knew their place, engendering a sense of everyone having done their bit. My grandparents fought at Anzio, served in the rear areas of El-Alamein, and worked in the WRAF, and millions of boomers can tell similar stories about what their parents did in the war. They didn't complain, but bore privations and got on with outfighting and outproducing the Nazis. A lot of the postwar generation are proud of what their parents did (indeed, some of their grandchildren are too) and therefore identify strongly with it - hence The Sun's regular use of WWII metaphors and comparisons. Despite their not knowing war nor conscription, many of them felt as though they did experience it through family war stories and the endless slew of war-related media product served up by our culture industries.

Unsurprisingly, the generations twice, three times, four times removed from the war know nothing of these privations. They have not been called upon, and so the virtues of service and sacrifice, discipline and duty are alien to the X'ers, Millennials, and Zoomers. Living in a safe stable society has made them complacent, lazy, and decadent, so they can afford to split hairs over gender pronouns and find dark blemishes on the character of the sainted Winston. As fans of the short sharp shock, Moore knows her audience would also lap up the fantasy of packing the woke off to war to teach them some home truths about how harsh life really is. And while they're at it, they'd acquire a sense of being part of something bigger than them. In other words, wokeness is dangerous because it is aimless. War gives them purpose and meaning, an appreciation of community, and a thankfulness for what they have. Death and lifelong injury, we don't need to think about those things.

Moore's piece is just another piece published day in, day out by The Sun that works to undermine senses of solidarity and collectivism their patriotic readers yearn for. Immigrants, travellers, single mums, they've all had their turns in the scapegoat spotlight. And young people have been there plenty of times too, most recently in relation to Covid. It's abhorrent behaviour intent on turning parents against their offspring, and perhaps Moore really hates her teenaged daughters too. For all the right wing preaching about the sanctity of the family, here we have one of its well remunerated ideologues driving a generational wedge between older people and their relationship with their children and grandchildren. All that is sacred in right wing thought is profane in right wing practice.

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Tuesday 15 February 2022

The Tories Vs Wokeness

Party chair Oliver Dowden's speech to the Heritage Foundation was complete rubbish. A dull affair of building straw men and blowing them down again, his attack on the "Woke ideology" recalls similar crusades against Political Correctness in the 1990s, and sees a return of the old "the real racists are the anti-racists" style of argument. Yet this precious worrying about woke persists among Conservative circles on both sides of the Atlantic. There is something they see in the discourse that gives them night terrors, so what is it? Should we take Dowden's claim that liberty is threatened - his reworking of the commonplace "you can't say anything these days" - seriously? Is democracy in danger and social cohesion imperilled by movements against institutionalised oppressions? Obviously not, but what can be taken from his oration, apart from virtue signalling his right wing identity politics?

Leading off with a tedious preamble about acting tough and standing up to bullies on the world stage, Dowden turns to his target: the enemy within. There is a "pernicious new ideology" sweeping Western societies that threaten the cornerstone of conservative values. The "woke" or the "social justice warriors" are pursuing aims "inimicable to freedom". Sounds serious. Dowden said the ideology does not believe in free speech, which is something we should cherish because it allows us to get to the truth. Instead they want to shut it down because it can be harmful. "Free speech is hate speech" is the slogan of the woke, we're told. There's also the discourse of "privilege", which in its terms an Oxbridge-educated man who's a member of the Cabinet is an exemplar. "Am I an example of privilege?" asks the culture secretary, presumably to the shaking heads of his well-heeled audience.

Then there is history. He says "these activists" are "determined to expunge large parts of our past". Wokeness would be entirely ridiculous, he goes on, if it hadn't seized control of our universities. But it has expanded from there into the schools, government, corporations, and social sciences and hard sciences alike. The danger for Dowden, is its introspection. When the enemies are out there growing in strength, the woke ideology works "to sap our societies of their own self-confidence." He says migrants to Britain who feel a sense of place and pride are told they have "false consciousness", and while the liberal democratic state is held to impossibly high standards wokeness maintains no one has any right to condemn "rogue states". It's a world view in which the West are always at fault, and yet in a stunning act of self-hate it's among the elites that wokeness is strengthening its pernicious grip. The only result can be "demoralisation and despair", with the end game being no one willing to stand up to defend our liberal, pluralist societies.

The left, for Dowden, have abandoned the field and have been captured by the woke. Therefore it's down to Conservatives to defend free speech. He proudly declares how his government is introducing legislation to regulate speech in school settings. Conservatives everywhere have to do more, they must stand up to the "self-righteous dogmas" and refuse to accept the decline of the West as an accomplished fact.

What a load of bollocks. One could easily spend time providing a line-by-line rebuttal of this self-serving, lying trash. But it's more interesting to explore the roots of this anxiety. Because, while their critique of woke purposely and intentionally distorts its object to provide Tory power politics a thin gloss, it is responding to something real: the seemingly inexorable advance of social liberalism, and the resultant withering of social conservatism. As discussed here on plenty of occasions, values survey after poll after election study finds the younger one is, the more likely they are to be opposed to sexism, racism, homo and transphobia, be more at ease with other cultures, overly rejectionist of nativist and right wing populist politics, and overall be more tolerant and accepting of social difference. For the Tories, this is because of the transformation of education establishments into liberal madrassas, but it goes much deeper than that.

Social liberalism is the spontaneous common sense of younger cohorts because it is their practical consciousness of navigating the world. On education, conservatives are superficially correct to a degree. Institutions of primary socialisation and the media outside of official opinion formation reflect the victories movements of women, people of colour, sexual and gender, and impaired/disabled minorities have won in law, in culture, and in popular consciousness. These struggles are far from over, but over the last 50 years young people have been coming of age in societies where growing acceptance sets new benchmarks to be built on by subsequent generations. What is normal for schoolchildren now was at the edge of acceptability 20 years ago, and so on. There's a reason why revanchist nationalist movements are almost entirely grey in composition.

None of this would matter if it wasn't reinforced by everyday experience. Chief among which is the transformation of work, or the emergence of immaterial labour as the workplace norm. Post-industrial societies have seen occupations concerned with the production of information, care, and relationships grow exponentially, displacing manufacturing jobs and other forms of work considered obsolete. The majority of the workforce in Britain are in the so-called service sector, in retail, hospitality, the care industries, marketing (be it telesales or internet marketing of some description), and mobilise exactly the same competencies professional jobs have traditionally relied on: relationship building and social interaction. Many of these jobs are not directly productive of value in the senses recognised by mainstream economists and some forms of Marxism, but in the round they produce relations that circuits of capital can overlay and race around. A nurse might not directly produce surplus value, but they do patch up those who do. A checkout operator doesn't either, but they play an indispensable mediating role between a commodity and its buyer, facilitating valorisation and a return on investment. And they do so by enabling their social know how through the attentions of the bedside manner and flattery of customer service.

Immaterial labour is oriented toward people. The skills it requires aren't owned by the employer, like the specialist tools and factory equipment of old, but are the common property of all of us: our abilities to collaborate, forge new connections, communicate, and empathise. We might be called upon to mobilise them for noble objectives, like helping a child with tough sums, or for more cynical reasons, such as charming an old person over the phone to buy the latest wireless router. The point is in a world where social production, immaterial labour, and capitalist reproduction blur into one another, a decisive shift from capital toward labour is underway.

This has two practical consequences. If work is more people-focused than previously, a social premium is placed on a commonsense cosmopolitanism. Social work, in this sense, requires a certain gregariousness, an ability to make connections, even if fleeting, with a procession of others. Teachers need to manage classrooms full of children from a variety of backgrounds, as well as a relationship with parents. The taxi driver often combines the role of chatty chauffeur, polite service provider, agony aunt/uncle, and de-escalator of tensions. Social liberalism is the sensibility that fits with and is reinforced by the collective daily efforts of millions of socialised workers. This also means attempts at fostering divisions, that cut against the spontaneously tolerant ethos, is increasingly given short thrift. This presents an obvious problem for the Tories, whose bountiful appetite for scapegoating and playing groups off one another can only grow less effective with time.

Therefore, what Dowden is arguing against is not an "ideology", but his distorted view of a social process. His crying over social media cancellation is his disapproval of millions of people having limited platforms from which they can answer back. His concerned face over rewriting history his distaste about the fact scholars and social movements are bringing to light what the Tories would prefer hidden. The worry about privilege a deep anxiety that he and his class are not, or are about to not be the centre of the world any longer. And, naturally, the attack on woke a realisation that the old divide-and-rule tricks have a limited shelf life. The rising generation have little truck with conservative values, something reinforced by regular attacks on the young, both at the rhetorical level as well as a continual driving down of their living standards. Ultimately, what motivates Tory fear about wokeness is not the disappearance of values they hold dear, but rather the possible disappearance of them. It puts their politics on notice and raises the prospect of the unthinkable: a world in which Tory politics, always a minority pursuit, can only ever attract a minority of votes.

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