Wednesday, 30 March 2022

What I've Been Reading Recently

Amazingly, another six months have passed since reflecting on books read at the start of Autumn. Less a comment on the pace of events and one of my still not reading a great deal at all. My bad. But here's the smattering of titles I've finished during this time.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
The Cultural Politics of Emotion by Sara Ahmed
Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre
Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon by Aaron Jaffe
Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics edited by Ian Greary and Adrian Pabst
The New Working Class by Claire Ainsley
Generation Left by Keir Milburn
Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier
What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
Anticapitalism and Culture by Jeremy Gilbert
Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm
The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox edited by Maurice Glasman et al
Tiamat's Wrath by James SA Corey
Postmodernism and Popular Culture by Angela McRobbie
Our Boys by Helen Parr
Head, Hand, Heart by David Goodhart
Despised by Paul Embery
Variations by Juliet Jacques
Suburban Socialism (or Barbarism) by Oly Durose
The Dignity of Labour by Jon Cruddas
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Glancing across the list, one might notice a bit of a preoccupation concerning the number of Blue Labour and fellow traveller authors. This is preparatory reading for the next book. Just got a few more things to plough through: New Labour histories, some stuff on Catholic social thought, and the "Marxist" critiques of leftist radicalism provided by Frederick Harry Pitts before I can properly get cracking. That means commentary on this stuff is going to have to wait.

Other items worthwhile noting is Sara Ahmed's work on the sociology of the politics of emotion, which the comrades at the Always Already Podcast declared as important as Anti-Oedipus but with the added bonus of being much more readable. Why go for overly complex talk talk when straightforward sociology can walk the walk? Speaking of Deleuze and Guattari, I visited What is Philosophy? knowing it was different to their earlier, more famous books. And, sadly, I didn't get too much from it. This is where they declare philosophy as the work of concept generation, and introduce interesting notions like conceptual personae. But it just didn't grab me and came across as more a "specialist" philosophy text rather than something with wider purchase, as per their previous collaborations.

On the fiction, which is less pronounced than normal, both the Du Maurier and the Fowles are superb. Two excellent novels that I went into not knowing what to expect, beyond the fact they're both feted. And I have to give Juliet's short story collection a shout out. Wonderfully realised character studies that do a superb job of capturing the voices and experiences of trans and gender non-conforming people over the last two centuries. The stories can be playful and funny, even when suffused with tragedy and, in come cases, impending doom.

What have you been reading recently?

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Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Expelling the AWL

Energy gas prices through the roof. A cost of living crisis the Tories won't do anything about. A mass sacking that has aroused condemnation of the employer, even from Tory benches. A police investigation into law breaking in Downing Street. Suspect links between the government and the favours they've rendered to Russian oligarchs. And the small matter of a shooting war on NATO's borders that's seen the shelling of a nuclear power station, almost routine talk of using biological and chemical weapons, and nuclear threats lobbed around like Molotov cocktails in Mariupol. If that wasn't enough, the pandemic killed 300 more Britons in the last 24 hours and the government are scrapping free testing from, appropriately, April Fool's Day.

Which of these issues have Labour settled on? What has occupied the time of Labour's ruling National Executive Committee as it met on Tuesday afternoon? Building solidarity with Ukrainian trade unions? Finalising hard edged messaging to exploit the multiple crises exploding across our attention spans? No, it was something more important than all of these things: expelling three irrelevant groups and their supporters from the party.

Dark moments aren't without their high farce and the NEC motion to expel, which passed by sizeable margins, was a proper hoot. Readers might recall when the Labour right came for, among others, Socialist Appeal last summer. In true Kafkaesque style, the ban was applied retrospectively. Anyone interviewed in their publication prior to the NEC ruling came under suspicion of not possessing the correct thought and were turfed out as well. This time, the successful motion defined support for the Alliance for Workers Liberty as appearing in their paper or speaking at AWL events. With the added caveat "excluding debates with AWL members". Which was bolted on to protect arch rightwinger Luke Akehurst, who has shared AWL platforms in the past.

Why this and why now? If you believe the Labour right's self-serving theory of victory, the party can only win office if it's seen to be publicly flogging and victimising the left. This persuades the punters Labour's a safe bet and the votes will follow. And with Labour's polling in reverse and threatening to fall behind the Tories again, the logic of the theory tells us it might help firm up a layer of swing voters. Which is nonsense, of course. What are the real reasons for the move? One is petty spite. No trend in politics in any of the parties is as vindictive and petty-minded as the Labour right, and clogging up NEC time with a motion to get shot a group whose membership is between 120 and 150 typifies their behaviour. The tiny handful of right wing branch secretaries, CLP officers, and frustrated candidates who had their nose rubbed in it by the AWL's organising efforts these last six years are toasting their great victory tonight. There's also some substitutionism going on. Being unable to affect the course of events thanks to the uselessness of the Labour leader and his top team, a bit of bloodletting for factional advantage's sake is no bad thing.

The AWL and their co-expellees, the Socialist Labour Network and Labour Left Alliance, aren't weighty organisations. Even with the disastrous drop off in membership since Keir Starmer was elected, the organising capacity of these outfits doesn't count for much. Instead, what does count is the warning this sends to the remaining left wing membership: stay in your lane, don't get ideas about organising seriously, do not exercise socialist or, for that matter, independent thought, toe the party line. Accept this state of affairs and you'll be allowed to deliver leaflets praising NATO and Labour's PFI scheme for wind turbines.

What else the expulsions say, despite the bullish arrogance of the Labour right, is how brittle their handle on the situation is. We're not about to see another left insurgency wash through the party and clear out the scabs and time servers existent at all levels, but that doesn't mean the Labour right don't fear it happening again in the future. The efforts at centralising the party, protecting its favoured politicians, candidates, and apparatchiks, and abiding by the rule book when it suits are about sewing it up, effectively sealing its elite layers from popular pressure and protecting their positions. They do it bureaucratically because they don't have the stomach, let alone the politics for a straight up political struggle. Their problem, and one for Labour as a whole, is this is symptomatic of a leadership running on empty.

If the Labour leadership and its Trotfinder generals in the party don't have the confidence to do political battle with tiny sects on the fringes of the labour movement, how can they be expected to have the nous and conviction of purpose to take on the Tories ... and win?

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Monday, 28 March 2022

The Tory Stakes in the P&O Dispute

The sacking of 800 P&O workers a fortnight ago has stung the Tories into action. It's not often heavily unionised workers find support among the right wing press - the last time was probably the 1992 pits closure programme - but for the Tory-aligned editorial offices, the brazen arrogance of P&O boss, Peter Hepplethwaite, admitting he broke the law for failing to consult with the RMT and Nautilus, and would do it again, was too much for their readers for them to affect indifference, let alone hostility.

What is true of the papers is true of the Tories themselves. The problem with pretending to be the party of hard work, of promising jam tomorrow means you are expected to provide bread and butter today. And since Brexit, bad economic news has been unremitting. Energy price rises, cost of petrol, food inflation, Boris Johnson can repeat the "fastest growth in the G7" all he wants - people are seeing the costs every time they look at their supermarket receipts. Because the Tories are vulnerable here transport secretary Grant Shapps has been forced to move. One, because they're on the hook of public opinion for this. There's no chance of blaming RMT militancy and expecting to be believed. And second, other ferry services were darkly hinting they were about to follow suit. Suddenly, a problem with a single employer might become a sector-wide issue. And with public sympathy already in organised labour's corner, the spectre of a popular repoliticisation of industrial relations and the fallout from that is on the cards. This has forced the Tories on from mealy-mouthed support for the P&O workers to doing something we don't often see: giving a concession.

After condemning P&O last week and launching a review into services it supplies the government, Shapps took to the Commons to stop the rot. This Monday afternoon he sent Hepplethwaite an ultimatum: offer back the old workforce their jobs, or get hit with a regulatory package to tighten up employment rules for seafarers. The only named measure would be the introduction of the minimum wage on British ferry routes - a measure that would cut into the savings P&O were hoping to make, but not enough to render them null and void. Apart from that, Shapps's statement in front of MPs was fairly vague, with promises to prevent this from happening again. And so the Tories are providing a pay floor for workers, but beyond that?

This is where they are in a real bind. As we gave seen with last week's statement and the Tories' announcement that they were not doing anything substantive about energy bills, this is a government that doesn't want to be seen cleaving to popular pressure. Where action is unavoidable, the immediate instinct is to snatch back what has been given. We've seen this with Rishi Sunak's compulsory loan to help with energy price increases, and we've seen it inflect the Tory management of the pandemic with the rush to normality. However, while political necessity is forcing the Tory hand there's a triple danger in the P&O case. The first is overriding an individual company's right to manage. If that happens here, why not other businesses? There's the government affirming that workers should be treated with dignity, effectively valorising a line of attack trade unionists don't use enough. And lastly, potentially - depending on what Shapps comes up with - the redrawing of employment regulation that increases security at work and is a positive collective reform. The problem for hyper-class conscious Tory politicians is that anything, even the most meagre concession is a seed from which future difficulties can sprout. Especially when it comes to trade unions and employment relations.

This then is an instance of the Tories acting for the general interest of their class. The political consequences of the cost of living crisis are difficult to divine right now, but the Tories certainly don't want it to spread into a generalised legitimation crisis. And so clamping down on one "rogue" company making a mockery of Britain's pitiful employment laws is about retaining the present balance of class relations as a whole. It's either do nothing and risk an explosive conflagration of dissent, or do a little bit and keep things on an even keel, while ever so slightly empowering workers. An invidious moment for the Tories then, but a potentially propitious one for the labour movement.

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Sunday, 27 March 2022

A Note on Tory Covid Profiteering

Throughout the last two years, Boris Johnson has ostentatiously praised the ingenuity of capitalism for coming up with the goods for combatting Covid. If most people hadn't heard of Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca before the pandemic, the vaccines have made them household names for hundreds of millions of people. Johnson also praised the enterprise of our home grown business class, who at a moment's notice, were able to start producing the materials the NHS and our public health strategy demanded. Images of DIY protective gear done out of bin bags and duck tape swiftly disappeared from television screens as the equipment began flowing. Covid came, and British capitalism (apparently) saw it off. Covid's invisible menace was no match for the invisible hand.

But anyone acquainting themselves with how the Tories simultaneously mismanaged the pandemic (while handling the politics of the disease with some skill) knows this is a fairy tale. With the population bar key workers shut up at home and capitalism itself on life support, the government created a market with a single customer - it - for PPE, medical equipment, and pharmaceuticals. Apart from a guaranteed sale, this market was entirely unregulated. The situation was deemed so desperate by Tory ministers that little to no due diligence was done, and everything and anything was brought up. This meant huge mountains of waste as virtually anyone who could clamber aboard the Covid gravy train did. In all, the scale of the waste was huge. According to Department of Health accounts, £2.5bn was spent on PPE unsuitable for use in NHS settings and £673m worth going straight to landfill thanks to not being suitable for any use. £750m went on products whose expiry came up before it could be used, and some £4.7bn splashed out on firms deliberately inflating their prices.

It's this latter figure that's most interesting. According to investigative work done by the Graun, Tory peer Michelle Mone privately lobbied Michael Gove on behalf of PPE Medpro, an outfit set up just to supply masks and gowns to the NHS sourced from a firm in Hong Kong. A contract was placed for £122m, and the firm fulfilled the order by paying their Chinese partners just £46m. Minus the shipping costs, whatever huge lump was left was pure profit. When Johnson talks about capitalism's "animal spirits", I'm sure it's not the leech, the tick, nor the vampire bat he has in mind. It's also worth noting the 25m gowns that arrived were rejected as unsuitable and never used - unsurprising when these "sterile garments" were produced in, reportedly, sweatshop conditions. In other words, an instance of British capitalism not rising to the occasion and parasiting off the largesse offered.

This has everything you'd expect from a Tory money scandal. Secret deals done behind the scenes, massive mark ups on goods sought, and then the delivery of complete rubbish. And it gains traction in the week the Chancellor announced he'd be doing nothing for those most in need of support as the latest round of crisis bites. Considered alongside the alacrity with which the Tories wrote off the £10bn that moved from the Treasury into the pockets of their wealthiest supporters, in this case all the logics of Tory political economy is laid bare: the use of the state, wherever possible, to enrich their class further. Even if monies expended are entirely wasteful. There's always plenty of money for the socialism of the wealthy.

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Saturday, 26 March 2022

Yogi's Great Escape for the ZX Spectrum

You learn something new every day. Despite first playing this game on its release back in 1990, and then more recently I only just found out it was a movie tie-in for a straight-to-TV feature that came out three years previously. All of a sudden, a lot of the platforming, objects collected, and level themes make sense. But I'm getting well ahead of myself.

Yogi's Great Escape was one of a clutch of Hanna-Barbera licenses released by short-lived budget purveyors, Hi-Tec Software, between 1989 and 1992. In all, 13 such games featuring the likes of Top Cat, The Jetsons, and Hong Kong Phooey were made, and appeared on virtually every home computer format then available. Including the Atari 8-bit line of computers. And befitting the low price point, each game was practically identical apart from the odd graphical or sonic flourish. If you've had a stab at the Amstrad version of one of their games, you'll be able apply the exact same skills to the much snazzier Amiga iteration, for example.

But here we are on the Spectrum, a version that probably spent a little too much time in my +2 of old in the far pre-Covid times. Yogi's Great Escape wasn't exactly a game you talked about in the school yard, especially if one wanted to affect the countenance of a serious gamer. 30 years and after multiple doses of not giving a shit about many things later, I can understand why it was constantly in the datacorder - it was as no frills a platformer you could find on any system. There were no attacks as per Sonic and Mario, nor any puzzles to navigate, nor items to collect and use as one the convention in the then unstoppable Dizzy series. It was move right, avoid the traps, time the jumps, and don't get touched by the baddies. A veritable Krypton Factor assault course of a game, but with added pic-a-nic baskets and smarter-than-the-average-bear attitude.

The plot, as if it matters for a platform game, involves Ranger Smith having to privatise Jellystone Park. Presumably for a housing estate or a (then popular) golf course. This means Yogi and Boo-Boo are destined for the zoo, unless they can make a break for freedom. What follows is platforming action across the park, a forest, the wild west, a haunted swamp, and a fairground. The final level, New York City, switches the action up. Instead of platforming one has to navigate a hot air balloon across the roof tops to reach the Empire State Building. It all sounds quite pleasant, no? And if you look at the YouTube playthrough times, they usually range from 15 to 20 minutes. So quite a short piece as well. Heh. What the set up doesn't tell you is how Yogi's Great Escape is brutally difficult.

The first level is enough to try the patience of anyone, but the timings and patterns can be got down soon enough and it becomes something of a simple pleasure. But level two onwards? It's right up there with difficult games who don't owe their reputation to crappy coding. Like a lot of old home micro games, memorisation is key. There's no telling if an enemy will suddenly bear down on you giving no time to jump or react. But once experienced and added to the memory banks, one has to then learn how to get around them with perfectly timed jumps. If that wasn't bad enough, half-way through this stage they start shooting at you. Not cool, but at least true to form for the American tradition of blasting up the wildlife. Matters aren't helped later with platforms that loop back, allowing Yogi's hit detection box to brush against the feet of baddies on the floors above. A bit unfair when Yogi can't duck or anything. And then the final ballooning stage, which deserves originality points of sorts, finds birds inconveniently spawning in one's path. Slow and methodical progress is the only way to get through. Somehow achieve all this and we find the President decides to keep Jellystone open, so everyone can return home and spend more time harassing Ranger Smith. The idea a simple sit down with a politician is enough to undo their neoliberal parks sell-off strategy. Bless.

Yogi's was no technical masterpiece on any system, though the Amiga version does deserve praise for its parallax scrolling - something absent from the Atari ST version. But the Spectrum is where we're at, and the blue monochrome peppered with feeble 48k soundlets hardly push the system. But it never needed to. The controls are precise, the main sprite is recognisably Yogi, and it plays a mean game. Probably too mean a game, considering the demographic likely to have picked it up. I think much younger me barely made the third stage, thinking back.

Worth revisiting without the sepia tinge of nostalgia? Yogi's is definitely an obscure title and one seldom discussed these days, but it was probably the best of th Hi-Tec licenses and does give a flavour of what gaming on a budget looked like before the games consoles forced out the home computers.

Friday, 25 March 2022

Freelancing for Putin

Reading the latest piece from Socialist Action, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the United States and Britain who had invaded Ukraine, was terror bombing civilians, and playing radioactive roulette by shelling nuclear power stations. And yet here we are, an example of where prioritising the defeat of one's own ruling class and its ambitions is interpreted as throwing your lot in with Russia. What happened to no war but the class war, eh?

Nuance is unpopular in politics, but it is vital for the analysis that informs our politics. What SA say about supplying Ukraine with weapons, and the disgraceful role the Tories played strutting like plucked peacocks on the world stage is right. As are comments and contributions made by others concerning the illiberal turns of Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government and the blind eye conservatives and liberals alike turn to the activities, if not the existence of the openly fascist Azov regiment. All these things are true, but they don't change the fundamentals of the situation: that Ukraine has been invaded by its authoritarian and, to use the old language, imperialist neighbour. The Americans and British might have prefaced the invasion with goading language while France and Germany preferred shuttle diplomacy, but it's obvious Putin was set on this course of action long before the Liz Trusses and Ben Wallaces happily reduced the UK's reputation as a serious nation further.

Again, to restate the ABCs, there are just wars and there are unjust wars. In moments of tension between big powers, in this case between NATO on one side and Russia and Belarus on the other, labour movements have no truck in prettifying either side, let alone offering political endorsements. Britain and America, after all, have done more to destabilise global politics these last 20 years than any other power or alliance. The condemnation they heap on Russian shells flattening Ukrainian concert halls and residential districts are not matched by a scintilla of concern for what their allies are doing in Yemen or Gaza and the West Bank. However, being clear eyed about the blood on our governments' hands does not mean that Putin's regime is shoved in a black box and ignored. Our enemy's enemy isn't necessarily our friend.

The second point is while NATO and Russia are confronting one another, the actual shooting war is between Russia, a big power, and Ukraine, which is a minor power. One of the primary dividing political lines in Ukrainian society since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been between rebuilding close ties to its former occupier, or tilting toward the West via the European Union and NATO. Both sides have, historically, been bound to their own home-grown groups of oligarchs and when it came to corruption you couldn't get a credit card between the two sides. As a minor power, both the West and Putin have skin in the game - for the West having Ukraine firmly in its camp helps stymie Russia, while for Russia it covets a friendly buffer state to complement the subservience Lukashenko has shown Moscow. Both sides have and continue to find willing support in Ukrainian society, but this does not mean they are the sole active agents. The dynamics that give rise to this split are driven from within. Therefore, the Euromaidan protests that culminated in the Orange revolution was not a CIA coup or some such as the Putin apologists pretend: it was an organic development that the EU and US supported, but did not cause.

A pretty banal statement all told, but something that needs stating. The SA piece strongly implies that Ukraine is but a puppet whose strings are pulled from Washington (with a few tugs occasionally delegated to London). Not a word on how the "special military operation" was designed to force the country into Russia's sphere of influence in violation not just of Ukraine's sovereignty but its national right to self-determination - a principle Marxists are supposed to uphold. Had Putin not rolled in the tanks, the weapons shipped to Ukraine's military would not be exacting their grim price on Russian soldiers and materiel. War is politics by other, more violent means, and Ukraine's will to resist is not a product of Western brainwashing and arms shipments. The onus therefore should be on Russia to stop its attacks and withdraw, not on Joe Biden and Boris Johnson telling Zelenskyy to throw himself and his country on Putin's mercy.

If the main enemy is at home, effectively freelancing for Putin's war undermines the left's political response to the Tories. Not because of optics, though being seen to put a plus where the West puts a minus is bad enough, but because Johnson and his cronies are utterly compromised by their close relationships with Russian oligarchs present and past. There's Johnson's close relationship with Evgeny Lebvedev, an FSB-linked man whose money he was so keen on that he overrode the spooks' security concerns to appoint him to the Lords. There are the millions that have saltered their way into Tory coffers, and the untold billions that have sloshed through the City and the London property market. And just today, we learn Akshata Murthy, the chancellor's wife, has over a billion sunk in Infosys, which also operates unimpeded in Moscow. The threads are anything but red, but there are thousands of them tying the Tories to Russian ruling interests - and helps explain the reluctance the government has shown to sanction them, despite the tough-sounding rhetoric.

Putin's invasion has laid bare this corrupt and corrupting relationship. It's a goal so open that even Keir Starmer has taken a couple of shots at it. This is an obvious vulnerability the left should bang on about, but if we follow the logic of SA, the Chris Williamsons and George Galloways, and sundry tankies, lining up with Putin and pretending the West are responsible for the war prevents us from being the opposition we aspire to be. By conjuring up absurd "anti-imperialist" reasoning to defend the military actions of a brutal imperial power, they make the revolution they profess to work toward in our key metropolitan heartland much more difficult. It's just as well they're stuck out on the margins, a place their politics will forever doom them to inhabit.

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Wednesday, 23 March 2022

The Class Politics of Doing Nothing

Apart from Number 11 and select cabinet ministers, no one knew the specifics of Rishi Sunak's Spring statement on Wednesday. But it didn't require a consultation with Old Moore's Almanack to discern the shape of what was coming. Having toured the politics shows' studios over the weekend, the message was a simple expect nothing. "I can't help everyone" pleaded the chancellor, while announcing his intention through backroom channels to cut taxes and shrink the state. The usual red meat the dwindling Tory faithful love to hear.

At the best of times Sunak's statement would have been a complete waste, doing nothing to address the country's deep seated structural problems. But at a moment such as this, faced with galloping inflation, a double jump in energy prices, it's criminal. Not that you'd think this from the fluffy coverage the BBC have lavished on their poster boy. Their headline, "Rishi Sunak seeks to combat cost-of-living squeeze" could have come straight from a Tory party press release. It opens with the line the chancellor "has set out measures aimed at combating soaring energy, food and fuel prices", except this is marginal tinkering at best. James Meadway spells out what it means: cutting the price of petrol to where it was a week ago, a rise in the National Insurance threshold that will primarily benefit better off workers and does nothing for those earning under £9k/year, real terms cuts to benefits and pensions, and he's proceeding with the sham energy support scheme to ameliorate fuel bills. No wonder outlets like the New Statesman are publishing pieces with the subtitle, 'the death of disposable income'.

Coming hot on the heals of the Tories refusing to do nothing about the sacking of the P&O workers beyond an ostentatious shake of the head, this serves to remind us, as if we needed reminding, that this is a class war Tory government determined to make us pay for the Covid crisis and recovery. From this perspective, escalating energy prices and the war in Ukraine could not have come at a better time.

It's long been the argument here that for a brief period the Covid crisis opened up the space for political imagination. The Job Retention Scheme and support for some (but definitely not all) businesses broke the chain between work and the workplace for millions of people, raised the idea that subsistence social security should be at a higher rate, and demonstrated who, when it came down to brass tacks, were the real essential workers were that keep the economic cogs turning. But rather than thinking about how we might do things differently, the Tories - with the miserable connivance of the Labour front bench - were relentlessly focused on one thing: getting back to the old normal, of making sure the upset Covid caused class relations in this country were contained and the balance restored. This meant tying furlough directly to employers instead of approaching an emergency basic income, restoring conditionality and the sanctions regime to social security as quickly as possible, and through the cycle of stop-start lockdowns herd as many people back to work and school as possible. This along the way was combined with an individuating strategy that moved pandemic management step-by-step away from an incipient collectivist biopolitics to an ethic of personal responsibility - regardless of the health consequences for the clinically vulnerable and immunosuppressed.

The Tories have largely managed the politics of the crisis successfully, despite Johnson's egregious stupidities. But if PartyGate reminded the Tories of one thing, it's that the public are angry with having to make sacrifices and bearing the hardships of the last two years. In other words, potentially combustible stuff, particularly among the young and those of working age. The Tories avoided surrendering to public anger by not giving the Prime Minister the heave-ho, which had they done so might have whetted popular appetites for more concessions. And so energy and Ukraine appear like natural events that have fallen right into the Tories' laps. These are the sorts of crises that have disorientating effects by immediately inducing money worries and casting the pall of potentially existential threat over the moment. It stuns and therefore temporarily dulls the popular mood. Sunak's pledge to do nothing on bills and inflation, whether he realises it or not, doubles down on this dulling effect. It tells people they're on their own, the government isn't here to help you. It's got nothing to do with them. And the net effect is a dampening of expectations, which is the desired equilibrium for the management of class relations. It means whatever crumbs the Tories offer in the future can be trumpeted as major give aways, such as the chancellor's pledge to cut the basic rate of income tax by a penny in the immediate rune up to the next election. And it means they have a de facto consensus a useless Labour leader will do nothing to challenge.

There has been some speculation among the professional commentatariat that Sunak is going to have to return to the Commons and announce new measures, because today's offerings don't go far enough. The assumption being that once he's seen the facts and the suffering visited on the just-about-managings, the poorest, and the most vulnerable sections of our class that he'll be spurred into action. Where have these people been? The only way Sunak, as per all Tories, will concede something is if they're forced to. An appeal to his and their consciences won't cut the mustard.

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Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the Racist Imaginary

One of our contemporary grotesques consequences is how social media incentivises people to broadcast what would once only have been muttered in living rooms, slumped in front of the evening news. Take Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a case in point. Having spent six years in and out of Iranian jail, having had release dangled in front of her eyes and withdrawn again, and the prosecutors possessing an endless capacity for finding new crimes to charge her with, at her press conference on Monday she refused to thank Liz Truss had a few choice words for the government. "I have seen five foreign secretaries change over the course of six years. How many foreign secretaries does it take for someone to come home? ... We all know ... how I came home. It should have happened exactly six years ago." If I can fault her in anything, these criticisms were too measured.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a victim of British politics. Of the long-standing weapons deal debt to Iran, which has captured most of the case's coverage, and of a certain Boris Johnson and his own disastrous tenure as foreign secretary - a role conspicuously overlooked in the reporting. Readers might recall the occasion when Johnson appeared in front of the foreign affairs select committee and suggested Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Tehran to teach journalism - an entirely false statement that was used as a pretext for banging her up for longer. An utterly appalling gaffe that should have finished Johnson's career there and then. One hopes Zaghari-Ratcliffe makes more of this when she's recuperated some.

Therefore, the Tories are entirely on the hook for this. For their pig-headed refusal to settle the debt and because they put into office the man whose notorious laziness meant his briefing notes went unread and an innocent woman was robbed her of six years of life. Yet the underbelly of Twitter did not see things that way. Under hashtags like SendHerBack and UngratefulCow, racist and sexist bile poured like a torrent from the keyboards and screens of the most reactionary sections of internet-enabled Britain. Among the swill was a Tory London AM, GB News, and the "provocative" Jeremy Vine. This prompted Jeremy Hunt, ever-keen to rebrand himself as the (mythological) good Tory, to jump in to say "we" (as in the government) owes her an explanation. True, but he'd never cut the mustard as far as these people are concerned.

What are the dynamics cohering the Nazanin haters? Just a case of racists being racist because they're racist? Yes, but that doesn't explain anything. Why has this triggered the racists? The opportunism of the media spotlight? Yes, but no. In the racist imaginary, there are good minorities and bad minorities. The good are those who are uncomplaining and keep their mouths shut when on the ends of racist behaviour. They're the ones who moan about immigration and might, sometimes, concede that the BNP had a point. If they are seen, they definitely should not be heard. And the bad? The people who aren't going to stay silent, and who will stand up against racism and not apologise for who they are. Zaghari-Ratcliffe falls into a subset of the latter, the "bad immigrant" category. She's not doffing her cap, she's not throwing laurels of praise around the Tories, nor is she meekly performing gratitude for her British citizenship and her freedom - she's bloody angry at the wasted years, but for our racists it's them who are the wronged party. As so much racism depends on discourses of imagined injury, she's an unworthy recipient of taxpayer largesse. Doesn't she realise they're the wounded ones? Shouldn't she show contrition and appreciation for their sacrifices?

Also making Zaghari-Ratcliffe an object of hate is the imminent anti-Toryism of her campaign. They're responsible for the debacle of negotiations that took place, as well as Johnson's comments that increased her misery. But as far as the racist imaginary is concerned, it's another woke plot/attempt to undo Brexit/doing Britain down, or rather it's overcoded and overdetermined by their perceived kulturkampf. The threat growing social liberalism assumes in their imagination varies on a continuum from re-education camps where inmates are force fed woke ideology with the daily bread ration to accepting more people of colour on their TV screens, but again it is one of wounding, albeit this time directed at a hazy but deeply felt sense of national spirit or soul. What is one woman's pain from the evil side of the liberal/conservative divide compared to the trauma of a nation under threat?

Bigots and fash-adjacent culture warriors are caught in a closed universe in which the outside only makes a distorted sense impression. On the whole, there's no point trying to persuade such people - they're too far gone. And that makes the refusal to pander to their pretended grievances all the more important. Undoubtedly Zaghari-Ratcliffe will speak out against the ruin the Tories have visited on her life, and when she does it's our job to help stick up for her.

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Saturday, 19 March 2022

Bloviating in Blackpool

Boris Johnson was probably right about two things in his address to the Tory party at their Spring Conference in Blackpool. If Vladimir Putin prevails in Ukraine, that might well embolden him to make demands of his neighbours. And autocrats and dictators everywhere will take heart at an authoritarian snuffing out a weak and not untroubled liberal democracy. He went on to criticise those in Western governments who, in the name of real politik, seek to make accommodations with tyrannies. Statesman, if one was being thorough, that would include ... Boris Johnson, and his humiliating cap in hand approach to the Saudis and UAE just this week. Accustomed to tame coverage of his speeches, perhaps the Prime Minister thought no one would notice.

After praising the tough, freedom-loving people of Ukraine, Johnson's speech segued into a clumsy comparison with the British. The vote to leave the European Union was a blow struck for freedom. Likewise, 90% of Britons queued up for their booster jabs to throw off the restrictions that weighed heavy on their everyday lives. Sticking with the freedom theme, he criticised Putin for "pushing hydrocarbons on the West" to increase dependency, again forgetting the alacrity with which the Tories grab oil money. Putin is also named and shamed for punishing us by driving up the cost of living - a trend well in train before the cruise missiles found their Ukrainian targets. This set the scene for the big announcement, and one that no doubt played like a pleasing tune in the ears of Tory-adjacent oil executives: a British energy security plan with domestic hydrocarbons part of an otherwise green mix. Nigel Farage may well have won after barely starting.

At this point, Johnson's congenital boosterism overcame the tissue-thin restraints in place. He invoked images of international investors queuing up to build the country's green infrastructure, attracted by the barely discernible levelling up wheeze and, he said, replacing the coppers the Tories had spent the previous decade cutting and tackling ... county lines drugs gangs. He followed this up with 10 minutes of bumbling that Tory members chuckled their way through. Why this act hasn't grown tired by now beats me.

Remembering the Labour Party exists, he banged the tried and trusted you-can't-trust-those-lefties-with-defence drum, noting eight shadow cabinet member were against Trident replacement. "Can they be relied on to stand up to Russia?" Johnson asked his audience. Which is funny considering how tardy the Tories have been sanctioning their bourgeois counterparts, and the news this evening that on the day of Putin's invasion itself Johnson was hobnobbing with a cash rich Russian donor.

All told, the usual puff from Johnson then. Nothing new under the sun, and surely the same lines will dutifully appear in The Sun as they have many times before. Already acting as if the Met inquiry and PartyGate fall out is behind him, he knows he has to play up to the opportunities of the moment. And as distasteful as liberal Johnson watchers have found it, linking the freedoms of a nation struggling to throw off an invasion with Brexit is exactly the kind of bulldog flattery swathes of the Johnson base lap up. He's seen the partial Tory recovery in the polls, and thinks reminding those Tory voters who've moved from the Conservative into the Don't Know column can be wooed back by playing to what they see as his strengths. It could work.

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Friday, 18 March 2022

The Johnson/Lebvedev Love-In

I have something brewing on Russia and the liberal imagination, but it's a Friday night so the heavy lifting falls on Michael Walker and his latest video for Novara
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Thursday, 17 March 2022

Against P&O's Union Busting

800 P&O workers sacked, just like that. Fired by a pre-recorded Zoom recording, workers were told their jobs were terminated with immediate effect. They would be welcome to apply for their jobs again via the agency who were now contracted to provide staffing, but as far as the business were concerned they "had no choice".

It's rubbish. In the early days of the Covid crisis, P&O warned they were in dire straits and, then, "had no choice" to cut workers' pay. This was despite the company troughing on furlough payments and, awkwardly, having transferred out £270m in dividends to its UAE-based parent company, DP World. And if P&O are in trouble because Brexit or Covid or whatever, how is it rival firms operating from the same ports, such as Denmark's DFDS, are doing well? The problem isn't the workers, it's incompetent management and rapacious owners. P&O's employees are entitled to take the bosses' excuses with a pinch of salt.

In firing hundreds without notice, P&O are in complete violation of the law. But thanks to decades of governments alternating between conservative and conservative-lite these protections are barely worth the paper they're written on. In the case of collective redundancy of more than 100 employees, under statute a boss must undertake a 45-day consultation with the workforce and its representatives. This has not been done, so can the book be thrown at them? No. The workforce now have the right to take P&O to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal where the company can be forced to cough up, at a maximum, a year's salary. Additionally, because they have flouted the law on consultation employees can each be awarded up to 90 days' pay. The only part of the law P&O have stuck to is their notifying the transport secretary Grant Shapps, which they did last night. It's obvious that the company has calculated any loss they'll make from tribunal actions brought by former workers can be offset by savings from replacing them wholesale. What's a cost amounting to no more than a few tens of millions versus a lower wage bill in the long run? It's pure profit-seeking from an underhanded and cynical management, and they know the pitiful legal remedies open to workers benefits them. Labour law is capitalist law, after all.

But it appears the company might have miscalculated. Both unions representing seafaring staff, the RMT and Nautilus, advised staff to stay aboard their vessels, leading to scenes of masked security guards being used to handcuff and remove workers while bussing scab labour in. Other ships sealed themselves up to prevent P&O's hired thugs from boarding, while ports have seen protests and roadblocks in response - with more to come on Friday. Politically speaking, there's a rare moment of unanimity in favour of the workers. Speaking on Humberside local radio, Keir Starmer condemned P&O in language not customary to him. Nicola Sturgeon has done likewise. I suppose their support might have been expected, but Tories too? Wheeled out in Shapps's stead in the Commons earlier, his bag carrier Robert Courts criticised the firm's behaviour as "completely unacceptable." Natalie Elphicke for Dover, not known as a friend of workers' rights, said "I don’t accept their argument they need to do this to safeguard the future of the ferry." And just before tea time, Downing Street issued a press release saying "We do not agree with the practice of fire and rehire and would be dismayed if this is the outcome they were seeking to achieve." I mean, the Tories could show how much they disagree with it by outlawing it.

With services suspended in some places for up to 10 days, unanimous political backing, and the prospect of shortages in Northern Ireland, it's difficult to see how P&O's position can stand - especially as public sympathy for the workers is likely to be high as well. Perhaps the management thought with eyes focused east and the Tories in power, they'd be able to get away with it. But P&O have found some support - from The Telegraph. Matthew Lynn, author of the cringingly-titled Death Force series of thrillers, criticises the company for its "crassness", but reserves his ire from the workers themselves and, of course, the RMT. We should be grateful for a rare outbreak of honesty in the Telegraph's pages as he notes this is less about cost and more about breaking the union. Bringing in new workers offers the company more flexibility, he claims. Presumably, the current shift patterns of one or two weeks on board followed by one or two weeks off are unreasonable when scab labour can spend more time at sea and less time recuperating on land. Not that Lynn appears to have any knowledge about terms, conditions, or industrial relations at P&O. But his article shows he does know about the RMT and the London Underground, and those militant lefties in the Universities and Colleges Union striking too. The PCS and Unite are at it as well, and another new 1970s looms. Concluding, he suggests "quite a few commuters" will be cheering P&O on if they defeat the RMT. Witness the class spite of the typical hard right hack, happy for seafarers to lose their jobs because, in his head, it would own the hated London Underground staff.

At present, however,the centre of gravity on this issue is far from the would-be union busters in P&O HQ and their press cheerleaders, and with hundreds of workers who've been stripped of their livelihoods and made to suffer the indignity of firing by pre-recorded message. The unions are doing the right thing to have recommended occupations and protests at ports. With the Tories seemingly blindsided too, effective street and workplace action combined with public support could not only force P&O to retreat, but begin unravelling the whole edifice of anti-trade union, anti-worker legislation.

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Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Keir Starmer's Bad Luck

Amid the heavy news cycle, the latest gossip from the Labour leader's circle was probably missed by most. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, our friend Dan Hodges speaks of "the curse of Keir". There is, apparently, a sense that Keir Starmer is incredibly unlucky. Just as the leadership contest entered the final straights, boom! Covid happened ensuring the Labour leader's election passed by as the public hunkered down. An unnamed (of course) shadow minister chips in, "Then just as it looked like we were opening up, and he’d get the space to set out a serious offer, we’d go back into lockdown. Then Covid ends, it looks like he’s got another opportunity to set out his stall, and Putin invades." Events keep conspiring against him, refusing to grant Starmer the space to make waves. Global pandemic? Offer bipartisan support. The biggest conflict in Europe since 1945? Offer bipartisan support. Even Covid specifically has it in for Starmer, forcing him to cancel appearances at Prime Minister's Questions thanks to him or a family member coming down with it seemingly every other week. And as night follows day, the jitters are back. The same shadow minister says "The danger now is it will be too late. When the agenda finally pivots back from Ukraine, we just won’t have the time to work up and sell anything really substantive to the voters." Thanks to the timing, May's council elections are the final test for calamity Keir. "If it strikes again .. it could strike for the final time" Hodges concludes.

Superstition in politics is definitely a thing. Politicians, as a rule, have little clue about what politics is beyond advancing their careers, compromising to get policies through, scoring points and getting elected. It's a dynamic, shifting game for them, and one in which chance plays a leading role. Without an analysis to guide them, some fall prey to talismans and omens. Wearing the lucky outfit on election day, signs and portents of imminent good fortune or doom, the occurrence of coincidences, they are the politics equivalent a horoscope. But the nonsense of the tearoom culture does have consequences. If one gets a reputation for good or bad luck, like Boris Johnson and Starmer respectively, that can colour perceptions of how they're doing, which in turn impacts on the whispers reaching the lobby hacks' ears and the kind of coverage they receive.

Luck or lack of luck is a function of political opportunities and how they are utilised, they are not mysterious properties of unknowable fates. At Westminster, luck is unevenly distributed because the parties do not share a level playing field. The Tories enjoy the support of the press who, while in decline, frame the news agenda followed by broadcast media. And because they comprise the government, they get more air time than their Labour opponents. Johnson is a lucky politician, but it's a luck enabled by decades of soft press coverage and hostility to the alternatives. He has, mostly, played a strong hand well. Compare this to Jeremy Corbyn's tenure as Labour leader. He was unfortunate to lead without a significant hinterland in the parliamentary party, and to suffer ceaseless daily attacks by the same people who built Johnson up. Yet, despite this, Corbyn made his own luck. The barrage was constant, but on occasion he was able to sally forth and redefine the terms of politics by punting the unsayable and seemingly unsellable. He even managed this in the dying days of his leadership when Covid first made its presence felt. Here we had someone his enemies tried boxing in repeatedly, yet despite that was able to determine the direction of politics and set the weather.

By contrast, Starmer has been much more fortunate. The press environment has been benign for him. They helpfully buried the exposure of scabbing by party officials, and never trouble him about his calamitous mismanagement of the party and its finances, nor the gaping void where a political agenda should be. True, Starmer has had to operate during crises where people are more interested in what the government are doing than what the opposition are saying but the Labour leader hasn't even tried. He might have defined himself as a critic of Tory tardiness over Covid and, like his predecessor, made the case for and applied pressure to introduce new schemes or cover for gaps in government support. He did no such thing, falling in behind the Tories and offering them loyalty with the odd carping criticisms. Where he did make demands of the government, it was from a position of pre-existing widespread public support. And we're seeing the same over Putin's war. The people making the weather over Tory relationships to the Kremlin are the papers, with Starmer relatively mum - presumably in the name of a new union sacrée foisted on politics by Ukraine.

Consider the party's plans before Putin's tanks rolled in. Starmer had resolved to say nothing in the lead up to the local elections that might encourage people to vote Labour. And with public enthusiasm for taking refugees running at high levels, he completely failed to capitalise on that and make the Tories look mean-spirited - seemingly because Great Leader Keir doesn't want to be seen bowing to popular pressure. The minions who go scurrying off to fire text messages at their favourite columnists are making excuses for their boss. Starmer isn't unlucky, he's positively comatose. He has no idea about political leadership and what needs to be done, nor seemingly do those he listens to. It irritates the Labour right to repeat back to them the "any other leader" mantra they had fun with between 2015 and 2019, but in this case virtually any other Labour MP, regardless of their politics, would be doing a better job generating their own luck. When all is said and done, Starmer isn't unlucky. He's just incompetent.

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Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Paul Mason Vs Anti-Humanism

In his Ukraine: Outline of a Marxist Position, Paul Mason discusses how parts of the left have "disgraced themselves" by shilling for Putin's invasion. These are overwhelmingly Stalinists, and their support stems from a nostalgic identification of Putin's oligarchy with the Soviet state of old, but there's more than a reliving of previous glories going on. It speaks of "a way of thinking". This mindset doesn't just belong to those who would prefer to dwell in the past. It also includes "20 year old leftists who’ve drunk the kool aid of anti-humanism from Althusser and Foucault."

Excuse me, what? He continues,

"Once you can accept that ‘humanity is a social construct’ and that ‘history is a process without a subject’, you can look at the 1,500 dead civilians in Mariupol and categorise them as ‘neo-nazis’". Now there's a spicy take if there ever was one.

Having knocked around the left for a while, I haven't got a clue what he's writing about. Trotskyism and Trotskyists, still the dominant trend on the revolutionary left in this country, are hardly known for incorporating recent developments in philosophy and social theory into what passes for their Marxism. For these people even Gramsci is largely beyond the pale. Stalinism cares even less, locked in its own cycle of anti-imperialist/imperialist goodies and baddies. Where Foucault and Althusser have made a splash in activist circles are very much outside these traditions, with the former finding a welcome reception among anarchists. I'm not au fait with that scene, but as a rule anarchism doesn't go out of its way to excuse tyrants and rival states.

What's his beef? Responding to criticism, Paul says his attack on anti-humanism is elaborated in his Clear Bright Future. I haven't read his book, but on the basis of this and previous comments about postmodernism it appears his definition of anti-humanism differs from its usage in theoretical debates. To cut a long story short, anti-humanism does not mean anti-human. Paul's scary framing of 'history is a process without a subject' is nonsensical. All it means is the starting point for analysis, in Marxism for instance, is class and social relations. Take Marx's Capital as an example. Marx begins with the commodity, and from there considers exchange, capital, surplus value, the division of labour, and so on. We don't start off from human beings endowed by providence with certain attributes, but from how the system we collectively produce moves. This is the point Althusser elaborated in For Marx and Reading Capital, and is so obvious that it should be uncontroversial. Indeed, it is where the bulk of contemporary radical social theory and philosophy now rests, though it tends to badge itself post-humanist as a way of indicating how these debates have been settled and superseded.

What informs Paul's violent rejection of the term is his collapse of anti-humanism into anti-human, as if taking an accurate view of how social processes work erases the special, precious quality of what it is to be human. This is complete bunkum. Anti-humanist theory is rooted in socialist, feminist, anti-racist and queer challenges to how philosophy has condensed, prettified, and abstracted the experience of dominant elites and rendered them in theoretical terms. Their theory constructs a man out of abstract properties that happen to align with bourgeois values, outlooks, and ontology. They might have been radical and revolutionary in the 18th century, but by the late 19th century they obscured and distorted perceptions of the world. The human of anti-humanism is entirely different. It is a creature of history, not of philosophical schematics. Its conception of justice is derived from millennia of being on the receiving end of exploitation, its legitimacy derived from the theoretical working out of the excluded and othered. Its pain is real, concrete suffering. Anti-humanism is the eruption of the wretched of the earth into philosophy, what Althusser rightly stylised as the class struggle in theory. There is nothing more familiar, more human than the anti-human. We are many, they are few, and unsurprisingly they find our theory, our attempts to sketch out an understanding of the world both challenging and frightening.

Celebrated historian EP Thompson made exactly the same arguments against Althusser in his 1978 polemical essay, The Poverty of Theory, as Paul does today. According to Thompson, anti-humanism opened the door to totalitarian thinking, implying there are direct links between the deliberations of the Althusserian school and the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. Replying directly in the 1981 edition of Issues in Marxist Philosophy, Andrew Collier turned Thompson's absurdity on its head. The Cambodian genocide was directed at people who did not fit the Khmer Rouge's ideal of 'socialist man'. Hence the cities were emptied and the populace was forced into the fields to learn the virtues of hard work, of correcting, rebuilding and reshaping 'man' through the "improving" qualities of labour. If millions died, that's too bad. If this doesn't sound like a descendent of humanist ideas, I don't know what does. In Cambodia, there was nothing more anti-human than Pol Pot's image of the human. It's also an irony that Thompson's monumental The Making of the English Working Class is at cross purposes to the philosophical standpoint he ventured to defend. In its pages we find brought to life the daily lives and the struggles of our ancestors, and it's all the more believable and relatable because he treats them as historically constituted beings. Thompson was spontaneously, unconsciously anti-humanist and his work is all the better for it.

Fast forward to Ukraine today. The Stalinists and their fellow travellers hail Putin partly because Ukrainians don't live up to the standards of decent human beings. They're Nazis, they're anti-communist, they're corrupt, they want to jump into bed with NATO. The Putinist propaganda they regurgitate is determined to render the victims of state terror less than human, as acceptable victims, as a people who were asking for it. Their anti-humanitarianism ultimately rests on humanist claims. But at the same time, this is not the motivation behind the invasion but the logic used to justify it.

Professing one's commitment to philosophical humanism is no guarantee of rightness or, as we have seen, political rectitude. It distorts and weakens theory, and makes it less useful for understanding the world and thinking about what we need to do. I'll always have a lot of time for Paul Mason, but his embrace of what is a fundamental weakness means his politics are forever hobbled - until he engages with what anti-humanism actually is.

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Monday, 14 March 2022

The Main Enemy is at Home

Politics craves simplicity, and tries to create it where none exists. The with us or against us populisms of the last 20 years are, in this sense, nothing new and are merely a condensation of existing logics. Politics is always and everywhere a question of power, of yeses and noes, and of individuals, groups, parties, classes, and states seeking to impose their wills on one another. It is war by more peaceful, persuasive, and often skullduggerous means. The reception in this country to Putin's invasion of Ukraine is no different. On the one hand we have Twitter-travelling liberals demanding no fly zones, as if war could be confined to evening news bulletins and not be visited on British cities and infrastructure by volleys of cruise missiles. And there is their opposite. Not the Tories, who are compromised by Moscow gold, but segments of the left who have thrown their lot in with Vladimir Putin.

People like Chris Williamson, for instance. His descent from a good, respected MP into "leftist", and I use that term advisedly, contrarian is a lesson for the ages. His advice to Ukrainians is to end the war by affirming neutrality and allowing self-determination for the Donbas region. As Williamson is a teetotaller I have no idea what's he's been drinking, but whatever it is has made him blind to an obvious territory grab. Joining him in the gutter is George Galloway's so-called Workers' Party of Britain. Taking time out from posting transphobia and puff pieces about the Ottawa truckers' protests against Covid precuations, they've republished Ranjeet Brar, of Britain's foremost Stalinist dynasty, for whom the war in Ukraine is Russia's crusade against fascism. Not as good as his spin on Russian occupation. To think all Ukraine needed was Papa Putin's tanks to roll in and the black earth would yield bountiful quantities of milk and honey. Our dozy friends at the Communist Party of Britain have chipped in their two penneth, celebrating the refounding of communism in Ukraine at the point of Russian bayonets.

Putting a minus wherever the British establishment places a plus is several things, but not the Marxism they pay lip service to. If we go back to another Vladimir, in his famous 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism*, Lenin argued the world had been divided by the great powers into colonial territories and spheres of influence. The outbreak of the First World War was thanks to the inescapable tensions this produced. All it needed was a flaming touch paper. Russia then was one player, having secured its own colonial empire as one contiguous territory - a gigantic prison-house of nations, as Lenin put it. Fast forward 100 years and the pink and purple bits of the atlas are gone, but the tensions remain. The American-led Western alliance with its Middle Eastern and East Asian clients and allies is the world's predominant constellation of military forces, albeit one giving way to Chinese soft power in sub-Saharan Africa and humbled by Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan. Contrary to the decline of the West rubbish pushed by war on woke-types, NATO has expanded its influence and remit by taking in former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Republic countries and going to war in the Balkans, Libya, Syria, as well as Afghanistan in the last 30 years. Tensions within NATO over Iraq ensured the alliance took a formally non-combatant role in the conflict and subequent civil war.

Meanwhile, following the break up of the USSR, the brute privatisations of the 1990s and the looting of state-owned industry by the first round of post-Soviet oligarchs left Russia and its institutions in a decrepit condition. But while the country was starved of investment, untold billions of Roubles fled abroad to find profitable homes in the City of London and its associated baubles - property, football clubs, newspapers. Latterly the Russian economy got back on its feet as an exporter of energy, metals, and foodstuffs while its ties to global finance via oligarch money brought about a new gilded age for the Moscow elite. Here in lies the roots of the renewal of authoritarianism in Russia - a tiny elite protecting its ill-gotten loot with a corrupt and brutal state apparatus. And as this was in a process of formation during the chaotic Yeltsin years, the new state started flexing its imperial muscles. Russian power was humiliated in the first Chechen war, but succeeded under Putin after a slow but remorseless grind - one that also stamped mercilessly on the independence aspirations of nearby Degastan. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia to underline the separation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and we know what happened in Ukraine in 2014 - the pro-Western revolution was a pretext for dismembering the country to Putin's advantage. Russia's movement against internal insurgencies and neighbouring states is not, in the first instance, a response to NATO moves but from the dynamo of Russian capital itself, one that aspires to a network of dependent states to satisfy its commercial and financial capital backed by the might of the state. The very picture of an imperialist power, to apply Lenin's arguments.

In a war between imperial powers, Lenin's advice is very clear. It's not a case of plague on both your houses and studied neutrality, but one of mobilising labour movements against a ruling class demanding we sacrifice body and soul for their profit margins. But when it's an imperial power versus a revolting colonial possession or a formally independent semi-colony (i.e. non-imperialist state), the matter changes. In his famous 1930s discussion of a hypothetical war between 'democratic' Britain and a 'fascist' Brazil, Trotsky suggested that, despite its political character, a victory for Brazil in these conditions would be a boon to national liberation movements everywhere and a huge blow to the then chief prop of the pecking order. If anything, the situation in Ukraine is even more clear cut. The country's dalliances with the West are entirely understandable, given the predatory behaviour of its large neighbour. To preserve their independence and expand their room for manoeuvre, small states have always curried favour with the bigger powers and played them off against one another. Indeed, they have to if their own home-grown capitals aren't going to be completely subsumed by and subject to foreign capital. Ukraine has had to play this game for the three decades of its independent existence, and now it is being invaded by an imperial power only a fool or a Putin apologist would deny the country's right to resist, as well as source support and weapons from whatever source.

In other words, in Lenin's terms when a semi-colonial country is attacked by an imperial power, in this case an attempt by Russia to wrest Ukraine from a slide into the West's sphere of influence by forcefully incorporating it into its own, our sympathies and support goes to the victims of aggression and where possible, our practical support to its labour movement and radical militias. What we don't do is play a stupid guilt by association game, whereby Ukraine's efforts to secure its position by courting the West invalidates its right to self determination. The meaning of 'the main enemy is at home', one of Lenin's most famous slogans, does not mean prettifying, supporting, and amplifying the propaganda of our ruling class's bourgeois rivals. For example, Putin's supporters here make much of Moscow's rhetoric against the neo-Nazi Azov regiment and the efforts to "denazify" Ukraine, but say nothing about the Wagner Group, a far right mercenary outfit closely intertwined with Russian intelligence. Nor the Chechens vomited up from Grozny, some of whom are drawn from the fascist Sparta batallion. I don't know what Putin's leftist friends are trying to achieve, but it's certainly not mass influence among the labour movement.

Our enemy's enemy isn't necessarily our friend. Our job, as always, is about opposing the ruling class. And handily, Putin's invasion offers us an opportunity. While supporting Ukranian resistance and rendering help to refugees, the crooked links between the Tories and Moscow are under public scrutiny like never before. This is where our own fire should be concentrated because it's where we can make a meaningful change, and because it's the right thing to do. Parroting Putin's propaganda can never be this.

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Saturday, 12 March 2022

Note on Everyday Digital Internationalism

Are younger generations more pacifistic than older people? Commonsense, as well as evidence would say yes. As discussed plenty of times on this blog, the turn away from social and political conservatism by young people isn't a consequence of "being young" and full of idealism. It's part caused by right wingers of all stripes repeatedly pushing policies that harm their interests, a culture where struggles against inequalities and prejudice have made enormous advances in the last 50 years, and the decades-long reorientation of work around immaterial labour. These processes were underway before the internet became an party of everyday life, but have in significant ways reinforced them.

This short guest post from @catherinebuca sees her teasing at one thread about how online communities among the young strengthens networked social liberalism, and why it irks authoritarians and would-be warlords everywhere.


Been thinking a bit around this lately. Younger generations have far less appetite for war in part because international interconnectedness via social media platforms buffers against the Othering that is required to manufacture mass consent for conflict.

Last month (before the invasion) a gaming community I'm part of was up in arms when EA weren't going to release a piece of downloadable content in Russia because of Putin's stance on LGBTQI+ issues. Russian fans set out in-depth and convincing reasons why this wouldn't hurt the Russian state and instead hurt only ordinary people who, in the case of this fan base, are largely LGBTQI+ supportive. It inspired an outpouring of solidarity amongst players around the world, and as a result Electronic Arts reversed their stance and went ahead with the release.

Platforms and online communities help erase - or at least make less solid - national boundaries and feelings of difference. When people share interests, it's those interests that inspire a sense of belonging and familiarity, and which country or culture someone is from is often unimportant to the point of it often not being known by participants in these spaces.

Severing those links makes sense if you're trying to reinforce nationalistic boundaries and set people apart from one another, creating antagonisms where they had previously been ameliorated.

Banning things like Instagram is done for the usual obvious reasons: economically punishing international (often American) companies, stopping information getting out/in, etc. But it also threatens that no-border solidarity inherent to online communities.

The problem for Putin - and other leaders - is that it's too late. Young people's social worlds are organised through nationless online engagement, where other groupings and identifications are more important. The idea of national loyalty is muddied and confused and no longer adheres to the more stable, traditional pre-social media identification. People still rally around their nationalities, and there's a lot of silly 'my food is better, your pronunciations are daft' stuff, but when it comes to sincere expressions of belonging, our shared interests trump what we see as artificial and arbitrary national divisions that are for the benefit of power.

That's a long-winded way of saying part of why I think this war feels different is because online social interconnectedness is a far greater force than it has been in previous inter-state conflicts, and it's going to be a problem for leaders from now on. We can also (and should try to) expand this to (partly) understand why this same effect isn't apparent to the same extent for Yemenis or others suffering under constant bombardment.

Not all populations have the same access to social platforms, not all have become part of the wider borderless, nationless online social commons. And because of this they are not as co-present. Younger people are still more solidaristic perhaps than they otherwise would have been though, because this has effects beyond the individuals they interact with.

These are rough and indistinct thoughts on the subject. It's basically just to say while there are lots of awful things about the platforms, more broadly they've complicated (in a good way) national identifications, which is having (and will continue to have) a significant impact on the ways consent for war and other types of conflict are manufactured, and ultimately support for an unrestricted internet should be one of our primary concerns.

Obviously, blind support for the companies that own these platforms isn't what we should be championing. Control of these platforms should be in the hands of the users (as per democratic ownership or whatever method you prefer).

Friday, 11 March 2022

Thompson Twins - Doctor! Doctor!

Here's a musical place holder for your Friday evening's entertainment.

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

The Politics of Refugee Visa Refusal

When the UK left the European Union, rightwingers hoped that Brexit would allow us to do things differently. Looking at Vladimir Putin's war and the unfolding refugee crisis, the government's refusal to suspend visas and not allow Ukrainians to travel here - the only European nation to do so - wasn't likely what most of them had in mind. It's a situation that puts the Tories badly out of step with public opinion. 75% of those polled by YouGov supported a visa waiver. Break that down by party loyalties and we find 84% of Labour voters vs 69% of Conservatives in favour. There is no electoral advantage to be had by digging their heels in and resisting calls for opening the borders, which begs the question why.

For Johnson, as with all things, party management comes first. With PartyGate in abeyance thanks to the Met's intervention, it is going to come back regardless of what happens in Ukraine and he needs as many backbenchers on side if he's to survive the fallout. And those Tory MPs don't share the public's enthusiasm for a humanitarian gesture. The reliably awful Daniel Kawcsynski, for instance, argues offering refugees sanctuary "is immoral". They should stay in countries near to Ukraine so they can readily travel back once the war is over. This view is by no means a minority one, and echoes a line we've heard many time from front benchers: Britain meets its obligations by giving generously to countries housing large refugee populations. Johnson isn't about to challenge a commonsense he himself supports if it means putting MPs' noses out of joint, so he won't.

It's not just about keeping the parliamentary party sweet. As far as the Tories are concerned, Ukrainians are the wrong type of refugee. A lot has been made recently of the unsubtle racism of the press and establishment about how war "isn't supposed to happen" in Europe, but we've seen the Tories willing to take in something like 106,000 people who've left Hong Kong. Compare this with their lack of enthusiasm to help Afghans fleeing the Taliban and we get nearer to the nub of the issue. It's about class. In the Tory imaginary, the Hong Kong'ers are entrepreneurial and more likely to have assets to their name. They speak fluent English and, politically, those making the journey are going to be right wing and anti-communist. A small but useful future constituency for the party that has offered them refuge. Ukrainians, like Afghans, do not. Most are women, working class, and likely to be travelling with dependents. Immigration minister Kevin Foster's suggestion that Ukrainians should apply to be fruit pickers betrayed the class frame the Tories are applying to this issue. The "strains" they will place on underfunded public services is not the reason, what is is a perceived vulnerability on their right flank. Farage is on his anti-green grift for the moment, but could quickly pivot to refugees if he thinks the political profits are there.

Does that explain everything? Again, no. While the Tories have tied themselves in knots over it, Labour hasn't covered itself in glory either. Yvette Cooper has been on the news, doing her overrated best to turn the visa issue into a matter of process. The problem, Cooper says, isn't the Tory refusal to waive visas, but that the visa office in Brussels should extend its opening hours. It's almost as if the shadow home secretary has form for this sort of thing. Again, looking at the polling and taking those lectures about being on the side of the public at face value, why have Labour joined with the Tories in an effort to ignore the popular mood?

It's a matter of what Johnson and Keir Starmer share: an authoritarian politics. Each has a different base. For Johnson, authoritarianism is the necessary flipside of his populism and is entirely crucial to the Tory project generally. For Starmer, as a manager accustomed to managerial habits the Fabian tradition with its emphasis on elite-led policy making and the Labour right's interminable preoccupation with protecting its factional advantages resolves itself in a politics concerned with rebuilding reverence in state institutions and, above all, the leader. Both leaderships have an interest in refusing public demands, simply because a concession on Ukrainian refugees green lights the idea both can be shifted by popular opinion. Consider PartyGate again, for example. Tory MPs haven't no-confidenced the Prime Minister (yet) because doing so under mass pressure sets a dangerous precedent. Starmer resisted hitching himself to the bandwagon for as long as he could get away with, subtly suggesting he would expect a quid pro quo from Tories alert to this sort of thing should he be subject to similar strain.

This is brittle politics. It shows how shallow both their projects are because they know they cannot be defended on their merits. Instead they have to affect a distance from the public mood every bit as wide as Putin's ludicrous table, even if accepting more refugees results in short term popularity. Opinion is fickle and can turn, so keeping to the status quo suits them fine: politics is narrowed to the point where both can police and define the terms of discourse, something the Tories normally rely on the press to do while Starmer has actively pursued this through his own party. It seems strange that denying public opinion is a sign of weakness, but what it shows is how, underneath all the blustering and posturing, mainstream politics in this country fears for itself.

Image Credit

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Lives on the Left: Jennie Lee

This International Women's Day, we can do worse than celebrate the oft-overlooked work of women in the labour movement. To mark the occasion here's the first of a two-part episode on Jennie Lee from the excellent (and seemingly defunct) history podcast, Lives on the Left.

Monday, 7 March 2022

Nigel Farage's Anti-Green Grift

What happens to a politican when their objective has been completely, successfully achieved? Nigel Farage is a useful case study. Having moved from the margins to the mainstream, at least where levels of coverage and influence are concerned, his party made Brexit a reality. And thanks to the refusal of continuity remain to accept the result, Farage's career enjoyed four more years in the spotlight campaigning to get Brexit done and helping ensure the Tories got a handsome majority. And since? Shilling for Trump, nodding toward electoral reform with the Reform UK branding for his Brexit Party adjunct and ... getting sidelined thanks to Tory backbenchers and their mask obsessions and ostentatiously conspicuous wars on woke. Increasingly crowded out, whence does the rightwing political entrepreneur turn to cultivate a second stab at relevance?

Farage thinks he has an answer. Writing in the weekend's Mail on Sunday, Farage has launched a new "campaign" under the heading "The Net Zero zealots are the same elitists who sneered at Brexit and don’t have to worry about paying their gas bills". No need for an in-depth analysis here: you can see what the game is from the off. Those soaring energy prices - nothing to do with oil and gas profiteering or recent events, it's them Islington-dwelling liberals again.

Farage writes that net zero is "net stupid". It will cost the country £1tn, according to unsubstantiated figures he attributes to former Tory chancellor Philip Hammond. Instead of importing energy Britain needs to sink those shale gas wells and get fracking. What better way for bringing down those gas bills? But this isn't just about helping protect our purses and wallets. Proceeds should be poured into a Norway-style sovereign wealth fund "for future generations". But it doesn't stop there for our Nige: new pits should be opened to fire a renewed steel industry, and it's lunacy for oil fields in the North Sea to lie undeveloped. For Britain to be truly independent, and not reliant on the whims of foreign despotisms, we must develop our own independent energy policy from our own resources.

The problem with Farage's critique of net zero and other green policies adopted by this government is that, like his attacks on the European Union of recent vintage, some of them are substantially correct. It is madness to ship manufactured goods from half-way around the world from countries with lower environmental standards. And he is right that a fair whack of sustainable energy subsidies end up in capacious, private pockets. It's outrageous the taxpayer is getting hammered on VAT for fuel to pay for the green stuff, he says. And what's the point anyway - Britain is responsible for one per cent of global emissions whie China chugs along with over a thousand coal plants to its name. We need a referendum!

There are a few things Farage misses out accidentally on purpose. Like his point about importing stuff from the four corners of the globe, but how Britain is not responsible for those emissions. There's the dismissal of climate concerns - nice to show he has zero concern for the sort of world his four children will be left with after he's gone. And as an avowed friend of capital, he appears incredibly close minded to the advantages of becoming a market leader in a world that can only ever grow more reliant on sustainable energy generation. And we should expect these gaps in his argument, because Farage's argument is not coming from an honest place. He doesn't even care about a referendum on net zero, just as long as he gets to hawk his mug around the press and the TV studios again.

We don't need convoluted arguments linking Farage to Putin and Russian energy interests to explain his anti-green turn. Remember, Brexit was not made in Moscow. Rather, Farage, like many of his arms length co-thinkers on the Tory benches, were incubated in the belly of the City, which was variously divided about its future vis a vis the UK's relationship to the EU. Surely it's no coincidence that various points of Farage's City career has seen him work with funds and firms close to primary resource extraction - a sector not known for taking environmental concerns seriously. Therefore Farage is habituated to relegating green issues to nought, a point reinforced by the sole occasion he voted for the Green Party in the 1989 European elections - because they were the only eurosceptics standing.

The problem is not that Farage will get his referendum, but the consequences of his high profile grifting. If he is able to capture media attention in the same way as last time, a new fissure could open up by mobilising the same forces that resulted in Brexit. Another round of division and rancour, the deepening of political alienation between generations, and a spin off industry of anti-global warming and climate change denialists with bigger audiences. This creates its own political pressures, one the Tories might adapt to if Farage's bandwagon enjoys any traction, and that could set back the country's slow ecological modernisation back even further. But in the end, Farage will have his profile again while those susceptible to his message won't be around to reap the harvest.