Saturday 20 April 2024

Alien Embassy by Ian Watson

What if we're doing space travel wrong? Are there better ways of getting around than launching huge rockets and spending months/years in flimsy tin cans if we want to visit nearby planets? This is what Ian Watson explores in Alien Embassy. In this possible future, the answer to what is a monumental engineering challenge lies in Eastern philosophy and, particularly, passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and, because this book was published in the 1970s, tantric sex. A scientist works out the rituals contained therein can unlock the real star drive: the one in our brains. As such, the world 200 years hence looks very different. Where industry exists it's unobtrusive, the world is a managed social ecology, cities have more or less disappeared as the old distinction between town and country has faded away, capitalism's dead, and people rarely venture out of their own locales. Yet there is a space programme and, moreover, there are three alien embassies on the Earth.

How does this all work? Young people found to have latent energies are recruited to their nearby embassy. They undergo training, get paired up with a designated "lover", and when they have sex they learn to project their consciousness across space. Humanity has come into contact with three alien races this way: a bird/tree analogue symbiont, sentient inflatables that float about a low-gravity moon, and more-or-less static crystalline entities rooted to a world bathed by a hot sun. Communication is psychic so the humans, and presumably vice versa, occupy a volunteer's body so they can talk with their space siblings. Sounds far out. But is there more than meets the eye? Alien Embassy follows Lila, a young East African woman who has the talent. When she enters the embassy, she's told in no uncertain terms never to go through the doors with the red swastika on them. Whatever might happen next?

I'm not going to say more than that about the plot. This is the first Ian Watson I've read, and it was very good though some aspects of it were, let's say, of it's time. His previous book was called Orgasmachine, to give you a flavour of where Watson's coming from. There are adolescent sexual encounters that, thankfully, aren't rendered in too much detail and would never make it into a mainstream publisher today. There's also the uncomfortable asides on breasts, but they're not as frequent nor as prurient as others one might mention. Thankfully, the rest of Alien Embassy rises above these awkward moments. The prose is literary, there is proper character development, and Watson is able to explain his esoteric melding of Eastern philosophy and Western science without intrusive and barely digestible info dumps. He sustains interest through two conceptual breakthroughs that completely upend the world he's built, highlighting a theme apparently common to his work - the manipulation of people and situations by elites.

Aside from being a well-written and entertaining novel, Alien Embassy could be thought of as a polemic against the arrogance of Enlightenment-centred thinking. Which, given how most of the main texts of French poststructuralism had appeared by the time this book did, certainly finds it swimming in a cultural current that hasn't got weaker on the 40-odd years since. The fantastical uses to which Tantric ritual and Tibetan mythology are put underscores how, despite their elision with mysticism in the West, they emerged as practical frames of reference for making sense of the world. And though exploiting the "mystery" and "exoticism" Eastern philosophy typically has for Western (British) readers, Watson makes the case that they are valid frames for interpreting the world. However, the fact the Bardo - the Space Communication Administration - that runs the embassies and is in charge of space flight might not be all that it seems could serve as a cautionary note to his more credulous readers; that they should beware anyone who touts Eastern philosophy as a cure all for the empty Western soul. As such, Watson is making a more nuanced point than some contemporary writers do about similar themes.

Alien Embassy is a stunning work of imagination, and is very much on the readable side of mind-bending genre fiction. Most of the uncomfortable sex stuff is toward the beginning . If you can get past that, an unsung banger of British SF awaits.

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Thursday 18 April 2024

The Tory Obsession with Angela Rayner

Some quick points about the Tories' obsessive attacks on Angela Rayner.

1. From their side of the fence, Matthew Parris's argument that the Tories hate her because she's an "uppity lass" rings true. These are the sort of people who can barely tolerate the few working class Tories they have on their own benches, let alone those with the temerity to oppose and hurl jibes at them from the opposition. She doesn't fit the briefcase image the Tories cultivate to affect seriousness of purpose. And one other Labour MPs of working class origin, such as Wes Streeting and Bridget Phillipson, aspire to by effacing their background. She stands out because she's unapologetic, refuses to submit to their style of politics, and whose presence might encourage more of the hoi polloi to enter into parliamentary politics. We can't well have that.

2. As Diane Abbott is temporarily unavailable as a hate figure for the Tories, they need a new target. For the above reasons, Rayner grates on the Tory psyche outside of parliament as well. Not only is she working class, but she was a favourite scapegoat of the recent pass - she was a teenaged mum. There are Tory voters for whom 1908s and 1990s press campaigns demonising single and unmarried young mums left a sweet spot their party can tickle at any time. And now they're in the direst of straits, the Tories are using anything, anything to try and consolidate their fraying core vote coalition. Their smears of Rayner, "coincidentally" coming at a time of Tory scandals, is a doomed effort at plugging the gaps.

3. This isn't just about style or not liking working class women. There is relevant political content here that goes beyond her simply batting for the red team. Because Rayner came up through Unison and is, rare these days, an example of the old shop floor to the parliamentary floor conveyor belt, she is a reminder of a labour movement the Tories have long thought was very dead. But also Rayner has taken up the championing of workers' rights. These, like everything else, have been diluted since Keir Starmer articulated the place for trade unions in his authoritarian modernisation project. But it says everything about how pathetic workers' protections are in this country that even as they stand watered down, what Labour is presenting today would mark a positive step forward. This is too much for a Tory party dedicated to driving out the barest influence of the labour movement on mainstream politics. They attack Rayner because she embodies what, in their view, is an illegitimate presence. A view that does have a following among Labour's ranks too.

4. Given the dismal part Rayner played in throwing Jeremy Corbyn and the left under a bus, and how she enables Starmerism, some comrades have wondered aloud why others on the left, and not just those remaining inside of Labour, have defended her? When the left was down she put the boot in, and she's hardly going to jeopardise her own meteoric rise in the party to defend socialists in the future. An entirely reasonable question. And the answer to this is why the Tories are attacking her. I.e. She's a working class woman who has no place in politics because of who she is, the fact she represents the labour movement on the front bench, and she is pushing a pro-trade union line that the Tories absolutely cannot countenance. They want her gone so, they hope, this agenda might disappear with her and that future leading working class MPs will steer clear of workers' rights to avoid getting hounded by the media.

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Sunday 14 April 2024

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Third time's a charm? Having previously read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land and wondering why so many people rate him (he was one of the 'big three' of postwar SF, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke), I was hoping his tale of revolutionary derring do in a lunar colony might be an improvement on these earlier books. I'm sorry to report this was not the case.

This is not because of Heinlein's iffy libertarian politics. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is overlong partly because of the digressions on "rational anarchism" by "the Prof", who's the mentor/Lenin of our Moonside rebels and frequently ventriloquises Heinlein's hard right libertarian peccadilloes. Nor is it thanks to the remote chance of such a politics ever mobilising masses of people to overthrow a tyranny. As experience has taught us, market libertarian world views are confined to marginalised weirdos, billionaires, and pampered think tankers. Having ridiculous views and using a novel to expound them doesn't necessarily mean the book itself is going to be bad, as the work of Michel Houellebecq testifies. The problem here is Moon is straightforwardly poor.

A shocking verdict for an author so celebrated that his society hands out its own hard SF awards? Yes, but is toes have some nuggets of interest. As an engineer, Heinlein is credited with may things. Perhaps the most famous was placing a mobile phone in the hands of a character from 1953's The Puppet Masters. And here, fans of retro hard SF won't be disappointed with some of his forecasts. Is Mike, the colony's sentient computer, the first artificial intelligence character in all of literature? Isn't his manipulation of images to create a video of Adam Selene, a fictional leader of the putative rebellion, simultaneously the first appearance of a social media influencer and of deepfakes in fiction? Doesn't the situation of the three main Lunar cities underground in caves and tunnels pre-empt NASA's present plans for a Moon colony? Yes to all of these.

Heinlein's speculation about future family forms is also of interest. As Adam Roberts noted, there is an uncomfortable gender politics running through the novel - more below. Because Heinlein's Lunar colony was set up for the transportation of criminals, there is a 2-to-1 male/female ratio. There are several solutions to this, such as women having two or more husbands. But for the protagonist, Mannie, he's part of a group marriage that was founded a century earlier and that could, in theory, persist forever. This, apparently, is the best response to the straightened circumstances of life on the Moon. It creates a supportive environment for raising children but, more crucially, the chance for pooling capital where capital is sparse and having a mechanism for passing it on to successive generations. Who'd have had Heinlein down as a proselytiser for the Marxist approach to the family?  Perhaps not. These extended families are a projection of the petit bourgeois pioneer striking out for land in the old West, "updated" with an adapted sexual morality and a hint of Heinlein's trade mark prurience. Heinlein also has a go at imagining the economic relations between the Earth and the Moon, but cannot escape the old pioneer mindset. I.e. He envisages an economy based on the import of machinery from Earth and the export of ... grain. To get around the exorbitant costs he imagines a catapult, or what's now called a mass driver, for flinging produce to the home planet to help feed its overpopulated billions. A picture that was as absurd then as it is now.

All told, I have two big problems with this book. The writing and the plotting. Heinlein commits the cardinal sin of American SF authors of a certain vintage: the lapse into hokey cokey verbiage. Imagine my horror when I saw the fist chapter was called 'That Dinkum Thinkum'. Why did so many writers of this vintage fancy themselves Mark Twain with a banjo? That said, it's not as gratuitous an offender as some. Heinlein also fails at his efforts of introducing a bit of local colour in the form of occasionally peppering dialogue with Lunar pidgin. Generally, made up dialects fall flat in SF, with The Expanse series being a noted exception, but here it's as intrusive and as unwelcome as the odd lecherous observation. Having Mike and the Prof doing folksy turns grates, and people referring to each other as 'cobber' sounds as out-of-place as it did in post-Crocodile Dundee playground banter. The dialogue is as flat as the characters that speak it, and their personalities are non-existent.

In hard SF novels that often doesn't matter and the writer can, more or less, get away with it by concentrating on the science and the sense of wonder. But good characterisation and believable dialogue is essential in a novel about protest, sabotage, agitation, and revolution. Instead we get tedious discussions about strategy, dull and unconvincing political debates, explainers on party structures, using Mike as a revolutionary weapon, and so on. When we get to the actual overthrow of the Earth-imposed Authority, it accomplishes the very opposite of getting the pulse racing. In fact, the sole bit of well written, pacey drama comes when the Federated Nations - the American-led successor to the UN - tries retaking the Moon by force. The action is suddenly clean and sharp, and all over terribly quickly. A glimpse into what life must be like for wildlife phot0graphers on the hunt for the snow leopard. It's obvious that Heinlein hadn't bothered looking at revolutionary literature about revolution, such as John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World, Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, or Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don. All three married reportage, realistically drawn protagonists, and passion in ways that make them compelling reads. Heinlein's narrative badly needed decent characterisation to elicit the reader's sympathy and emotional investment in the success of the Moon's revolution, and because it hasn't the whole thing falls flat. Who cares if the Loonies succeed or fail when their discontent is painted as grey as the Lunar landscape?

One last word on the gender politics. They are, predictably, awful. All women are either married or end up married. Every woman is "beautiful" and their looks are commented on frequently, with Heinlein placing them on pedestals to be admired and leered at. This is particularly jarring when one of Mannie's young junior wives meets her demise in the brief action sequence. We find out she died after being shot "between her girl breasts". Grim. I'm minded to say there are no aliens in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, apart from the women. Such sexism puts a question mark over the book's title. For whom the Moon is a "mistress"? Is Heinlein thinking about a harsh world to be conquered by its colonists? If so, that doesn't appear to be the case. Any "problems" of survival come from the Authority's stingy grain price fixing. The drilling of new tunnels is routine. The issue of depressurisation rare. This suggests the harshness is not environmental. Perhaps it might be because the federated powers of Earth treat the Moon as its geopolitical bit on the side, and when it's ungrateful for the trinkets and cast offs it decides to rough up with drop ships and H bombs to bring the wayward gal back into line. Or is it because there's scant chance for men to have any mistresses, harsh or otherwise, owing to the gender imbalance and the alleged higher status women enjoy? It's for the reader to make their mind up.

Why Moon enjoys an esteemed reputation is beyond me. The premise of a revolution breaking out and throwing off the yoke of the Earth is an engaging one, but in Heinlein's hands it's a waste of an interesting conceit. The Moon is no mistress, and this "classic" is a terminally tedious read.

Thursday 11 April 2024

Wes Streeting and Ideology

Whenever Wes Streeting is in the news, it's usually because he's dumping on the NHS. Having said on several occasions that he wants more private sector involvement in the health service, he's reiterated this most unwavering of convictions in a piece for The Sun. His ire, as always, is firmly aimed at the left as he attacks us with a vehemence that never manifests versus the Tories. He wrote that "Middle-class lefties cry ‘betrayal’. The real betrayal is the two-tier system that sees people like them treated faster – while working families like mine are left waiting for longer.” What these people care about is not a better service or improved outcomes. Using private provision to get the NHS backlog down is common sense and is in the interests of "working people". Salt-of-the-earth types, like Sun readers, should not pay for the left's "ideology".

There's no point treating Streeting like a good faith actor. You can show him all the data in the world about how private health care undermines the NHS, drains resources, ponces off the skills paid for by the public purse, and is no better in quality or outcome beyond jumping the queue. You can also tell him until you're blue in the face that there is no spare capacity in private health, or that the idea waiting lists can be run down in double quick time is completely mistaken. He does not care. Streeting's job is to create more marketised opportunities for capital underwritten, as always, by state money. No argument is going to force him from this goal. He is not mistaken, he is determined.

What interests here is Streeting's use of 'ideology'. We regularly see it used in politics to refer to the more "exotic" elements of the Conservative Party. I.e. The Tories persist in cutting social security or peddling racist drivel because of their ideology. For reasons that are never explored, they are blind to the realities that intrude upon their dogmas. It therefore shows them to be irrational and therefore unfit for office. Or, if you like, fundamentally honest but completely clueless. It is, of course, nonsense. Persisting in the view that the Tories are driven by the wrong ideas gets them off the hook. It suggests that politics is a marketplace of ideas, and not what it really is: a battleground for interests.

Streeting's deployment of ideology has a different target, but is contrived to have the same effect. I.e. The opponents of his eminently sensible desire to let private health gorge itself at the NHS trough are zealots driven by inflexible principles and dogma. It denies the actual grounds of the left's criticisms of Streeting, one rooted in anticipation of the real world consequences of the policy he wants to ram through. He's taking the "what works" moral high ground, masking the interests he's very keen to serve at the expense of our class interests in a free, comprehensive, and non-commodified health service unbeholden to profit making and profit taking. Here, pretending his critics are opposed to him because of funny ideas denies the material stakes we have in the health service, as well as the rewards he and his backers can look forward to should they get their way. It's the game of depoliticising politics so the imperatives of capital are unquestioned and, presumably, the coming government shielded from political blowback. Because such efforts did John Major, Gordon Brown, and now Rishi Sunak so many favours.

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Monday 8 April 2024

Sunday 7 April 2024

A Note on Political Epistemology

A great time was had at the Midlands Critical Theory conference at Nottingham Trent University these last couple of days. There was one thing I wanted to note in relation to a paper delivered by the comrades of the Critical Political Epistemological Network.

To be honest, that political epistemology has become a recognised sub-discipline served by its own journals, professorial chairs, and postgrad programmes was entirely new to me. Political epistemology's concern is how we speak about truth and knowledge in politics and how this conditions decision-making, questions of legitimacy, who is anointed as experts or authorities to speak in politics, and so on. CPEN is a critical engagement with and rejection of political epistemology's unthought assumptions. Their paper looked at the institutional context of the sub-discipline's formation, noting it grew out of Anglo-American politics departments denuded of radical thought and, as such, does not even place politics in wider social contexts. What is striking about it is its refusal to engage with political theory outside the usual touchstones of liberal and conservative thought, its dismissal of feminism (except in its most liberal forms), and the organised ignorance of Marxism, post-structuralism, critical race theory, critical theory generally, and anything that smacks of sociology. CPEN's argument is the object of political epistemology is worthwhile investigating, but its self-conscious limiting of how to analyse politics and knowledge undermines the enterprise. CPEN proposes to overcome this by struggling to reorientate political epistemology so it draws on and redefines itself in full engagement with what it presently excludes.

This description reminded me of my frequent annoyance with political science. I remember rocking up at my first MRes class 20 years ago after spending many an undergraduate and postgraduate year reading Marxism/critical theory, feminism, postmodernism, and the intersections of all three, and coming away flabbergasted. There was no sign the mountains of scholarship these tectonic movements threw up even existed. What a political party was, what they did, and crucially their relationship to wider society were rudely crammed into methodologically restrictive terms that allowed for easy quantification. It was interested in generating a particular species of social fact, a political epistemology if you will, that avoided asking the most basic questions about party politics: what is power, what is the state, what do parties do, and how do they work as institutional aggregators of interests. Political science offers up a reified and distorted diagram of politics that, in turn, informs how academics, commentators, and (in some cases) politicians think and relate to politics. Its taken-for-grantedness sees itself independent of other social scientific disciplines, especially the dread sociology, and therefore constructs politics as a sphere of activity autonomous from all other spheres of social activity.

Where political science led, political epistemology has followed. But this effort at sealing themselves off from the social is more than a disciplinary strategy for attracting the awards of academic respectability. It's an effect of politics itself presenting as a totally autonomous field of activity. We had a recent reminder that uttering the truth of politics - i.e. the struggle of and for interests - is forbidden. All politicians, regardless of politics, are motivated by public service and/or ideas. There is no necessary correspondence between personnel, values, party positions, and constituencies and to suggest otherwise is crude reductionism, or a retread of the politics of envy. Even the literature most prized by politics serves to ontologise the autonomy of the political. That, by the way, is not manifestos, works of political history or theory (more's the pity), but the biography. They focus on individual motivations, backgrounds, dilemmas, and decisions. They humanise the sanctioned political subject (the politician) and endows them with complexity and messiness. What the weight of biography does is neuter the structural characteristics of politics, reducing it to a site of debate, contestation, and rivalry between reified, ambitious but fundamentally disinterested individuals.

Political epistemology sees itself as autonomous because its big brother discipline, political science, also sees itself as a completely separate from the study of the social world. And this is an echo of how politics denies its social character and pretends itself autonomous of the societies in which it sits. The project of pushing a critical political epistemology is much more than correcting a case of symptomatic disciplinary silence: it's confronting the constitution of politics itself.

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Thursday 4 April 2024

The Hounding of Alan Duncan

The Israel lobby exists. Stating this shouldn't be controversial, but it is. In the UK, as elsewhere, there are several organisations whose purpose is to sell the Israeli state, its occupation of Palestine, and its colonialist project to political, business, and media elites. There is nothing uniquely sinister or unusual about this in itself. All states allocate resources to promote themselves in the polities of other states, including the UK. But what appears to be different is how, in the case of the Conservative Friends of Israel, we have an organisation that counts 80% of Tory MPs as its members and apparently wields real power over the direction of the government's foreign policy.

Or does it? This is certainly the contention of Alan Duncan, who is under investigation by the Conservative Party for remarks made on Thursday during his interview with LBC. In a careful choice of words, he argued that several ministers and members of the House of Lords were effectively lobbyists for Israel and, in particular, Benjamin Netanyahu's government. He attacked Lords Polak and Pickles, Oliver Dowden, Tom Tugendhat, Michael Gove, Suella Braverman, and Priti Patel for variously doing the bidding of a foreign power, denying there was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza let alone war crimes taking place, and for backing the erection of illegal settlements on stolen land. "I think the time has come to flush out those extremists in our own parliamentary politics and around it", he concluded.

The statements accompanying the announcement of his de facto suspension from the Tories reminded one of the "rebuttals" Owen Jones attracted upon his resignation from the Labour Party. Duncan had uttered an "antisemitic trope", according to the Campaign Against Antisemitism. Andrew Percy, the vice chair of CFI added "Alan Duncan is a ridiculous character and accusing a Jewish parliamentarian of working for Israel at a time of record levels of antisemitism not only puts that individual in danger but also risks fuelling Jew hate here in the UK." In other words, there was no response to the substance of Duncan's criticisms, nor is there ever going to be. In both instances accusations are levelled to avoid this. It cannot be conceded that Duncan might have a point.

But for all that, Duncan is wrong. Neither Israel nor the Israel lobby controls, directs, or determines British policy. The truth is far more damning. As remembered at the outset of the present crisis, the United States, the UK, and other Western states stands four square with Israel as it massacres Palestinians because it is central to their interests in the region. Not long after Israel was founded the Americans and the British were quick to realise it had a destabilising effect on the Middle East, and could be used to undermine efforts at pan-Arab unity, which was regarded uncongenial to Western control over oil production. Thatcher in particular was keen on Israel as an anti-communist Cold War ally versus neighbouring Arab states that had warm relations with the Soviet Union. Now with the West weaning itself off fossil fuels, Israel is useful for punishment beatings of Iranian and Russian clients and ensuring US hegemony continues to reign. It is the West's meat shield in the region, and if that means turning a blind eye to land theft, apartheid, and the cold blooded massacre of tens of thousands.

Duncan is in trouble because he spoke out of turn about Israel, but here Israel is acting as a shield as well. Going on about the power of "the lobby" implies that it is a malevolent actor cynically pushing the buttons and pulling the foreign policy levers, as if the British state is a wide-eyed innocent that wants nothing but good in the world. Politicians and opinion formers are attracted to Israel lobby organisations because of the cash they lavish, the jollies they organise, and the pass they afford for ideological soundness, but this obscures the weight and direction of the relationship. Israel is more a creature of and dependent on British foreign policy and sponsorship than the other way round, and its lobby works to influence politics and government to carry on servicing this dependent relationship. Polak, Tugendhat, and Braverman are not servants of Israel: they are faithful shils of the British state who recognise how useful Israel is, warts and all. The danger lies not in exposing these awful people as "agents" of a foreign power, but in the open acknowledgement that their minimisation of or outright denial of genocide grows from interests organic to the British establishment.

Duncan has not "exposed" the depth of Israel's influence, but he is asking uncomfortable questions about the decades' old central strategic orientation of the state - and one that continues to enjoy cross-party support, despite it being awash with the blood of innocents.

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Monday 1 April 2024

Routing the Tories is Good, Actually

When one affects to know about politics, there's always a risk of embarrassment. Take the recent pearls of Russ Jones, vendor of book length lists of damaging Tory policies and antics. This dogged foe of the Conservative Party told his not insubstantial following that if they are eviscerated at the next election, they "won't won't even have enough MPs to fill their allocated committee roles". This is bad because a weak opposition leads to poor government. If Labour are to be a "social democratic government" they need a decent Tory opposition "that keeps them focused". If I was Russ, I'd keep to the witty business of contriving portmanteau swear words over craft beers.

Let's consider some recent evidence. John Major's small majority in 1992 and, in conventional terms, the effective opposition of John Smith and Tony Blair should have meant that his government was focused. Instead it was the byword for chaotic government, until the last four Tory Prime Ministers determined new yardsticks for fractiousness and dysfunction. Similarly, even though the Tories were still far behind Labour in 2005, once Dave was elected the liberal green affectations and the snake oil marketeering hardly induced discipline into the government's ranks. After Gordon Brown bottled the election that never was, compounded by debacles such as the abolition of the 10p tax rate for low earners and MPs' expenses, fissures were driven through the parliamentary party. Again, Dave's smooth, electorally popular media-savvy opposition did not make Labour put on its grown-up pants. If Keir Starmer's Labour was to win a modest majority instead of the silly numbers pollsters are suggesting, would that mean "better" government?

Russ is basing his assertion on nothing. It's magical thinking based on constitutional conjuring. For one, the politics is absent. For example, looking at the Conservative Party's now, if Labour were to only win a modest majority what's stopping the Tories tearing off further to the right? That's going to happen anyway, but on the other hand if they did better than expected the Tories are not going to stop being racist, or clamouring for more tax cuts, because they will credit their better than expected result on these position-takings. And this causes Labour a problem. Starmer has shown time and again that he's prepared to ditch policies in anticipation of establishment opposition, so why would he be any different facing off against a more viable Tory opposition of Russ's imagination? The next leader after Rishi Sunak could have a go at driving Starmer from opposition, and with past behaviour as our guide to future behaviour they'd make a pretty good fist of it.

As has been noted around these parts, the powers that be take a much keener interest in Labour Party and labour movement politics than we do with their parties and movements. Through donations, lobbying, endorsements, patronage, media coverage, policy promotion, flattery, and a million and one other stratagems, since Labour became an electorally viable party they have sought to contain and shape Labourist politics. And they've found more than plenty willing partners/supplicants in the ranks of our movement. For the same reason, we should take an interest in the politics and the fate of the Conservative Party. Not because it can ever be won over as a vehicle for working class interests, but rather to blunt it as an instrument in future bosses' offensives against our people.

We want to be in a position where we can dictate terms, but we're not there by a long chalk. But we do need to recognise two things. For as long as there is a capitalist society, there will always be a mass audience (of varying sizes and dispositions) for some kind of conservative politics. And second, despite his politics, his efforts at serenading the interests that were happy with the Tories five minutes ago, and pledging his eternal fealty to the contrivances of the status quo, Starmer is about to inflict a historic defeat on the Tories. Or, to be more accurate given the absence of enthusiasm for him, a rout they're bringing on themselves. And this crushing, contrary to Russ's ignorant musings, is good for politics.

The Tories are about to learn that the audience for their politics is narrow. Their positioning makes sense as their base faces disintegration right now, but it can never be the path back to mainstream success. The election to come won't disabuse them of this notion, and it's not likely the next one will either. After then any putative Tory leader has got to reckon the coalition that won Boris Johnson his election is impossible, and cleave to where the mainstream will be. Which is going to be more socially liberal, more resistant to beggar-thy-neighbour scapegoating politics, are serious about green/ecological modernisation, have greater expectations about housing and the quality of work, and want the state - be it local or national - to provide a functioning public infrastructure. It will also be a context where the institutional power of the right wing press is even more diminished. Even is Starmer's authoritarian modernisation doesn't deliver on any of these, this is where public opinion will likely be. And so, on the balance of probabilities, the centre right are going to have to reinvent themselves to compete. Can they?

It's a question of not having a choice. If the Tories don't purge their far right wing and adapt, the Liberal Democrats will be more than happy to resume their 19th century role as a pillar of the political establishment and move into the political space the Conservatives are vacating. Either way, the annihilation of the Tories at the ballot box followed by a difficult time reorienting to a politics defined by Starmer's technocratic politics, and an opposition dynamic skewing away from the right is good for politics in general because it boxes out overt racism, xenophobia and transphobia, and makes scapegoating harder - though that won't stop Labour from having a go. If the likes of Russ want to see mainstream politics approach the liberal utopia that distorts their view of the world, there's more chance of this happening if the Tories are routed utterly.

As far as the labour movement are concerned, the near destruction of the Tories are to be welcomed. With them down for the count, the scope for successful opposition to and pressure on Starmer widens. It's understandable why some on the left think simply not being the Tories is not enough and people deserve better. And who can disagree? But we're standing on the threshold of the Conservative Party being banished from office and its coalition being thrown into crisis for a generation. This is definitely happening regardless of the (oft bad-tempered) debates about who the left should vote for. What deserves more thought is how this new situation can offer the left and the labour movement real opportunities to remake and reshape the politics of this country.

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Five Most Popular Posts in March

The last 31 days have zipped by like nobody's business. But there was business done as far as this blog was concerned. What made waves among the internet-travelling public?

1. Politics After George Galloway's Victory
2. A Cynical Case of Fiscal Dishonesty
3. Why Reform Failed in Rochdale
4. The Political Uses of Racism
5. The Demise of Lee Anderson

In other words, what made it were all the big political stories from the first half of the month. I know it was remiss not to discuss Owen Jones's resignation from Labour, Keir Starmer talking about his localisation agenda, the Angela Rayner "scandal", and more polling woe for the Tories but if the appetite isn't there to do the homework, I'm not going to turn something out half-arsed. A rule people who are paid to talk about politics would do well to heed.

Second chances ... who deserves a spell in the spotlight? As none of the science fiction commentary made it into the monthly hall of fame, I select my quick look at Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. At some point in the next 10 years these books will get films/series/animated shows. Just don't expect thrills 'n' spills.

Looking forward to April, I gave no idea what I'm going to write about. Something's bubbling under about the Tories. There might be food for thought coming out of next weekend's Midlands Critical Theory conference. And surely some SF shall be fed into the mix. As ever, if you haven't already don't forget to follow the monthly newsletter, and if you like what I do (and you're not skint), you can help support the blog. Following me on Twitter and Facebook are cost-free ways of showing your backing for this corner of the internet.

Sunday 31 March 2024

What I've Been Reading Recently

Less frequent blogging = more frequent reading, as intended. Here's what I've burned through these last three months:

Bourdieu and Literature by John RW Spellar
11.22.63 by Stephen King
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
A Poetics of Postmodernism by Linda Hutcheon
Serenade by James M Cain
The Care Manifesto by The Care Collective
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
The English Teacher by RK Narayan
Lean On Me: A Politics of Radical Care by Lynne Segal
The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier
Salvation Lost by Peter F Hamilton
Empire and Imperialism by Atilio A Boron
Hello America by JG Ballard
At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl
Cross Channel by Julian Barnes
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
Science Fiction by Adam Roberts
Gaston de Blondeville by Ann Radcliffe
Comrade by Jodi Dean
Dayworld by Philip Jose Farmer
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd
Submission by Michel Houllebecq
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Taseusz Borowski
Ancient, My Enemy by Gordon R Dickson
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

That's quite a few books! Where to begin to talk about them? Apart from this already written up, I want to single two out. The first is Matthew Lewis's The Monk. There's been an 18th century gothic thing around these parts of late, and I'm happy to say this is one of the most ridiculous and absurd novels you'll ever read. Watch how a holy man comes undone bit by bit, and whose crimes cause him to commit even greater crimes - much to his detriment. Why this isn't a touchstone in the English literary canon beats me.

The other book, mentioned in passing elsewhere, is Lynne Segal's Lean on Me. Drawing on her experience of care and intimacy in this country's women's movement, she argues that this provides the basis of an alternative to the privatised individualism and its neuroses about ageing and infirmity. Read in conjunction with The Care Manifesto, Jodi Dean's Comrade, and the Lazzarato stuff I'm studying at the moment, Lynne not only asks the right questions but is pointing toward the answers. Highly recommended.

I have a ridiculously large to-be-read pile, and so it's reasonable to expect a relatively generous overview by the end of June. What have you been reading recently?

Saturday 30 March 2024

Quarter One By-Election Results 2024

This quarter 76,034 votes were cast in 48 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 19 council seats changed hands. For comparison you can view Quarter four 2023's results here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Q1 2023
Lib Dem

* There were four by-elections in Scotland
** There were nine by-elections in Wales
*** There were seven Independent clashes
**** Others consisted of Democratic Liberation (49), Eco Federation (25), Gwlad (2), Independent Green Voice (133), Liberal (118), Putting Crewe First (128), Reform (54, 50, 237), Scottish Family Party (50), TUSC (53), UKIP (38, 27), Women's Equality Party (22)

Looking at the quarterly summary and ... it doesn't seem that bad for the Conservatives. They come away with the popular vote and only dropped three councillors. Labour came in behind the Liberal Democrats and come out the poorer. And the aforementioned Lib Dems are toasting five new councillors while the Greens can add a couple more to their tally. And, once again, there's no sign of voters' interests in Reform. Which is unlike UKIP of a decade ago, which did have a local authority following and was capable of winning the occasional by-election.

There is something that should cause the Conservatives some pause. Their vote may have held up, but for the first time ever Labour have fielded more candidates in all three months of a quarter. Set against the backdrop of the problems besetting the party, is their long term decline starting to finally hinder their ability to run in elections?

Friday 29 March 2024

Local Council By-Elections March 2024

This month saw 17,319 votes cast in 13 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Five council seats changed hands. For comparison with January's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Feb
+/- Mar 23
Lib Dem

* There were two by-elections in Scotland
** There were four by-elections in Wales
*** There were four Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Gwlad (2), Independent Green Voice (133), UKIP (27)

If one was tempted to read too much into local authority by-elections, it would be reasonable to conclude the Tories are in a bit of trouble. Because of the varying conditions in different localities a lot of unique factors come into play, so the piles of votes at the end of each monthly round don't mean much. That's why I'm sure no Conservative supporter will be disheartened to learn they couldn't find enough candidates to stand in four of the 13 by-elections, or that their vote tally came fourth for the first time ever.

Set in context, if this set of results suggest anything it's that the Tories' decrepitude is playing itself out at local level, there's little enthusiasm for Labour, the Liberal Democrats are the opposition of choice - but people will punt for Greens and Independents when they're locally rooted and have a campaigning profile behind them. Political science isn't rocket science.

As with March, April usually slows down before the by-election extravaganza of May. And 2024 is no exception with just 10 to look forward to.

6th March
Carmarthenshire, Elli, Ind hold

7th March
Bridgend, Aberkenfig, Lab gain from PC
Glasgow, Hillhead, Grn gain from Lab
Mid Devon, Upper Yeo Valley & Tawe, LDem gain from Con

14th March
Lancaster, Castle, Grn hold
Wiltshire, Cricklade & Latton, LDem hold

21st March
Cambridgeshire, Yaxley & Farcet, LDem gain from Con
Flintshire, Brynford & Halkyn, Lab gain from Con
Knowsley, Whitefield, Ind hold
North Kesteven, Heckington Rural, Con hold

28th March
Neath Port Talbot, Neath East, Lab hold
Orkney, Stromness & South Isles, Ind hold
Somerset, Somerton , LDem hold

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