Wednesday 31 January 2024

Starmerism Vs Immaterial Labour

Here's an abstract for a paper I'll be delivering at the Midlands Critical Theory conference in the Spring. Long-time readers can pretty much recite the stuff I'll be talking about.
Italian post-Marxism's theorisation of immaterial labour has proven influential and has been the object of trenchant critique and spirited defence. However, its application to an understanding of political dynamics has tended toward abstraction. For example, Negri's (2018) pronouncements on cognitive capitalism, the city, and "exodus" confined itself to sketching out in theoretical terms the broad trajectory of the class politics of immaterial labour. Case studies Negri employed to illustrate the utility of this approach were relatively superficial. Using the British political scene, I operationalise this contribution of post-Marxist critical theory to address the contours of resistance in the 2020s. Drawing on previous work that has theorised the close relationship between values and the lived experience of immaterial/"social" workers to explain the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn and the long-term decline of the Conservative Party, it considers how the contemporary Labour Party is actively working against the new modes of political collectivity forged by immaterial labour and what kind of opposition Keir Starmer's leadership, knowingly or not, is cultivating.
Some more here and here.

Sunday 28 January 2024

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

As the winner of a Hugo and Nebula award, Frederik Pohl's Gateway has its share of the highest honours organised science fiction can bestow. But time is often unkind to the works of the recent past, and that is true of this 1970s space opera. Not because the depiction of the technology is dated, or that the mores are old hat. What sits ill with the contemporary is the tension at the core of the novel: the uneasy wedding of world building and narrative.

The premise of Gateway piqued my interest. The exploration of Venus finds the planet honeycombed with tunnels left by a mysterious alien race dubbed the Heechee. The disappeared without explanation 500,000 years previously, leaving behind a smattering of artefacts but nothing resembling writing, or clues about their society, or how they looked. Eventually a ship is located, an autopilot is triggered and off it flies to a nearby asteroid. Except it's hollowed out and contains a thousand Heechee ships, most of them operational. A corporation independent of Earth's competing nations is formed to oversee Gateway and prospectors are invited to take flights out. The ship controls and how they work are a mystery, so it's a case of volunteering for a flight, activating a ship, and hoping it will take you somewhere safe and return you before the on board rations run out. Big cash awards are available for prospectors who take close readings of celestial phenomena, bring back evidence of alien biology, and/or serviceable Heechee tech for reverse engineering. But it's all about chance. Because the controls are inscrutable and are only slowly worked out over the course of the novel, every launch is a lottery. Only the exceptionally lucky make a strike big enough to set themselves up for life. For the unlucky, of which there are plenty, life is exactly what they lose.

There are always volunteers and our hero, Robinette Broadhead, is typical of the world's working class. He was condemned to a life of drudge in the Earth's proliferating food mines. Because the population has swelled to enormous proportions, fossil fuel production is the only means of sustaining the hungry tens of billions. Oil and coal are extracted to feed yeast, which provides the dietary staples for most. In this future, the entirety of Utah has become an open cast pit and Wyoming is being strip mined of its oil-bearing shale. The problem are these fuels are finite and when they run out billions will starve. The hunt for Heechee tech that can alleviate this crisis is a top priority. But this isn't Bob's problem because, as fortune would have it, he wins the lottery. With his quarter of a million he escapes the grind and buys a single ticket to Gateway in the hope that, Micawber-like, something wonderful will turn up. And so we're set up for an interesting tale of discovery.

There are three aspects to the book. There are Bob's adventures on the station and the experiences of shipping out, his later engagement of a Freudian computer to help him through the trauma of the trip that made him rich, and a selection of vignettes, notices, and corporate reports that build background and provide the necessary info dumps. It sounds good, but the problem is while the conceit stands up the narrative that explores it does not. Pohl proves unable to provide a story that makes the most of the premise.

Reviews regularly complain about how unsympathetic a character Bob is. He's selfish, bedevilled by anxiety, and has his big secret hanging over him. But that's not the problem. Character flaws are fine - the problem lies in characterisation. Reflecting on Ringworld (among other things), I said there was something that didn't sit right with my teenaged self. Different author and a few decades later, but same problem. There's a hokey thinness to its structure of feeling. Not quite Hanna Barbara with swearing, but a cartoonish quality that pervades Bob's thoughts and actions. We see it also in the academics who appear in the bulletin segments. These glimpses are marred by an awkward join of everyman befuddlement and jaded wiseacring, which I can only presume is an effort at overfamiliar endearment. The difficulties with pitch are evident in relationships, which are stunted and almost always imminently sexual. This is where we encounter a major problem with Pohl's characterisation.

In this supposedly sexually liberated future where bed-hopping is the norm and same-sex relations don't raise an eyebrow, Bob frets about his sexuality. From declaring he has no problems with gay men as long as they leave him alone to shamefully enjoying unspoken and alluded-to liaisons, his psychoanalytic sessions with Sigfrid (to whom he contemptuously appends "the shrink") contrive a singularly uninteresting suggestion that his denial of gay inclinations are one of his main drives. The problem is if the future doesn't attach any importance to sexuality as it does now as an identity marker, therefore sexuality-based discrimination and oppression does not exist and it cannot work as a source of anxiety. The repression of desire and guilt has no material basis. There are no sanctions attending sexual activity between men, and therefore no costs of being found out. As motive it simply does not work because it cannot work, The second aspect of this sexuality tension, which is pretty insulting, lies in Sigfrid's location of Bob's repression. We learn that he was brought up by his mother alone and that they had a distant relationship without much tactile contact. The only time she showed any concern was when she took the infant Bob's temperature, which she did anally. His psyche defines this as intimacy, which explains the wellspring of his desire for men. This side narrative does offer an explanation about why Bob (or Robinette to give him his not-at-all coincidentally feminised full name) is annoying, but it is logically inconsistent and aits inclusions seems solely down to prurience - as if Pohl was trying to work out his own attitudes, but couldn't shake off what bothered him about homosexuality.

The depiction of women are of a type as well. They are up for going to bed with everyone at the drop of a hat, including married women. There are four female characters that become significant to Bob, and he ends up having sex with all of them. Klara is the most important and he forms a romantic relationship with her. She's impulsive, illogical, and beholden to horoscopes. Whenever there's some kind of intimate scene between the two star signs always come up, as if Pohl has trouble imagining his creation might have a complex internal life and be interested in other subjects. At least he doesn't keep talking about breasts. But in what is the book's most disturbing scene, after she hits Bob during a row he beats her up. Nowhere is this reflected on. Bob is aware that it probably means curtains for their relationship, but there's no guilt, or indeed much of a realisation that this is unacceptable. It's neutrally passed over and sealed with an apology once she returns after fleeing to Venus.

The politics of Gateway are ambivalent. The world is carved up into different power blocs, and each of them station their own cruisers by Gateway - presumably to keep an eye on each nation and their designs on the asteroid. As a hyper-marketised society, there is only one way out - the lottery of chance. Given how real world mining has bequeathed a rich tradition of worker militancy, it's difficult to conceive how a world dependent on tens if not hundreds of millions of miners would allow for a turbo-charged, semi-libertarian dog-eat-dog capitalist dystopia. It's worth noting that the world's power blocs, or at least the North American one, isn't groaning under the iron heel of dictatorship. Where there authority is represented in the text it stems from the Gateway corporation. As such, you could make the case that Pohl finds the society he's conceived repugnant and his use of the lottery to get Bob to the station and then treating every ship trip as a throw of the dice underlines a condemnation of the limits capitalism foists on human development. Or he's just noting that chance is a fact of life, fortune is tied up with risk taking, and all we can do is get on with it. Not explicitly neoliberal, but in concert with the spirit of the times.

Gateway does follow the conventional structure of introducing the new and then making what Steve Andrews calls the conceptual breakthrough, whereby the world is turned on its head and everything is cast in a different light. That happens via the trauma weighing down on Bob, and is about the only part of Bob's character arc that works. Some might not think this shortfall matters given how compelling the setting is. And to a degree, I'm interested in what happens next (there are a slew of sequels and shorts set in the Heechee sequence), but it would undoubtedly swear others off the series and perhaps Pohl's volumes of other works. As a 1970s space opera it does not compare well to the New Space Opera inaugurated by Iain M Banks a decade later, which did and continues to pay attention to literary quality, character development, and believable and consistent world building. There's a stylistic chasm between this and Hyperion, for example.

Is it worth reading? As a historical artefact, yes. But it is untouched by the British and American new waves, so the health warning is in place for those expecting crafted characters and decent plotting. Gateway is not a good novel for anyone thinking about getting into science fiction, and I'm left wondering how many mainstream readers tried it on the strength of its award winning reputation and went on to give SF a lifelong body swerve. One for the curious, but its glaring deficiencies do not make for a great read today.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Local Council By-Elections January 2024

This month saw 26,595 votes cast in 11 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Only three council seats changed hands. For comparison with December's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Dec
+/- Jan 23
Lib Dem

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There was one Independent clash
**** Others this month consisted of Democratic Liberation (49), Liberal (118), Reform (54), Scottish Family Party (50), TUSC (53), UKIP (38)

January is always a funny month in council by-election land, and the opener for 2024 is no exception. The Tories dropped one to the Lib Dems but gained one in Hackney from Labour. Yes, there were "special circumstances" but that the Tories, as they approach Liz Truss polling levels, can pluck a seat from Labour in a ward they should have walked is demonstrative of the lack of enthusiasm for Keir Starmer's offerings.

And this is backed up by the Liberal Democrats' figures. Going back to when an election was last expected in a year - January 2015 - the Lib Dems, UKIP, and the SNP were all doing well. One might say, given what happened, that this suggested a lack of momentum behind Labour. Of course, that does not directly map on. Labour was not 14 to 27 points ahead in the polls the, but it underlines what I've been arguing for years: that their is no solid base of support for Keir Starmer, and that will cost him in the long run.

11th January
Brighton & Hove, South Portslade, Lab hold
Dorset, Littlemoor & Preston, Con hold
Salford, Quays, LDem hold
Tendring, Bluehouse, Ind gain from Lab

18th January
Hackney, Cazenove, Con gain from Lab
Richmond upon Thames, Hampton North, LDem gain from Con
Richmond upon Thames, Teddington, LDem hold
Sheffield, Stannington, LDem hold
Wandsworth, Tooting Broadway, Lab hold
Warwick, Warwick All Saints & Woodloes, Lab hold

25th January
Stirling, Dunblane & Bridge of Allan, Con hold

Monday 22 January 2024

The Anatomy of Tory Tax and Mortgage Bribes

Want a reason to vote Conservative? As the party slides in the polls toward Liz Truss territory, Rishi Sunak has rustled up a pair of buckeroos Tory high command thinks everyone would like to climb on. Number one: even more tax cuts. Number two: government subsidised 99% mortgages. That might explain why the Tory Sunday papers were so chipper in the face of their party's appalling polling.

What do we have on offer? In the Mail on Sunday, Jeremy Hunt speaks highly of the late Nigel Lawson and, emulating his hero, would like his stewardship of the Treasury put money in people's pockets. Just don't talk about how much of this money was thanks to cheap credit that evaporated in the late 80s property bust. Hunt thinks (unspecified) tax cuts can happen because, apparently, "technology". With the National Insurance cut taking effect from this month, Numbers 10 and 11 are hoping a few extra hundred quid in the pocket will cause millions of working Britons to look afresh at their party. Especially those who are better off because, true to form, the higher the income the more someone will save.

Hold the front page, the Tories want to defund public services for marginal income gains. The 99% mortgage offering is more of an eye-catcher. Effectively handing out housing deposits like confetti would (theoretically) help millions move out of renting and into buying their own home, kickstarting a new housebuilding boom and addressing the property shortage. Not at all coincidentally, turning young people into mortgage holders might boost the conservatising effects of ownership - those very effects that have powered Tory partisanship for more than a generation and have been systematically undermined by ... the Tories.

Scientific accuracy is a virtue in political commentary, so we should call these bribes what they are: wheezes. More tax cuts for most working age people disproportionately benefit the affluent and count for little when wages have been battered by inflation. And those who are better off end, the would-be natural Tory voters, are well aware that what they gain from NI cuts disappears because of frozen higher rate tax thresholds. And the mortgages? Any hope 99% mortgages would put rocket boosters under Britain's construction industry is forlorn. House builders have a vested interest in making sure completions lag behind demand so they benefit from asset price inflation and guaranteeing healthy profits. Creating a government-backed scheme is only going to generate more demand and stoke the property bubble some more. And that might be the point. Getting those vaulting values jumping upwards are what Tory opinion formers and the party's base loves to see.

Taking all this on board, could they do the job of reaching out to wider layers and avoid ballot box carnage? It's doubtful. If the Tories were serious about housing, they could have introduced this scheme much earlier. Indeed, had they done so their political position would not be as precarious. Hindsight, eh? And because the Tories have spent the last 14 years hammering working age people, a gift wrapped mortgage is not going to shift the deep antipathy. There's a reason why the Tories are on 10% among the under 50s. No, the mortgage scheme, like tax cuts, is an exercise in vibes. Its main audiences are not those who would ostensibly benefit from tax cutting and deposit largesse, but their elderly parents and grand parents.

Central to Tory politics of divide and rule between the retired and the rest is endless propaganda that their children and grandchildren are pampered, lead easy indolent lives, and have never had a diploma from the school of hard knocks. The war on woke and similar cynical rubbish makes out the younger one is, the more entitled, fay, and decadent they are. And so Tory policy and its presentation in their media, which the base disproportionately depends on for news, gives this rising generations of bums and ingrates the kinds of kicks that never did them any harm. It instructs young 'uns about the real way of the world, and if they respond positively by working hard and getting on they will be rewarded. With things like lower taxes and mortgage subsidies. The Tories are trying their best to help them along, and if they don't take a bite out of the carrots offered then the stick it is.

As the general election approaches we can expect more "generous" policies, but none of them are designed to win over swing voters. The Tories know the wipe out is coming and nothing can stop it. The best they can do is anticipate defeat and keep banging away at policies they think will cohere the base. That way the party will be fighting fit to spring back once the public get disillusioned with one term of a Labour government. In all likelihood, it's not going to turn out like that, but even the Tories can't help but find a flash of hope in the black of the abyss.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Tory Politics of Immigration

Before Christmas there was a lot of fire and fury about the government's disgraceful asylum scheme. Proving the truism that there's no such thing as a Tory rebel, Rishi Sunak's revolting right took their seats and ... and ... our would-be outlaws all sat on their hands. Led into battle by Fiery Francois and Battleaxe Berry, the so-called rebels - all 40 of them - turned tail and ran. They promised to reconsider their position when the Rwanda bill returned for its third reading, and that moment is is almost upon us.

You'll recall that what went through the Commons in December is an abomination. It unilaterally declares Rwanda a safe country regardless of evidence to the contrary (Burundi hasn't just closed its Rwandan border to inconvenience Sunak's schemes), and magically exempts Britain from international obligations the government has not withdrawn from. Reader, it does not exempt Britain from any treaty is it party to. But this is not enough for the whingeing right. The winters of Tory discontent are now claiming 60 MPs are poised to rebel at the next stage on Wednesday, and have been joined by the always appalling Brendan Clarke-Smith and Lee Anderson. Whether it's "principles" or an eye to post-politics media careers that caused them to resign is not for me to judge. Evidently, this morning's Times, splash reporting that Sunak is drafting in 150 judges to clear the Rwanda appeals backlog has not assuaged the "genuine concerns" that the policy could gum up the courts.

In a pre-festive smug-in with Ed Balls, George Osborne observed that "Rishi Sunak's big claim was, ‘I've come after the chaos of Boris Johnson and the chaos of Liz Truss ... I've stabilised things.’ He can't now claim anymore to have stabilised things. His government is fragmenting around this immigration issue." The broken clock strikes! Thinking back to the Tory bin fire last time, Robert Jenrick resigned as Immigration minister. And the then recently disposed Suella Braverman used her much hyped Commons "revenge speech" to lie her head off about refugees and make a pitch for the leadership of the BNP. Speculation about no confidence letters carpeting Graham Brady's hallway excited the Mail's comment pages, and Tory rose against Tory beneath relatively balanced coverage on Conservative Home. And now, with an election possibly only months away, the guns turn inward as loyalist and rebel take their potshots at each other.

Why are the Tories coming to blows over an issue they ordinarily agree on and have historically owned? And why does it occupy this position in their range of concerns?

For as long as the modern Conservative Party has existed, it has benefited from press hysteria about immigration. In substance, the anti-Irish arguments Engels dealt with in The Condition of the Working Class in England haven't changed at all these last 180 years. For right wingers, foreigners have been constructed as Others whom Britons are invited to define themselves against. Whether as colonial subjects requiring the firm hand of civilising white saviours or dangerous arrivals swamping British identity with alien cultures, while taking our jobs and cashing our welfare payments, racialised minorities have provided many a Tory leader with the ideological cement from which a viable electoral coalition can be constructed. And because the press never stop ranting about immigration, asylum, or boats in the Channel it's never far from the top of voters' concerns. As we have seen, the Tories don't possess a positive programme. Last year when Sunak said he was only going to deliver the barest minimum, immigration was one of the few measures - along with inflation and reducing NHS waiting times (a shaming failure you'll never find backbench Tories instigating rebellions about) - he invited us to judge his government by. Boxed in on all sides by the collapse in the party's support, immigration is a competency they have to be seen to get right. If they can, everything is going to be fine.

But, again, this doesn't properly answer the question. To get there we have to jump into the Tory imaginary and think about where the Tories and right wing politics have triumphed in recent times. As as been documented in many places, not least a a certain book, the Tories came to power in 1979 because Thatcher's leadership intersected with the right wing scaremongering of her day. The swelling pustule of National Front support was popped as the Tories fashioned themselves as guardians of Britain's borders with promises to crack down on immigration. Fast forward to 2016, every Tory Brexiteer knows the referendum wasn't won because of arguments about sovereignty. The core support for the no vote was mobilised explicitly on anti-immigration lines. They tapped into it again with Boris Johnson and his single-minded Get Brexit Done position which, nudge nudge wink wink, was about hitting out at undesirables and keeping the foreigners out. A Tory could make the case that anti-immigration politics plainly put is the root of right wing success. And when the Tories are not strong on immigration, such as John Major overseeing post-92 free movement while we were in the EU, or Dave and his liberal touchy-feely Toryism, or Theresa May and her weakness leading to the farce of the 2019 EU elections, the Tories have paid the price. With Dave, UKIP moved in what should be Tory turf and menaced the party from the right in ways it had never been previously. With May, the ground was conceded to the Brexit Party. And now Sunak is feeling pressure as Reform, who are flattered by recent polling despite having no ground game. If you don't look too deeply into the problems afflicting Tory support, such a position makes immediate practical sense. Especially if you're a Tory MP whose political universe is bounded by a frothing constituency association, ranting colleagues in the chamber, right wing bag carriers staffing one's office, and the speak-your-branes provided by a nexus of The Mail, The Sun, and The Telegraph.

This is why immigration matters so much to the Tories. It has become totemic and fetishistic, a way of reducing the complexity of past triumphs and tragedies to an easily digestible form. It has sedimented into their collective disposition and is thought of by all right wingers as their magic sauce. If they can get the recipe right and pour generous quantities onto whatever is served up in their manifesto they will win. Hence why, despite the party ignoring the economy as the issue ordinary folk care about the most, individual Tory MPs facing the end of their political careers are vociferously and hysterically tearing themselves apart and cratering their chances because, for them, Rwanda is the only road to political redemption they can see. Their behaviour is far from bewildering considered in its own terms. But because they're trapped within it, when the big defeat comes to mash the Tories up any idea they're going to change the tune in opposition is as fanciful as their changing course now.

Monday 15 January 2024

Conservatism in Hyperion

Best science fiction novel videos are ten-a-penny on YouTube, and more often than not Dan Simmons's Hyperion features. A sort-of reimagining of The Canterbury Tales 800 years from now, along with Iain M Banks's Consider Phlebas and Player of Games it helped kickstart new space opera as the dominant SF sub-genre. Hyperion won awards, a wide readership and some mainstream respect because of its multiple viewpoints, engaging premise, original turns, and how it wore its literariness and fluency with Greek myth on its sleeve. Simmons went on to write three more in his "Cantos" and had some success with subsequent novels. He latterly alienated many of his readers with 2011's Flashback, an SF novel in which Simmons used his charactered to preach hard right politics: climate change denial, white replacement, Islamophobia, Sinophobia, and attacked Obamacare as some such Road to Serfdom nonsense. What one might expect of a conservatism resisting the near-presence of the grave with all the hysteria it can muster.

As a fully paid up member of the PoMo club with militant characteristics, and not withstanding one's fealty to Saint Barthes and the death of the author, is there some profit projecting back on to Hyperion the right wing positions of the later Simmons to catch them in embryo? And employing this sensitivity, might the identification of an incipient conservatism undermine its narrative thrust?

Hyperion is an otherwise backwater colony on the verge of becoming a full member of the human Hegemony. This interstellar society comprises around 200 worlds and is maintained by instantaneous travel through farcast portals. Travelling to planets outside the 'Web' is done by faster than light spacecraft where the effects of time dilation applies. The Hegemony's government is exercised through the All Thing, which is a real time public forum that constantly runs polls, debates, and passes legislation. On top of this is a senate, which is elected and acts as a check on the democratic excesses of the "lower house" and elects a CEO. For the first two novels of the Cantos this is Meina Gladstone, whose self-regarding toughness may or may not share a resemblance with Margaret Thatcher. The Hegemony is also a straightforwardly capitalist society, and there is no hint the All Thing has extended democratic control to economic matters. It is effectively liberal democracy extended to its limits. This is also a setting where the Earth was destroyed during the "big Mistake" in which a black hole was created and ended up eating the planet, sparking off the 'Hegira' - the mass movement of people to other worlds.

There are no intelligent aliens in Hyperion, but there are several factions. The Ousters are the Hegemony's Other. Not a great deal is known about the branch of humanity who took off on their own to live in Oort clouds and the spaces between the stars, but they are heavily armed and interactions between them and their planet=dwelling brethren almost always means armed conflict. Living in no gravity environments has meant they are much taller than standard humans, and some genetic manipulation have turned their feet into an extra pair of usable hands. Their spacesuits also come fitted with prehensile tails, and exoskeletons can be used for planetary excursions. Why a nomadic splinter of humanity that have happily got on without and have no use for planets would want to take on the Hegemony is not entirely clear. The other most important faction is TechnoCore. These are Artificial Intelligences who declared independence from the Hegemony but retain a close symbiotic relationship with it. They are responsible for working out farcasting, and run much of the Hegemony's technological infrastructure. Citizens can enter the 'datumplane' and interact with machines, applications, and each other in a 'Gibsonian matrix', which is straightforwardly cyberspace as adapted from Neuromancer. But what is their game, and why are they so interested in prosecuting a war with the Ousters?

Hyperion is a location of interest because, like a number of other Hegemony worlds, it's home to a subsurface planet-wide labyrinth. But what differs is the presence of the 'time tombs'. These structures emanate a field that messes with the structure of time, and it's commonly understood that they were constructed in the far future and are travelling backwards. But the main attraction/mystery is the Shrike, an inscrutable murderous being that can manipulate time and wanders freely when the tombs are active. Doing so typically means the gory deaths and disappearances of colonists and tourists, and their impaling on a tree which certain pilgrims have seen in their visions. In this post-Christian future a cult with tens of millions of members and established churches across the Hegemony have grown up to worship the Shrike. The cult is also organises pilgrimages to the time tombs where, it is fabled, the Shrike will grant one wish of one participant and slaughter the rest. At the moment Hyperion takes place the tombs have opened and the Shrike has commenced its killing spree. But also an Ouster invasion fleet is approaching the planet, so as the Hegemony musters its forces seven pilgrims have been selected to petition the Shrike before either the war sees the world change hands or the tombs get obliterated from orbit.

Each of the pilgrims have some previous relationship with the Shrike and/or Hyperion. Lenar Hoyt is a priest for the barely existent Catholic church, who spent time with a lost group of Shrike-worshipping humans. Fedmhan Kassad is a soldier who saw intense action against the Ousters, while regularly visited in battle sims by a mysterious woman. Martin Silenus is a poet working on a Hyperion Cantos epic. Part of a previous failed city-building effort on Hyperion, he regards the Shrike as his muse. Sol Weintraub is an academic philosopher whose daughter, Rachel, was on an archaeological expedition to the tombs where she contracted a condition that reverses ageing. As such she wakes up every day a day younger, and accompanies her father on the pilgrimage as a days-old infant. Brawne Lamia is a private detective hired by a client to solve his murder, which has something to do with his discovery about the TechnoCore's intentions toward Hyperion. The Consul is the former governor of Hyperion, but turns out to be much more than that. And Het Masteen, a member of a sub-faction of nature priests, proves the most aloof and mysterious of our pilgrims.

Spoilers below.

Despite Hyperion earning praise for its literary nods, what is striking is how, for want of a better phrase, Hollywood-mainstream some of the plot points are. Like any 70s/80s slasher movie (and the many-taloned Shrike is the slasher par excellence), there is an indissociable link between sex and death. Characters, whether foregrounded pilgrims or narrative patina, experience misfortune and/or death if there's sex or the suggestion of having had sex. Kassad's frequent dalliances with his sort-of imaginary lover, Moneta, end with her morphing into the Shrike in a post-battle romp. He doesn't die but the subsequent trauma turns him against his previous life and primes him for the pilgrimage. One scene where Silenus is talking to Sad King Billy, the sponsor of the City of Poets colonisation effort, involves calling up the 28th century equivalent of CCTV where an artist who covertly videos her sex sessions with younger men is gorily butchered by the Shrike and her gent is carried off. Rachel encountered the Shrike while she was in a serious but unmarried relationship, with reverse ageing gradually returning her to a state of innocence. And after Brawne Lamia and "Johnny", her client, fall into each other's arms, by the end of her narrative he's been killed by agents of the TechnoCore - for a second time.

Then there are the professions of the pilgrims themselves, which are associated with the production of the social order. A traditional conservative imaginary typically salutes the clergyman, the soldier, the poet (who, here, happens to be aristocratic), the scholar, the diplomat, and the detective. True, Lamia's persona mixes the Chandleresque and cyberpunk, but the idea of the maverick private dick, just like that of the rules-breaking police officer, was as old as the hills when Hyperion was published 35 years ago. It's a well trodden device that remains a crime genre staple, and by fair means (but often foul) works to preserve the status quo and uphold the prevailing state of things. Lastly, Het Masteen is simultaneously the commanding officer of his "tree ship", Yggdrasill, and a nature priest. As part of the Brotherhood of Muir, his pseudo-religious order work to preserve life and ecology. This is against the Hegemony who care little for the environments of the worlds it colonises and exploits. More conservationist than environmentalist, the brotherhood's home world of God's Grove is a reservation of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial species that the Hegemony would have otherwise driven to extinction. Adding in more conservative cache, and despite being decidedly pacifistic, they are known as the Templars.

There are a couple of other world-building notes of interest. Christianity is a spent force. Judaism has grown more philosophical since the promised land got swallowed by a black hole. And Islam, of course, is fundamentalist and violent. There has also been a shift in the rules of war. Following the experience of the 20th century and allusions to subsequent major conflicts, a 'New Bushido Code' governs military confrontation. The set-piece battle and manoeuvres in the field have replaced the attrition of industrial slaughter. However, the Hegemony officially abandoned this following a brutal Ouster incursion. This flags up a persistent assumption of conservative thought: its pessimism toward human nature. That is a contrived construct like the New Bushido is at odds with the amoral realities of the world and leaves its practitioners disarmed and weak versus an implacable enemy. It's not difficult to draw a link between this and Simmons's railing against the pitiful residues the US federal state makes available to the poorest; that welfare supports the weak, and therefore weakens the American body politic as a whole.

Lastly, there is an absence that marks Hyperion. The absence of Earth. The absence of religion. The absence of principles. And an absence of humanity. The Hegemony is not some good natured republic trying its best to balance the interests of the citizens of the Web. It's shown to be a brutal colonial power that puts down rebellious colonies without mercy. It also transpires that the executive have contrived war with the Ousters, and that in conjunction with TechnoCore was responsible for Earth's destruction. Despite the existence of a mass liberal democracy in which direct citizen participation has replaced representatives, this has not prevented an authoritarian and conspiratorial oligarchy from emerging. The AIs are also manipulative and grasping, apparently divided between three factions - one that belives in continuing the symbiotic relationship with humanity, the other which wants to see its extinction (as well as any other sentient or near-sentient alien species), and a non-committal group straddling the two. For their own reasons not revealed in Hyperion, the AIs have also rebuilt (or saved) Old Earth and stashed it in an unvisited corner of the galaxy, and are working toward their own technological singularity by creating a God. Even the machines are driven by a void of lack.

There is no right wing preachifying in Hyperion. Instead Simmons uses his characters to ask questions about the nature of time and fate, the relationship between the subjects and objects of power, and whether a creation can ever have a meaningful relationship with its creator. The tropes - the Hobbesian view of human nature, the subtle acceptance of the props, privileging the viewpoint of characters typically celebrated in conservative narratives (fictive or otherwise), and the Hollywood treatment of sex don't speak of a coherent philosophy. But they do map out the unthought assumptions of the younger Simmons. As such here isn't much here for those who like to see imagination in the social science in one's science fiction, but that would be too much to expect considering the political trajectory whose beginnings can be gleaned here. But ultimately, these conservative dispositions are far from fatal for the narrative and can be largely ignored as the world unfolds and the mysteries Simmons sets up are revealed.

Thursday 11 January 2024

On the Green Party's Four for '24 Strategy

It's been evident for a while that the Greens are on a roll. After its best ever results at 2023's local elections, it has 745 councillors to its name. It governs in coalition in several local authorities and won Mid-Suffolk outright - the first time a Green Party has taken sole control of a council anywhere in Western Europe. The increased emphasis on popular left wing policies, support for workers in struggle, and speaking out against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians has seen their membership grow handsomely. And reflecting this increased strength, the Greens are going to stand everywhere in England and Wales when the election comes (the Scottish Greens, who organise separately, are committed to doing the same). Electoral Calculus also suggests they are in with a shout of taking the new Bristol Central seat, depriving Thangam Debbonaire of her place in the Commons.

There have been false dawns for the Greens before. In 1989 they polled 14.5% in the European Parliamentary elections. Because these were then ran on first-past-the-post this meant no MEPs, but they came out with triple the support of the then Social and Liberal Democrats, and it did spook the mainstream parties and their press friends. I recall a Dominic Sandbrook-style look forward in the News of the World that predicted a future fit for trees, but less so for people. Consumer choice was winnowed down and the ration books had made a comeback. All more than possible precisely because of the environmental problems the party highlighted. The Greens had hit the zeitgeist and their popularity spiked as the general public became aware of climate change (then dubbed the greenhouse effect), the threats to the ozone layer and what that meant, problems with acid rain, and how McDonald's and other fast food joints were driving deforestation in the Amazon basin. From that point on, all parties affected to take environmental issues seriously and the Greens were unable to capitalise on this temporary surge in support.

A much smaller wave crested in 2015. Following a relatively good showing in the 2014 EU elections (the Greens polled seven per cent and netted three MEPs), and then establishment politics' near-death experience with the Scottish independence referendum, the party put on membership weight as Labour were committed to Ed Miliband's Milquetoast agenda and there was no outlet for the small radical surge in England and Wales. Except for the Greens. This brought in more resources and more activists, and they subsequently stood in a record 538 constituencies and polled 1.1 million votes. Circumstances prevented the Greens from building on this growth in support when Labour went to the left and its activist and voter base decamped in large numbers to the bright lights and big cities of Corbynism.

And then there was 2019. In the course of the Brexit wars the Greens adopted a hard second referendum position, which attracted support from the more Europhile wings of Labour leftism disappointed in the untenable (but understandable) efforts of the Labour leadership to abide by the Brexit result. In the UK's last EU elections, they came within shouting distance of the 1989 peak with just under 12% of the vote and a return of seven MEPs. But that was far from replicated in the general election, though they improved on their 2017 figures. And then Covid intervened preventing an early capitalisation on Labour's return to managerial politics and Keir Starmer's found enthusiasm for Brexit.

The Greens' successes in 2023 differs from previous upticks in support because it's built on firmer foundations. Without any kind of media backing, unlike the incessant hype lavished on no-hopers Reform UK, the Greens have taken on the lessons of the Lib Dems in the 90s and built up their organisation at local level. And the investments are beginning to pay dividends. Which brings us to the so-called 'Four for '24' strategy.

Announced at conference in October, despite standing everywhere campaign resources are being concentrated in four seats: Brighton Pavilion, where Caroline Lucas is standing down and Sian Berry is taking her place. The aforementioned Bristol Central with co-leader Carla Denyer in the hot seat. Her counterpart Adrian Ramsey is taking up the cudgels in Waveney Valley, which should be safe Tory territory but where the Greens won several of their councillors last May. And North Herefordshire where the Greens also have a solid local government base, and in 2019 Ellie Chowns won over nine per cent of the vote. This makes perfect sense. But how does this sit with standing everywhere? Isn't four-for-24 undermined by this ambition? Not necessarily, and not in the way the Greens are implementing it.

Apart from the cost of deposits for all the English and Welsh constituencies, standing everywhere has a number of important effects. It's a morale boost for the membership and shows how much the party has come along this century. It means the Greens will benefit from more localised coverage. It should theoretically entitle them to more national coverage. Under Ofcom rules, the more seats the party stands in the more credible the case is for more election broadcasts than previously. And this wide notice can trickle down to the targeted seats, showing prospective voters the party is small but a nationwide force that has been recognised as such. And there are some important consequences the focused strategy has that go beyond the chances of retaining one seat and gaining up to three more.

One reason Corbynism was dispersed fairly quickly was the prospect of its failure was not prepared for. Demoralisation was an entirely predictable consequence, as so it proved. On a much smaller scale, the election campaigns of the far left, which have neither strategic rhyme nor reason stand in seemingly random constituencies, expend scarce resources for zero return, and end up burning through activists who were hopeful of at least saving the deposit. Instead the Greens are combining ambition and modesty. While flexing their newly gained muscle, they are also accepting political realities: that the party stands a chance in a tiny handful of places. This manages their membership's expectations, so few are going to get carried away thinking Starmer's abandonment of his Corbyn-lite platform will see a Green sweep of the board. By grounding aspiration, it's pointing to what the party has to do next. I.e. Carry on the hard yards of building up community organisation and local support. This is the best way, the only way the Greens can be well placed to benefit from disaffection with Labour. It continues during the next round of local elections (122 council seats need defending on top of hopes for an advance) and by the end of the next Parliament ensuring the party becomes a beneficiary of parliamentary by-election discontent. And the political positioning appropriate to this is not posturing as a government-in-waiting, but as the only party capable of offering effective opposition. After all, the Tories are already in the process of surrendering this responsibility while they're still in office.

The Green approach to the next election is a rare example of strategic nous informed by modest realism and basic honesty. There are no guarantees in politics, hence why it's more an art than a science. But the Greens have made an assessment of where they are, where they want to be and are acting accordingly. And if they remain this hard headed and Starmer continues ploughing his present course, there's a chance that over the next five years the party goes from a localised annoyance to a threat that Labour has to take seriously.

Image Credit

Tuesday 9 January 2024

The Sun's Attack on Starmer

Gotcha! At least The Sun's Harry Cole thinks so. In an "expose" of Keir Starmer's time in practice, we learn that he took on pro bono work that saved some unpleasant characters from the death penalty. To scandalise the paper's fast dwindling readership, Starmer helped a "fiend", a "brute", "beasts", and an "axe-murderer" escape the gallows. The money shot for the execrable Cole? "No cab rank rule here", referring to the lawyerly convention of taking on whatever case next comes up. The editorial piles it on some more, asking readers if Starmer is a "crime-fighting hardman" or a "left-wing lawyer"? Curiously, The Sun admits the death penalty has no place in the UK but it's fine for the former colonies when it's brown and black people on death row.

The Sun's attack on Starmer might seem a curious turn of events. After all, hasn't he spent four years running away from a left wing programme? He's stood up to nasty lefties and Muslims on the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. With the hard left gone, soft left figures find themselves marginalised. He says the state is open to business by explicitly talking up more private involvement in the NHS. And where there is a contentious issue, Starmer hasn't failed to take their lead from the benches opposite. The shadow cabinet have not infrequently taken to the paper's pages and you could make a decent argument that Starmer is as politically acceptable to The Sun as a Labour leader could be. Why waste time pretending Starmer is a liberal bleeding heart instead of the authoritarian he so obviously is?

The Sun, like every other paper is not a monolith. There is diversity of a sort in the newsrooms of even right wing papers. It might only be the difference between hanging and flogging as per The Mail, but it's nevertheless there. What heads off to the printers every night is a negotiation of the nuance between them. Cole, as I'm sure everyone knows, started out as a right wing blogger with his superfluous Tory Bear site. But it was enough to earn him a sinecure at Guido before the established Tory media took him on. He is a Tory through and through, and unless he receives editorial direction to the contrary he's going attack Starmer and Labour. If the order comes down from on high that The Sun should support Labour at the next election (remember, it's central to the paper's - and the Murdoch empire's - image to always be seen backing a winner), one of Cole's more "flexible" colleagues can be called upon if he's unable to muster the requisite enthusiasm. On top of this, the paper has an audience it must cater for. Long gone are the days when millions of Labour voters used to get the rag. Its shrunken readership are black pilled pensioners poisoned by decades of propaganda and insincere flattery. Just as the Tories are clinging to a core vote strategy, The Sun finds itself throwing red meat to its readers. The more it can terrify and anger them, the longer they'll keep the secret circulation figures from dipping to the point where they have to beg for advertisers.

The Sun also has a vested interest in projecting itself as a force in politics. The power of the press now lies in their driving of the news agenda, seeing as the BBC is even more vociferous in accepting their framing of issues than Starmer's front bench. But this cannot last forever. The online readership of the tabloid press is very healthy but few if any are heading to The Sun for editorial comment or political coverage. Gravity will assert itself eventually, and there's nothing they, or The Mail, or any of the right wing papers can do about it. And so they can try and ignore it by performatively grandstanding and hoping a lot of noise will influence the course of events. We saw this in 2022 after Rishi Sunak re-appointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. The Tory press went for her not because they were opposed to her politics, but to remind Sunak to show them the proper level of respect. They are hoping their attack on Starmer will find him similarly amenable to blackmail-by-headline.

There is also something else that worries The Sun. As hyper class conscious it is, they're not concerned that Starmer is a secret leftie planning on nationalising the top 100 monopolies when he enters Downing Street. What causes a frisson of anxiety are the political dynamics the Labour Party can unleash. His new year speech outlined Starmer's project, what you could call authoritarian modernisation. He's promising "change" and pledging that his government are going to fix things. Without any details about how public services will work again without an injection of cash, these are less promises and more a case of good vibes. Even doing this is enough to rattle the Tories and their backers because after stretching every sinew to clamp down on expectations, Starmer is running the risk of raising them again. It doesn't matter that Labour is promising very little. If they're talking about hope and change there's a danger punters might take it seriously and start expecting more. That doesn't just mean more pressure on establishment politics: it throws into question the basis of the settlement both Starmer and the Tories have reasserted after Corbynism and after Covid. In other words, what The Sun fears is how, despite himself, the Labour leader could upset the balance of class politics.

As far as most of the ruling class is concerned, Starmer will look after their interests and undo the excesses of the Tories. Most of them are happy with what he and the shadow cabinet have laid out policy-wise and might even raise a glass or two when he enters Number 10. But for some, and this includes the The Sun, as the Corbyn years showed the world Labour can never fully be trusted. Even if they do end up printing It's Time for a Change on their front page, it's this fear that ensures The Sun is going to carry on attacking Starmer and talk up any future right wing opposition.