Tuesday 30 April 2024

Whither the Workers' Party of Britain?

At a slick rally-cum-press round outside of Westminster on Tuesday, George Galloway set out his ambitions for the Workers' Party of Britain. If the general election is "early" (June/July), there are 500 parliamentary candidates ready to go. If Rishi Sunak forces us to wait until November, they will stand in every seat in Britain. He added that he's in negotiations with three Labour MPs about defecting, and one member of the House of Lords. No hints who they might be, sadly. But he then bowled us a googly by announcing Monty Panesar as a star candidate. "I'm standing up for working class people", he said in a short statement. Asked about other candidates, Galloway said his party wouldn't contest some seats where there are strong independent challengers. He mentioned Jeremy Corbyn, should he decide to stand again, and hinted the same for Diane Abbott. Also, presumably, pro-Palestinian campaigns like that surrounding Leanne Mohamad in Ilford North - standing against Wes Streeting - will get a free run. But everywhere else, Galloway was adamant the coming election campaign would be a party building exercise. Those Labour MPs who are opposing Israel in Gaza will face a challenge as a vote for them is a vote for putting Keir Starmer in Number 10. Lest we forget his repugnant interview with Nick Ferrari, in which he endorsed war crimes.

There will be some on the left who routinely stand against Labour in elections who'll be put out by Galloway's ambition. The next steering committee meeting of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is bound to be a hoot. But as Richard Seymour rightly observes, that section of the left can't complain. The two biggest parties on the far left are more interested in sect building than anything more ambitious than that. Small wonder the RMT packed its bags and left TUSC hanging. Why put resources into an electoral effort that is furloughed from one election to the next? Galloway is responding to a political vacuum that, for others, is treated nothing more than an opportunity to recruit a few dozen paper sellers.

The question is can the Workers' Party capitalise on Galloway's by-election victory and make a breakthrough at the next election? Labour seem convinced that they'll oust the Gorgeous One from Rochdale, but I'm not so sure. It was often said that the coalition of support Tony Blair and New Labour built was a mile wide but only an inch deep. Yet, the party won three elections and enjoyed significant poll leads over the Tories for the majority of that time. Regardless of what one thinks of its politics, the Labour government showed resilience in office. The same cannot be said for the coalition Starmer is putting together. Attracting Tories is no substitute for putting down the social roots required to prevent his project from getting buffeted by the howling political winds. Yet, not only is this what Starmer is intent on doing his constant retreats from popular, Labourist policies are actively pulling up those roots. Speaking about hope without offering any is a fool's errand. While we see huge polling leads for Labour popular enthusiasm is lacking and Starmer's personal ratings are firmly in the negative. As such, with a Labour victory a complete certainty there isn't a better time for a left electoral challenge. Which Galloway knows well.

Therefore, it's quite possible the Workers' Party could make some significant inroads. At the campaign event, Galloway introduced Aroma Hassan, who is standing against Angela Rayner in Ashton-under-Lyne. He boldy predicted she would capture 10,000 votes, which puts Labour's deputy leader at risk (her majority is 4,263). Many have been the times when Labour politicians have lectured others about splitting the vote, and Galloway is deliberately playing up to this well worn fear. And why not? You only have to see the rhetoric from leading shadow ministers to see how they hold significant chunks of their voter base in contempt.

Knowing British politics, it's exceedingly unlikely the Workers' Party will poll anywhere near 10,000 votes in any constituency. Except Galloway's own. But apart from the well known issues with its leading personality, there are issues with the Workers' Party's politics that puts its long-term viability into doubt. Despite its name, the most enthusiastic support is drawn not from Muslims per se but Muslim business owners. The operation is well-funded by the standards of the British far left, and though Galloway is not short of a bob or two his consistent campaigning has attracted donors that would previously, as a matter of course, given money to the establishment parties. This helps explain why, despite the differences between the Workers' Party and Reform/Brexit Party/UKIP, on social issues and "values" they are equally as socially conservative, if not authoritarian. Hence the anti-trans posturing we saw in Rochdale. But also like other populist projects, it's irredeemably nostalgic. For instance, Amjad Bashir, the restaurateur and catering businessman, lifelong supporter of right wing politics and former UKIP MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber at today's campaign launch said he wanted to see manufacturing brought back to Britain. Nothing wrong with this, especially when more manufacturing should be re-shored to cut down on shipping and air freight emissions, but in this context it's about evoking an image of a Britain that's passed to make the party's would-be supporters feel secure about the future. A backward looking, small-c conservative, old Labour Britain you might say.

The problem is such a prospectus is extremely time-limited in its appeal. As argued here many times before, the anti-woke rubbish peddled by establishment politicians and their useful idiots is a reaction against the diversity of the working class as it exists today, in 2024. Galloway and the Workers Party fetishise an image of the worker that doesn't exist any more. Their resolutely hetero, masculine characterisation of the salt of the earth working class might play well to retired people and a petit bourgeois imaginary that appreciates graft, but for the rising generation it's likely to be a huge turn off. And that's before you talk about Brexit and "strong borders". As Starmer's government encounters difficulties, unless a different left force not so encumbered emerges then the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are well positioned to capture this discontent, precisely because the Workers' Party has put itself on the other side of actually-existing workers' interests. Therefore you might expect it to win votes in future from layers who have or might otherwise support Reform.

Nevertheless, that's for the future. Right now with the Israeli genocide of Gaza's Palestinians in full swing and the roiling anger hitting the streets weekend after weekend, Galloway is well placed to seize the moment and use it to power the strongest challenge from the left of Labour since Respect's heyday in 2005, if not the Communist Party at its height in the 1940s. And he's in such a position because the others outside of Labour have readily ceded the political ground to him.

Saturday 27 April 2024

The Defection of Dan Poulter

Dan Poulter's defection from the Tories to Labour is interesting. As a mental health doctor who has pulled shifts for the last decade, he said he couldn't look his NHS colleagues in the eye any more knowing the state the NHS has got into under this government. He also says the Tories have gone off to the right, and no longer approach the poorest and most vulnerable with compassion. On the face of it, a straightforward statement of one nation principles against a party that bears no resemblance to its philosophy and values.

The more cynically minded might have a different take. Poulter entered the Commons in 2010 and apart from chuntering about Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, he has been a mostly loyal member of the parliamentary party. When the Coalition government was whipping its members to force its two nation Toryism on the country via the programme of cuts, privatisations, and petty conditionalities, it never troubled Poulter enough to affect his voting record. There were grumbles about Tory attacks on junior doctors, but that didn't alter his politics any. The real reason is therefore obvious. Like Christian Wakeford before him, Poulter is jumping before he's pushed. He can see the writing's on the wall and he wants to survive the coming battle by defecting to the opposing army.

Yet this explanation doesn't work either. His Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency is a super safe Tory seat whose status isn't going to be compromised much by the boundary changes. And Poulter has said he won't be calling a by-election as he's standing down at the next election. All he hopes for is some input into Labour's programme for dealing with the mental health crisis. Not your usual rat run from the sinking Tory ship then. More a matter of Labour moving toward the Tories on so many things that he feels at home among Keir Starmer's PLP. Whether a berth in the House of Lords awaits remains to be seen, but it does appear Poulter has determined, from the standpoint of the interests his politics protects and serves, that Starmer is offering more of a go-er than the current idiocies of his former party.

Whatever the nature of any deal that has been struck, there are two points worth noting. This was supposed to be Rishi Sunak's best week for months. He had demonstrated "leadership" by finally getting his disgusting Rwanda bill through parliament, which put clear water between the Tories and Labour ahead of the local elections. He must be feeling cheesed off that the political coverage on the Sunday shows and in the Sunday papers will be dominated by more evidence of his party's decomposition. And the second shows how Starmer's strategy of kowtowing to elite interests is bearing fruit ... among elites. The Tory adjacent position takings are partly designed to ameliorate a press they're terrified will turn against them, but this is only one part of Starmer's plan. In his project to modernise the state he wants broad support from as wide a section of the establishment he can get. Even those who oversaw the horrors of the Dave/Osborne years. Bringing Poulter on board is, therefore, more significant than capturing a flighty, unreliable 2019 intake Tory like Wakeford because it demonstrates that Starmer's plan to build a wider coalition of elite constituents that crosses political lines has made significant progress. Where Poulter treads, more former Tories in the state and in the boardroom, if not in the Commons and the Lords, will follow.

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Friday 26 April 2024

Local Council By-Elections April 2024

This month saw 23,094 votes cast in 10 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Three council seats changed hands. For comparison with March's results, see here.

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

* There were two by-elections in Scotland
** There were two by-elections in Wales
*** There were two Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Alba (107), Common Ground (573), Fateham Residents (307), Propel (292), Reform (141), Sovereignty (41)

A rally before the inevitable slump? April is a funny old month in council by-election terms. The nearer to the May elections we get, the more vacancies are held over until the locals' polling day. It makes sense so stretched party activists can have by-election campaigns folded into a wider local effort. As such, this month is usually quiet and can lead to some properly distorted results. For example, last year there were only three by-elections, which meant Labour came away with almost half the vote. In 2024 there have been a lot more contests, and would you believe it the Tories have come out on top in votes won and seats captured. Given the state of the polls, we can firmly put its performance down to local authority quirks. In both cases, the wards taken were previously Independent-held. So make of that what you will. None of it suggests that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens won't make further gains at the Tories' expense this time next week.

NB Common Ground in 'Others' is a local pact between the Greens and Plaid Cymru in parts of Wales.

4 April
Cornwall, Looe West, Pelynt, Lansallos and Lanteglos, LDem hold
North Northamptonshire, Desborough, Con hold
Wealden, Uckfield New Town, Ind hold

11 April
Highland, Inverness South, Ind gain from LDem
North Yorkshire, Stray, Woodlands and Hookstone, LDem hold

16 April
Pembrokeshire, St Ishmaels, Con gain from Ind

18 April
East Cambridgeshire, Ely West, LDem hold
Waverley, Farnham Castle, Oth hold

25 April
Angus, Arbroath West, Letham and Friockheim, Con gain from Ind
Cardiff, Grangetown, Lab hold

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Thursday 25 April 2024

The Party's Over in Birmingham

No, not a comment on the hole Labour-run Birmingham City Council are in nor the chances of Tory mayor Andy Street holding on to the reins of power in the metropolitcam district, but a notice that I will be speaking in the second city!

The lovely people at the Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS) are hosting me to give a talk on, you guessed it, the book. Undoubtedly we will be talking about the crisis in the Conservative Party, Starmerism, the upcoming general election. You know, all the lovely stuff.

It's taking place on Wednesday 8th May, 3.00-4.30pm in room 112 in Muirhead Tower on the University of Birmingham campus. All welcome!

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Tuesday 23 April 2024

Rishi Sunak's Rwanda Fixation

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak don't get on at all well these days, but the former Prime Minister should be flattered by his successor twice removed. Sunak's determination to see the cruel and ludicrous Rwanda scheme through is straight from his strategic play book.

This morning, Sunak was crowing about how the passage of his bill last night changed "the global equation" on immigration. I.e. The Tories have convinced themselves that flying a few hundred traumatised people to Rwanda will deter people from trying to come here and, by extension, discourage others from handing their savings over to smuggling gangs so they can escape their countries. There's no hint of understanding let alone compassion because these most wretched of the earth do not figure as human beings in their political imaginary. When quizzed on this, Sunak says the deal the government struck with Albania has stopped Albanians from clambering onto the small boats. Rwanda will, he hopes, be a universal deterrent for all nationalities.

As forecast a while ago, Keir Starmer was always going to fixate on cost. But there is a point here. Why is this self-styled fiscally prudent government throwing good money after bad to make sure the planes take off? Without regurgitating the basics, which have been discussed here many times goes to the heart of their party's politics. Immigration is a traditional "strong issue" for them. It's something they can mobilise their base behind, and is something of a necessity now Nigel Farage's Reform are menacing their right flank. It's a means of demonstrating the Tories have the competence to govern. And there's the hope that repeatedly smashing the magic bigot button will reverse the polls and hand them an unexpected victory. After all, Leave won the Brexit referendum following a scurrilous anti-immigration campaign. "Controlling our borders" was also an essential prop of Johnson's "Get Brexit Done" election win.

But there is one overlooked component of this pathetic strategy: Sunak's copying of Johnson's Brexit strategy. Readers will recall that this most dishonest of politicians overcame the quibbles some had about him in 2019 by setting himself up as the most Brexity of that year's Tory leadership contenders, and when he was in Number 10 making sure the referendum result was seen through was his sole focus. Johnson proved his seriousness and won over millions of Leave voters by bulldozing through everything that was out to stop him. The courts. Sections of the Tory party. His own brother. And, finally, the Opposition he was able to goad into an election. His manifesto was thin, and enough of the electorate handed the Tories perhaps their greatest and emptiest victory ever.

Sunak is trying to work the same trick. No matter the money, no matter what the courts say, no matter that human rights legislation must be torn up and, in defiance of reality, Rwanda declared a land of milk and honey, Tory strategy is banking on enough voters being impressed by their singular purpose to award them victory. Or at least salvage enough support to head off a cataclysm. It's desperate and delusional stuff, but for the sake of saving a few votes from Farage's clutches they are quite prepared to sacrifice the hopes and health of any number of asylum seekers to achieve it.

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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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