Memories of futures past

I’ve been trying all day to recall the first time I saw Back to the Future Part II, or indeed if I’ve ever watched it all the way through. I definitely didn’t see it in the cinema, but I can vaguely remember parts of the plot, so I guess I must have caught it on TV sometime. (I know when I saw the original movie; at an all-night sci-fi film festival when I was in college. Also on the bill: Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner and one of my all-time favourites Trancers, so a pretty good night, especially since just about everyone there was completely baked.)

Predictably enough, a wave of nostalgia has been sweeping the internet today, as my fellow Gen-Xers, in characteristic fashion, use an 80s pop-culture reference as an excuse to look wistfully back at the hopes they used to have for the future. I’m tempted to join in, because I miss being in my 20s too, but there’s only so much that can be written lamenting the non-appearance of hoverboards before it all sounds a bit self-indulgent.

In any case I’m not particularly unhappy with how things have turned out in my life, though of course it hasn’t gone quite the way I imagined it would back in the 80s (not that I have a terribly clear memory of what my youthful hopes and plans actually were.) It would probably bother me more to think that everything had unfolded in a predictable way, without any randomness or serendipity.

Anyway, I’ve reached a point now where I no longer really look forward, or back, but just try to be in the moment, (which is, of course, the secret to happiness.) I like to think that this serenity is the result of a conscious effort on my part, but it probably owes more to my unconscious need to avoid acknowledging my many failures, and my ultimate mortality. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up for the next 30 years…

Underdogs have their day

No question about what was the big political story this weekend; Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership contest. That he would win hadn’t been in serious doubt for a while, but the margin of his victory was crushing, and has given him a clear mandate to reinvent the party along centre-left lines.

To some extent this is less surprising than it seems; in a European context the UK has been out of step over the last 20 years in having both main parties on the centre-right, and a leftward shift for Labour is really just a reversion to a longer-term status quo.

What is uncertain though is the effect that two decades of right-wing consensus has had on the outlook of the general electorate. The view among what can be broadly termed the political elite, which includes the newly-deposed Labour Party hierarchy, is that the ideas espoused by Corbyn and his allies, particularly on economic issues, may play well with existing Labour supporters, but leave the bulk of the population cold, rendering the party unelectable. The counter-argument is that there is a hidden majority in the country, currently alienated from mainstream politics, who have been waiting for someone like Corbyn to articulate a progressive agenda that they can support, and who will sweep a rejuvenated Labour to power. The last election produced some evidence for both positions; the SNP did well in Scotland by mobilising voters around a programme of limited social democracy, but the Conservatives did win overall with an unrepentant pro-austerity manifesto.

Time will tell I guess. The first electoral test for Corbyn’s Labour will be the Scottish Parliament poll next year, assuming they make it that far without splitting, but that campaign will be beset by all sorts of local issues, so it may be hard to draw many firm conclusions from the outcome. The local elections in England and Wales might be a better indicator of how far the Corbyn revolution can extend.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there are signs that Bernie Sanders may be poised to pull off a similar upset. That seems like more of a long shot though, so I’m sticking with my prediction of Hillary Clinton for the nomination. Still, it’s looking more interesting than it did a few months ago. The real entertainment is in the Republican contest of course, but I can’t see that being more than a sideshow.

Long to reign over us

Around 5.30 this evening Queen Elizabeth II became the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch, beating the 63-and-a-bit years managed by her great-great-grandmother Victoria. She shows no signs of flagging, so the second Elizabethan age is likely to run for a while longer, much to the chagrin of republicans like myself.

It’s easy to view British royalty as a quaint and essentially harmless anachronism, given that Elizabeth has largely refrained from directly interfering in politics, and the country is effectively a typical bourgeois democratic republic, but I think that underestimates the extent to which the institution of the monarchy underpins the conservative structure of our political culture. There is a big psychological difference between being a subject and being a citizen, and the deference to authority that is inherent in a monarchical system is a major barrier to progressive change.

Generations have grown up seeing Elizabeth on the throne as a fact of life, and her longevity has meant that the patent ridiculousness of choosing a head of state by bloodline hasn’t been a live political issue in recent years. Even queens are mortal though, and some day the country will have to consider whether the royal charade should go on. I can’t believe that the succession, when it comes, will be a smooth one; surely reason will prevail and Elizabeth will go down in history as not only our longest-serving monarch, but also our last one.

Summer torpor

So here we are at the end of August; another month past, another month where I’ve mentally composed posts on all sorts of interesting subjects, but not quite got around to writing them down. Pieces on politics, comparing and contrasting the Trump surge and Corbyn-mania, or weighing up Bernie‘s chances of upsetting Hillary. Articles on the interface of psychology and technology, referencing the APA paper on violence and video games, or considering what the Ashley Madison hack reveals about online identity. General philosophical musing on the nature of time, and how an instant can seem endless while weeks pass in a flash.

Alas, all this will be lost, unless I get my act together and start posting before I forget it all, a turn of events, which, in light of my recent history, seems highly unlikely. I guess the world might just get by without my thoughts on these matters, but I’d regret not saving them for posterity, so I’ll try to make September a little more fruitful.

Further thoughts on the Greek situation

I’ve sat down a few times this week intending to write something about what’s happening in Greece, but the situation has been so fluid it’s been hard to make much sense of it. Things do seem to have settled into some sort of pattern over the last couple of days though, so I’ll hazard some thoughts.

My suspicion that the Germans would stick to a hard line seems to have been right; what was more surprising was the speed with which the Syriza government caved in. Their capitulation has been met with bewilderment and not a little anger in left-wing circles, coming as it did only a few days after they had received a strong mandate from Greek workers in the referendum.

Accusations of selling-out are a little unfair I think; Tsipras and those around him seem to have expected the Germans to back down, and, when it became obvious that that wasn’t going to happen, to have calculated that it was better to remain in power, and try to offset the worst of the austerity, rather than walk away. There is some logic in this position, though, given that they have just signed away a big chunk of sovereignty, the scope for resistance may be limited.

Where Syriza can be criticicised is for allowing themselves to be boxed into such a position. They seem to have drastically underestimated the extent to which the Germans would be prepared to sacrifice their economic interests to maintain their political power. From what I have read of accounts of the negotiations it sounds as if the Greeks approached them like an academic debate, in which cold logic would win out, rather than the vicious political street fight that the Germans engaged in.

It is hard to understand why this was so; Syriza may be a broad coalition, but plenty of their senior members are experienced activists who should have seen this coming. There are reports that some in the Left Block of the party were arguing that more preparations should be made for the possibility of an exit from the Euro, but very few practical steps to this end seem to have been taken.

As things stand it is looking like a defeat for the left, but all is not lost. There will certainly be a realignment of anti-austerity forces, and while the bailout agreement has been passed by the Greek parliament it it far from clear that the Tsipras government will be able to push through the most unpopular provisions, given the level of politicisation and mobilisation of the Greek working class. There are splits emerging in the Troika too; the IMF, which is more interested in getting at least some of its money back than preserving German hegemony in Europe, may force Berlin to accept some write-off of the debt.

There are also some signs that pan-European solidarity with the Greeks may be stirring, most crucially in Germany. Even in the UK, which is always a bit detached from these things, there have been demonstrations and collections of cash for food banks and free clinics in Greece. This may not significantly alter the course of events, but might alleviate at least some of the pain.

If we have learned one thing from the last two weeks though, it’s that this crisis is far from settled, and there will undoubtedly be more unexpected developments before we can say that it is over.


So the Greeks held their collective nerve and voted No on Sunday; now we wait to see whether Germany will follow through on the threat to throw Greece out of the Euro, and perhaps out of the EU altogether.

On the face of it, it makes no economic sense to take such drastic action over what, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively small sums of money, but this has always been as much a political crisis as an economic one, and, in political terms, allowing popular democracy to win out over neoliberal discipline is a much bigger threat to Europe’s rulers than even the worst shocks that might follow a Grexit from the Euro.

So my money (euro, not drachma) is on Merkel sticking to her hard line. Whatever happens, difficult times ahead for Greece.


I’ve been involved in a lot of political activity over the years, but, being honest, I have to admit that most of it has been, if not exactly inconsequential, then marginal at best. A few minor victories here, some setbacks there, nothing that will trouble the historians. I don’t mean this dismissively; progress has always come in countless tiny increments, and some occasional leaps, and it’s usually only with the benefit of hindsight that we can tell what is significant.

That said, I have often found myself daydreaming about what it would have been like to have been around when things were really going down – Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936, Cuba in 1953, Chile in 1973; when the struggle reached a point of crisis and irrevocable choices had to be made. In the accounts I have read of such times life certainly seems to take on an intensity unmatched in my own more pedestrian experience, but often at a considerable personal cost to those involved. On balance I guess I’m glad to have lived, so far at least, in a relatively quiet period.

Of course no one really gets to choose the circumstances they live through, and people can find themselves making history without ever having sought out that responsibility. Such is the fate of the population of Greece, who go to the polls tomorrow to choose between two visions of their future, and perhaps of the future of Europe.

I wouldn’t presume, from my position of comfort in Northern Europe, to fully understand the pressures that will weigh on the Greeks as they cast their ballots, but if I were there I would be voting No. It’s far from certain that a rejection of the EU austerity plan will give Syriza the leverage they need to negotiate a better deal, but accepting a continuation of the disastrous program of the last few years will surely condemn the Greek working class to inescapable poverty.

What I have heard about the political engagement of Greek workers is encouraging, and I am hopeful that they will back Syriza in sufficient numbers to deliver a victory, though it looks like it will be close. Whatever the outcome, something has started – the long, difficult process of turning Europe away from its current course. It’s a task that will require united action across the whole continent, but the movement in Greece could be the inspiration those of us who have thus far lagged behind need to get our act together.

Making up time

Today is going to be one second longer than usual, and I feel I should use the extra time to catch up on my blogging duties. There are two obvious stories that we really should have covered in the past month, but, for one reason and another, never got round to. The first one is the tale of Rachel Dolezal, which is right up our street, concerning as it does issues of social identity and personal reinvention, which we’ve considered many times in the context of virtual worlds. The second, and I think rather more important, is the unfolding situation in Greece, which looks set to come to a head with the referendum this weekend, and is likely to have knock-on effects across the continent, not least on the ongoing debate on EU membership in this country.

So, plenty of work to do. I’ll get right on to it tomorrow…

They were defeated, we won the war

The Battle of Waterloo took place 200 years ago today, and the anniversary has been marked with varying degrees of enthusiasm across Europe; here in the UK we have had reenactments and services of thanksgiving, while the French, perhaps unsurprisingly, have more or less ignored it.

Napoleon’s final defeat is generally remembered, in this country at least, as a stirring British victory over French tyranny; this overlooks the fact that, over the course of the Napoleonic wars, Britain contributed relatively little to the fighting on the ground, preferring to subsidise continental allies. Napoleon was undone by his disastrous campaign in Russia, and his real climatic defeat came at the Battle of Leipzig; the 100 days leading up to Waterloo was just a bloody coda.

It’s understandable that the British establishment, facing present-day worries about its place in Europe, should turn to the past for comfort. At the time of the battle the UK was little over a century old; Wellington’s victory cemented the nation and ushered in an era of British dominance that didn’t begin to falter until the First World War.

Whatever one thinks of Napoleon, the defeat of the French Republic at the hands of an alliance of monarchies was hardly a victory for progress. The Congress of Vienna saw the Bourbons restored in France, and entrenched absolutism across the continent, hastening the rise of Prussia and setting the scene for the tragic century that was to follow.

The ideals of the revolution could not be held down though. It wasn’t long before the French people rose again, and after years of struggle, a Second Empire, and another war against the Prussians, they were eventually done with kings for good. The Paris Commune, cruelly suppressed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, was the high point of this period, and is still inspirational today.

So perhaps the French, who, in my experience, know their history very well, are right to be ambivalent about Waterloo. The Ancien RĂ©gime can win a battle, but the war goes on.

Polls apart

So how accurate did my election forecast turn out to be? Well, I correctly predicted that the vote would happen yesterday, but got just about everything else wrong. I don’t feel too bad though, since even the professional pollsters were way out, and nobody was talking about a Conservative majority.

Which is of course the nightmare scenario. Things were bad enough in the last parliament, when the Tories were at least mildly restrained by the LibDems, so goodness knows how grim it will get in the next few years. Last time round there was some hope that the rightward drift of the government might provoke a left-leaning backlash, but, outside of Scotland (where the situation is more complicated than it looks at first glance), that never really materialised, and the chances of a progressive resurgence seem even slimmer today.

Oh well, back to the barricades I guess. Though I’m getting too old for all that street politics stuff…


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