Party on Boris

Just when one thinks British politics can become no more ridiculous, our current government manages to plumb new depths of farce. The best spin that can be put on Boris Johnson’s transparently mendacious explanation for his attendance at a lockdown-busting party in his own garden is that it is an ambitious attempt to gaslight the entire nation; inviting us to accept that he thought the crowd of people standing around drinking was just a normal work day at Number 10 is such an obvious lie that no rational person could possibly expect it to be believed, therefore we must conclude he is actually telling the truth.

If Johnson was hoping that this daring manoeuvre would disorientate the opposition then he has been woefully disappointed, as critics from every point of the political spectrum have lined up to solemnly contrast his callous frivolity with the noble sacrifices made by the population during the pandemic. Seldom can an easier target have been presented, and, most worryingly for Johnson, the condemnation is resonating far beyond Westminster, shaking the confidence of many Tory MPs, and fuelling talk of a leadership challenge.

So, slightly unexpectedly, we are presented with our first opportunity of the year to make a political prediction; will Boris still be Prime Minister at the end of this month?

I’m going to say yes, since serious candidates to replace him, like Rishi Sunak, are likely to be reluctant to take over at the top just when the country is facing a particularly rough patch, as the pandemic, Brexit, and spiralling energy prices combine to produce a cost of living crisis. Better to let Johnson take the flak for a bit longer, then make a move when the worst has passed. If Boris makes it to the end of the week then I think he’ll last until the summer at least, but he may not get the chance to host any more Christmas parties in Downing Street.

2021: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

After a relatively productive 2020 our posting rate fell off a bit this year, but we did manage to at least touch upon a few of the main political and cultural developments of the last twelve months.

Foremost among these was the continuing dislocation of the seemingly-endless covid-19 pandemic. Any optimism generated by the production of a vaccine has started to ebb away, as viral mutation has brought us to the brink of another dispiriting winter lockdown, sorely testing the population’s willingness to endure further restrictions. The government’s typically confused response has done little to inspire confidence that the situation will be under control any time soon. I guess at some point in the future we’re all going to be either immune or dead; perhaps we’ll get back to normality then.

For a while at the start of the year it looked like US politics might get quite interesting, but, once the smoke had cleared after the Capitol riot, things settled into a familiar routine; the competent but dull centerism of Joe Biden being frustrated by the characteristic obstructionism of an ever rightward-shifting GOP. Meanwhile the momentum for progressive change that had built up under the Trump administration has all but disappeared, as the left shifts its attention to looming defensive struggles around voting rights and reproductive autonomy.

Here in the UK, the last couple of months have seen problems mounting for Boris Johnson, as various scandals and electoral setbacks have given the lie to the notion that he was able to defy the normal rules of politics with his trademark bluster and charm. Bourgeois liberals, who had been in a state of demoralisation since the Brexit catastrophe, have greeted this development with joy, declaring confidently that it signifies a return to sensible moderation, and discouraging any talk of left alternatives, lest the electorate is frightened back into the arms of the Tories. I think this is exactly the wrong lesson to learn from the recent history of British politics; the reason Johnson has been able to make inroads into traditionally Labour-supporting areas is because the left has been too tentative in promoting a progressive vision, rather than over-confident. Pursuing a supposed centre ground just allows the right to set the agenda, dragging the country further into reaction. There are some signs of a left revival, especially in the devolved nations, but hope is still a scarce commodity.

Anyway, here are our top ten posts of 2021, by traffic:

  1. Red star shines on
  2. World Cup predictions revisited
  3. The Linden Principle
  4. Euro predictions
  5. Euro 2016 forecast
  6. Premature relaxation
  7. Fly me to the moon
  8. L’Italia è vittoriosa
  9. 02022020
  10. There is no land beyond the Volga

I’ve given up trying to analyse why some old posts suddenly become popular again, and I’m a bit disappointed that only one from this year made the cut, but at least a few of the vintage pieces are good ones.

Here are my favourite posts of the year:

Our global reach shrank a little this year, but we still managed to attract visitors from 40 countries; here are the top ten:

  1. United Kingdom
  2. United States
  3. China
  4. Japan
  5. Canada
  6. India
  7. Malaysia
  8. New Zealand
  9. Vietnam
  10. Germany

After a year when it sometimes seemed we were stuck in some sort of temporal loop, I have a feeling that 2022 might deliver some significant change, so there should be plenty of topics to comment upon; we’ll see if I manage to be a bit more productive. Whatever happens, I hope all our readers have a happy, safe, and prosperous New Year.

2021: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

According to the meticulous record I keep on our Tumblr, my consumption of Serious Cultural Experiences was up 17.46% over the course of 2021. This may or may not be related to a loosening of my criteria for what constitutes a Serious Cultural Experience; I’ll let you be the judge…

Television – This year saw me watch a lot more TV than I had for ages, partly because other entertainment options were somewhat limited, but mostly because I had signed up for several streaming services, and was determined to get my money’s worth. I have to admit that I sat through a lot of late-night junk, but I did follow a few of the series that received more positive critical attention, like The Queen’s Gambit, and WandaVision. My favourite was Pretend It’s a City, in which Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese trade anecdotes about life in New York, evoking the kind of classy intellectual milieu that I can only dream of being part of.

Film – I enjoyed WandaVision, but for about 90% of the time I had no idea what was going on, so, since I had already shelled out for the Disney+ subscription, I set out to fill the gap in my pop-culture knowledge by watching all the Marvel movies in timeline order, starting with Captain America: The First Avenger in May, and wrapping up with Avengers: Endgame just a few days ago. I’d hesitate to say that it was the most productive use I could have made of my time, but it was diverting, and there were some interesting themes explored, though personally I preferred the entries that stuck to the comic-book spirit over those that aimed for a more serious tone. I thought the best of the bunch was Captain Marvel, but that might just have been due to the grungy 90s soundtrack. I did go back to the cinema once it reopened, but I stuck to fairly undemanding entertainment rather than anything more heavyweight. I expect that The French Dispatch would have been my movie of the year if I had been organised enough to buy a ticket while it was still playing; since I wasn’t my vote goes to Last Night in Soho, with honourable mentions for Dune and House of Gucci.

Books – I didn’t read much fiction this year, or much non-fiction, or much of anything longer than a magazine article to be honest; too much TV I guess. Of the books I did manage, mostly old ones, I liked Balthazar, the second volume of the Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s biography of Richard Nixon (obviously), Will Self’s thinly-fictionalised autobiography Will, and, my favourite, John Updike’s The Centaur.

Music – I bought a lot of records in 2021; music is the one area of culture where I try hardest to keep up the pretence that I am somewhat in touch with the zeitgeist, albeit within the narrow parameters of my long-established taste. Here are ten albums I particularly liked:

  • The Shadow I Remember – Cloud Nothings
  • Flock – Jane Weaver
  • Electrically Possessed [Switched On Volume 4] – Stereolab
  • epic Ten – Sharon Van Etten
  • Bodies of Water – Moontype
  • Chaise Longue / Wet Dream – Wet Leg
  • Long Time Coming – Sierra Ferrell
  • Astral Spectra – Piney Gir
  • The Umbrellas – The Umbrellas
  • Sympathy for Life – Parquet Courts

I didn’t go to any concerts, even though the music scene did start to tentatively open up towards the end of year. I have tickets for a couple of shows next month, here’s hoping they go ahead.

So that was 2021 in culture; no big surprises, which is only to be expected at my age I suppose. Next up: the year in blogging.

Sæll Jól

So the great Cosmic Wheel keeps trundling along, and we find ourselves once again at the Winter Solstice, poised on the edge of the bitter deep winter, but with the promise of lengthening days, and eventually Spring, if we can just hold on for another few months…

Viral déjà vu revisited

I may find the unchanging nature of Second Life strangely comforting, but the fact that events in the real world seem to be stuck on infinite repeat is rather more unsettling. Almost exactly a year ago we were dealing with the disappointment of Christmas being cancelled due to the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus, and, well, here we are again.

Of course the outlook is not quite as gloomy as it was last December; the reasonably high rate of vaccination in the UK population does give some cause for optimism. Set against that however is the ever more obvious incompetence of the government, presided over by the increasingly ridiculous figure of Boris Johnson, lurching from scandal to scandal, his authority so diminished that he struggles to win the support of his own party for the measures necessary to head off the resurgent pandemic. In another echo of the recent past, a hazardous by-election this week, in what should be a safe Tory seat, seems likely to precipitate a fresh crisis for Johnson, potentially rendering him powerless at just the time the country needs decisive leadership.

It could be worse I guess; Brexit might be going badly

Rediscovered life

Around now is the time every year when I look at my credit card statement and realise that I have once again forgotten to cancel my Second Life premium membership plan. The annual cost went up to $99 a few years ago, though I do get the equivalent of a buck a week back in the form of a Linden dollar allowance, so it works out at a little under $4 a month, which I guess isn’t too bad compared with what I spend on other forms of entertainment.

Anyway, this inspired me to dig out the old android tablet I have that still has a copy of the now-unobtainable Lumiya viewer installed. I hadn’t tried to use this for ages, so I wasn’t really expecting it to work, but, rather surprisingly, it did, and I found myself back in the familiar surroundings of my virtual alpine cabin.

It’s been two years at least since I was last on the grid, so I was thinking that things might have changed a little, but everything looked just the same. Of course I was using an ancient viewer, which was never graphically pretty even when it was new, and certainly won’t support whatever upgrades might have been engineered in the interim, but the sense of sameness came from more than just the rather dated visuals. Wandering around, there was that old feeling of emptiness that I remembered from when I used to visit more regularly. The land surrounding my cabin, once heavily developed, is now completely abandoned, and there didn’t seem to be another living soul in the whole region.

The post-apocalyptic ambience was always part of the charm of SL for me, but the apparent lack of paying customers does make me wonder how it is still a sustainable business model. Perhaps there are just enough people like me who are prepared to maintain their subscriptions, for reasons they can’t quite articulate, to keep the show on the road. Linden Lab was bought over by a private investment group last year, which suggests that someone believes there is still money to be made from the virtual world, though Tilia, the money services part of the business, may have been more attractive than SL itself. They might be looking to profit from some crypto/NFT-related plan, which seems to be the way the broader video game industry is going.

I did think the new owners might prioritise the release of an official mobile client, but the plan to develop such a thing was apparently abandoned earlier this year. This mystifies me, since the need to buy the sort of computer that can run the desktop viewer must be a major barrier to growing the user base. Monetising those new residents would probably be a big challenge though; perhaps venture capitalists do know more about running tech companies than amateur bloggers.

Whatever; I’ve been in SL for nearly 15 years now, so I expect I’ll preserve my little patch there until the bitter end, even if my visits are few and far between.

Wild west

It’s been far too long since I was last in the US; my last trip was all the way back in the 20th century. I had made a vague arrangement to visit a couple of old friends in California in the summer of 2020, but events obviously overtook those plans, so we tentatively rescheduled for next year.

I’ve had all my vaccinations, so I should be clear to travel, but I have to say I’m having some second thoughts, now that it seems to be legal for for heavily-armed white supremacists to roam the country, shooting leftists at will.

Of course any of my non-white comrades reading this will be rolling their eyes at the thought of an old, white, middle-class male like me being concerned about falling victim to the sort of state-sponsored violence that is just everyday reality for oppressed communities in the US, so I guess I will get over myself and brave the journey to the Pacific coast. I mean, what else would I have to be worried about?

An unfair COP

I didn’t exactly have high expectations of the COP26 summit, which wound up this weekend, but I did think that it might produce an outcome a little more upbeat than the two main themes that emerged; namely that the climate situation is even worse than we thought, and no one is going to do anything about it.

Well perhaps some things are going to be done, and I suppose we should be thankful that full-blown climate change denialism seems to have gone out of fashion, but still, it’s difficult to be optimistic when one considers the scale of the political and economic transformation that would be required merely to limit the damage to near-apocalyptic levels. Just providing developing nations with the means to secure their populations against the disasters that are already unfolding would involve a transfer of wealth of almost unimaginable magnitude, and there is no sign that the developed world is ready to pay up, even though it would just be restitution for the resources looted since the dawn of the colonial era.

Instead of facing reality, we are invited to believe that capitalism, which got us into this mess, will get us out of it, by pivoting to a profit-driven green revolution, allowing we in the west to continue enjoying our high-consumption lifestyles, just as long as the world’s poor masses don’t mess it up by demanding to join us.

Unsurprisingly, countries like India and China are not on board with this, and even within the richer nations the increased inequality in wealth evident over the last 20 years means many citizens will be wondering why they are being asked to compromise already precarious livelihoods for benefits they are unlikely to enjoy.

The fundamental problem is the lack of democratic legitimacy of the institutions that have the power to influence the kind of global adjustments required to bring climate change under some sort of control. As long as people, and nations, see organisations like the IMF making decisions that clearly favour certain countries, and a certain class within those countries, then they will be reluctant to believe that the sacrifices they are being asked to make will really benefit some collective good.

So is there any solution? A world government, with a true mandate from the people, might have the authority to turn things around, but that’s obviously not something that’s going to materialise in the near future, so I guess we’ll just have to keep organising locally, make the changes in our own lives that we can, and hope that the common humanity of the masses will help us to unite to overcome this challenge.

Autumnal musings

In our last post I identified my earliest political memory as being of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979, but that isn’t entirely accurate, since I also have a somewhat hazy recollection of the months leading up to the poll, subsequently known as the Winter of Discontent.

It’s a period mythologised by the Tories as a dark age of socialism from which the blessed Maggie delivered us, so it’s difficult to know which of my memories relate to actual experience, and which are just apocryphal tales that I’ve absorbed from the media; I would swear that during that freezing winter I played with my friends on streets cast into darkness by city-wide power cuts, but I can’t find any documentary evidence to back that up. Economic uncertainty and labour unrest were certainly at levels rarely seen since though, and, however Prime Minister Jim Callaghan may have been misquoted, it all added up to a crisis. As is often true of times of political realignment, the exact details are perhaps less important than the sense throughout society that the present arrangements are unsustainable, and that something has to change.

Anyway, I’m thinking about all this because there seems to be a general feeling around at the moment that the winter ahead is going to be a difficult one, what with the economy still hobbled by the twin shocks of Brexit and the pandemic, the health service in no shape to cope with any new wave of coronavirus, and surging food and fuel prices threatening a return to 70s-style inflation. On top of that we also have to worry about climate change, with no sign that the COP26 talks starting this week will produce any sort of plan to mitigate the looming environmental apocalypse.

Back in 1978 there was at least a powerful labour movement to give some protection to workers, and the political class of that time, though unequal to the challenge they faced, were far more serious and competent than the current administration. A decade of austerity has left millions balanced precariously on the edge of poverty, and the latest developments could push them over, with unpredictable consequences for the social fabric of the nation; “discontent” may turn out to be somewhat of an understatement.

History, man

I’ve been around long enough to have lived through a good number of events that seem likely to be viewed by posterity as historically significant. The earliest of these that I was really conscious of was Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the UK General Election of 1979; I remember hearing the results coming in and, even with a child’s limited experience, feeling that a lot of what I understood about how the world worked was about to change. So it proved; Thatcher, along with Ronald Reagan in the US, and ideological allies elsewhere, went on to unravel the Keynesian settlement of the post-war years, and usher in the neoliberal decades that were to follow.

All this coincided with my early adult life, during which I received my formative political education, so it’s not surprising that I tend to think of the 1980s, bookended by the Thatcher/Reagan revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the key period in recent history, but of course to anyone under about the age of 40 subsequent developments probably loom larger.

Foremost among these might be the events of September 11th 2001, which are once again prominent in the public consciousness, due to the 20th anniversary, but also because of the recent ignominious conclusion of the western imperial adventure in Afghanistan.

Joe Biden has come under intense criticism for his handling of the US departure, mainly from those, like Tony Blair, who were responsible for expanding the “War on Terror” from a defensive strike against the likes of Al-Qaeda into a mission to forcibly reshape the world into the image of bourgeois liberal democracy, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond, but his decision to honour the withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor was a pragmatic recognition that the task was impossible.

So once again it feels like the tectonic plates of global politics are moving into a new orientation, and we are left to try to make sense of what is happening, and anticipate what may develop. When I was taking my first political steps back in the days of Thatcher, I was taught to take a long view, and look for the antecedents that could explain the trajectory of events. I think this is the right approach, though my experience on the left over the years has been that we tend to use our analytical tools less to fashion victories, and more to understand defeats. I worry sometimes that the current generation of activists lacks this historical perspective; we seem to live in an era where the only thing that can capture people’s attention is what is happening directly to them, right now. But that’s probably just the old man in me grousing that the youngsters don’t pay us veterans enough respect, and envying their opportunity to succeed where we failed. I’ll be history myself soon enough, and while I may be a little irked that I’m unlikely to see the promised land, I’m sure we’ll get there before too long.

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