Super Thursday

Potentially significant political developments in the UK today, as voters have gone to the polls for local council elections in England, and the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales.

In England, despite the almost comical incompetence and corruption of the Johnson administration at Westminster, the Conservatives seem set to do quite well. This looks to be due to a combination of opposition disarray, and an weary electorate willing to give the incumbent credit for finally getting the pandemic under some sort of control.

There is some better news from Scotland, where the SNP and Greens appear certain to deliver a pro-independence majority in the new Parliament, which will trigger a constitutional crisis, as their demand for a rerun of the 2014 referendum meets the implacable opposition of the government in London to such a poll, The resulting popular debate should provide some opportunity for progressive agitation.

Although the outcome of these elections will impact on me personally much more than that of the US elections, I have been finding it hard to get as excited about them as I was last November. I voted, of course (for the Greens, in the absence of any more left-wing options), but I didn’t really follow the ins and outs of the campaign. I’m putting this down to the general dullness of our politicians, though I’m sure the numbing effect of the extraordinary year we have just endured has been significant too.

Anyway, the results are due to come in over the next day or two, so I’ll try to pay a bit more attention, and come up with some slightly more in-depth analysis of what it all means for the future.

Oscars 2021

Around this time last year I was congratulating myself on having been to the cinema frequently enough over the previous twelve months to have an opinion on who was going to win what at the Academy Awards. In the event my predictions were well off, but I felt at least a little more in touch with the zeitgeist than usual.

This year though, despite there being little else to do for entertainment, and my subscription to three separate streaming services notwithstanding, I’ve watched hardly any new films, and only one with any Oscar nominations; The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I thought was OK, but not brilliant. I have read enough reviews to guess that Nomadland might do well, but otherwise I’m pretty much clueless. Perhaps if I cram a year’s worth of cinephilia into the next ten days I’ll be able to watch the ceremony without feeling like a complete philistine.

Still looking at the stars

We already commemorated Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight on the half centennial back in 2011, so we’ll just mark the 60th anniversary by linking to that post, and noting sadly that, despite our hopes a decade ago, capitalism is still going strong, and inequality is worse than ever. Perhaps we’ll have better news to report in 2031…

A bit longer to reign over us

Sombre music has been playing on the radio today, as the nation, or at least that part of it that takes an interest in such things, mourns the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Unsurprisingly, given that he was 99, and had been in poor health recently, the BBC and the serious newspapers had detailed obituaries ready to roll out. Philip certainly had an eventful early life; fleeing with his family when the Greeks decided they had no further need of monarchs, wandering penniless around Europe in the 30s, smartly choosing the right side to fight on in the war, then striking lucky by marrying into the only royal family on the continent that still had some staying power. Much has been made of his sacrifice in accepting a supporting role to his spouse when she ascended to the throne, and it is true that his life after 1952 was weighed down by the call of desperately dull duty, though I imagine that the limitless wealth and privilege provided some compensation.

The Duke’s passing is of course merely a dress-rehearsal for the main event; the day when Elizabeth II herself exits this mortal realm. No doubt in the weeks to come we will hear a lot about how the institution of monarchy provides the country with a reassuring stability, and I expect that when a succession eventually occurs there will be little in the way of serious protest. Despite the regal facade the country is already a de facto bourgeois republic, so the ruling class have no motivation to upset the current order, while the proletariat have more pressing struggles to address. In any case the Queen’s longevity means that no one under the age of 90 has had to think much about the issue, and the easy option will be to just let the show roll on. I’m sure we’ll get around to abolishing the monarchy eventually, but it may be some time before all the Windsors are obliged to actually earn a living.

@R.Mutt

After posting our last piece about non-fungible tokens, it struck me that perhaps I was missing the point, and that such works should be read conceptually. Interpreted thusly, NFTs would be akin to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, mass-produced objects given significance by being chosen by the artist, and could even be seen as a critique of the commodification of art, rather than just a particularly crass example of it. It does seem like a lot of meaning to hang on a five-word tweet though, even one worth $2.9 million.

Thinking about Duchamp reminded me of seeing his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, during a visit to that city nearly thirty years ago. I don’t recall much else about that trip, though I was there for a few days, so I guess I must have seen the Liberty Bell, and all the other historical sights. I do remember the youth hostel, a rambling wooden structure in what didn’t seem to be the most salubrious part of town. The weather was good though, so it was nice to sit in the garden in the evening, chatting with the other travellers. I need to take another long vacation in the US sometime; hopefully it won’t be too long before that’s possible again.

Comfortably fungible

Exciting news from the world of non-fungible tokens, where a work by renowned digital artist Krista Kim sold this week for a cool 288 Ether, which is apparently equivalent to quite a lot of real money.

I’ll admit that I’ve only seen the piece in question, a futuristic virtual dwelling, on the tiny, cracked screen of my ageing phone, but to me it looks very like the sort of build one could pick up in Second Life for a few Linden dollars back in 2009. The big difference is that Ms Kim’s creation incorporates some kind of blockchain technology to make it non-replicable, though why that should imbue this otherwise unremarkable artefact with such value still escapes me. It’s not an isolated case though; NFTs are evidently the latest in fashionable investment.

The spectacle of huge sums being squandered on such fripperies is pretty depressing in itself, but what I find most unsatisfactory about the whole NFT phenomenon is the way it takes the democratic content of mass production – the idea that everyone can have their own copy of something, with no one instance having any more intrinsic worth than another – and twists it to suit the values of late-stage capitalism, with its insistence that some things must be more important than others.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how long NFT mania will last before it runs out of steam. Like all speculative bubbles, it is driven by the fact that, at this point in the boom-bust cycle, capital must seek out ever more exotic investment opportunities in order to secure a decent rate of return. The pandemic looks likely to cut some dead wood out of the economy though, creating the potential for a renewed round of accumulation, so venture capitalists might soon find that they have better things to do with their money than buy overpriced jpegs, leaving the people left holding the bitcoins in serious trouble.

That said, I’m sure there’s still a lot of money to be made in blockchain-related investment, for those with the brains and the nerve to try to predict when the market will peak. I am definitely not in that number though, so I’ll be watching from the sidelines, sipping espresso from my Alessi cup (mass-produced can still be classy), and waiting for the whole thing to come crashing down.

Dreams of a Red planet

With events on Earth seemingly stuck in an endless cycle of discouragement, it was refreshing this week to hear some good news from another part of the cosmos, as NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars.

The fact that we can send a 1000 kg vehicle across 480 million km of space to automatically land more or less exactly where we planned does suggest that humanity, operating collectively, has no shortage of technical knowledge, the application of which could surely solve most, if not all, of the problems facing us today. What’s holding us back is a political culture which prioritises the enrichment of a few individuals over the advancement of the mass of the population. Unfortunately changing that is a challenge which makes space travel look easy.

Got myself injected

Having managed to dodge the coronavirus for the best part of a year, despite working in some relatively high-risk areas, last week I stood in line and received my first dose of vaccine. If the outcome data is as good as has been reported (and there’s no reason to believe that it isn’t) it’s looking like I have a reasonably good chance of coming out of this pandemic essentially unscathed, physically at least.

The jab I got was the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine BNT162b2, described in the product literature as “highly purified single-stranded, 5’-capped messenger RNA (mRNA) produced by cell-free in vitro transcription from the corresponding DNA templates, encoding the viral spike (S) protein of SARS-CoV-2”. The fact that our species is capable of even imagining such a thing, let alone developing and manufacturing it on an industrial scale in little over twelve months since the virus emerged, does give one some hope for the future of humanity.

Of course the mere existence of this vaccine, and the others that have become available over the last couple of months, would count for little without a reliable distribution system, but, happily, our local inoculation programme seems to be rolling out reasonably efficiently. Less happily, production problems have reportedly resulted in a shortage of supply in the rest of the EU, indirectly straining the Brexit trade deal barely a month after it was signed. I guess the last year should have taught me that, for every piece of encouraging news there is bound to be an equally dispiriting counterpoint.

Incomplete deliverance

Back in 2016 I identified the story of Donald Trump’s run for President as a narrative of national redemption; the US, having peered into the abyss of fascism, would reject such Old World extremism, and confidently carry on down the road of enlightenment and democracy.

It’s taken four years longer than I expected, but, with today’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, our transatlantic cousins do seem to be bringing the tale to a happy ending. Even the most optimistic liberal would have to recognise that it’s not that simple though. One can hardly say that the country unequivocally rejected Trump, when he won nearly 75 million votes, more than he received in 2016. He would almost certainly have been re-elected were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, and, even if the man himself is forced to retire from politics by his various legal entanglements, there are plenty of would-be successors ready to take up his mantle.

I would argue that Trump was not the antithesis of the American experiment, but rather its inevitable conclusion. The divisions that he exploited were there from the start, and while Joe Biden may be able to calm things for a while with an injection of administrative competence, in the long run more radical solutions will surely be required. Perhaps future generations will look back on the Trump era, not exactly with gratitude, but at least as the time when the need for change became inarguably obvious.

Premature insurrection

Events in Washington this week have, understandably enough, provoked a fair bit of pearl-clutching among both liberals and conservatives, the latter especially declaring themselves shocked – shocked! – that an unstable narcissist, whose every whim they had hitherto indulged, should stoop so low as to defile the sacred grove of democracy that is the US Capitol.

One does not wish to make light of an incident that cost five people their lives, but I think history will see this episode not as a thwarted rebellion, but rather a case of the deluded experiencing a hard collision with reality. Trump and his followers may yearn for a fascist coup, but there is no sign that the bulk of the US ruling class is ready to contemplate that level of disruption. Why would they? There is no significant anti-capitalist threat from the left – such movements that exist, particularly BLM, are asking the right questions, but the situation is nothing like Germany in the 30s, when there was a mass Communist Party, and the recent example of a successful proletarian revolution in Russia. US capital has time to give Joe Biden a chance to calm things down, and has no need to turn to Hitler figure just yet.

That’s not to say there won’t be more mayhem from the extreme right in the months to come, but the important thing to remember is that violence is not synonymous with a threat to state power, and, conversely, non-violence can be the strongest agent for change. This explains why the peaceful marches for racial equality over the summer were met with massed ranks of National Guardsmen, while Trump’s goons were allowed more or less free rein to run riot in the halls of Congress, at least until the spectacle became too embarrassing. The State knows which group presents a real danger to its existence, and which can be allowed to blow off a bit of steam.

My worry is not that the fascists will seize control of the government, but that their foot-soldiers will be co-opted by the government as a tool against the left. Countering this will require organisation and education, to win the disaffected away from the right, and into the struggle for progressive change.