Pete Shelley RIP

Sad news tonight of the sudden death of punk icon Pete Shelley, lead singer of the legendary Buzzcocks.

I was too young to see the band in their original incarnation, but I got into them towards the end of my school days, and listened to them a lot when I was in college, a time in my life when lovelorn pop-punk was exactly the right soundtrack. Of course I eventually grew out of that phase, and it’s a good while since I last put on one of their records, but I still turn the sound up, and dance around a bit, if they come on the radio.

Anyway, here’s my favourite Buzzcocks tune – how could it ever let me down?

Remembrance Day 2018

When I was younger there seemed to be a clear distinction between the general cultural perception of the two global conflicts of the 20th century; while everyone agreed that defeating the Nazis in WW2 was an unequivocally just cause, WW1 was almost universally viewed as a senseless affair that had sent the youth of the nation to their death for no particular reason.

A century on from the end of the Great War everything is much more fuzzy. The tone of today’s Remembrance Day events, while not exactly celebrating war, does convey the idea that there was a nobility to the sacrifice of the fallen, and that no further comment is needed, certainly nothing that questions why they fell.

This is understandable to some extent; the political upheavals of the 19th century which primed the conflagration that finally ignited in 1914 are all but incomprehensible today, and simple human stories of loss and resilience are much more accessible. However we must not allow our instinct to support the men and women who went off to fight in that war (and all the wars since), commendable though it is, to be used to silence criticism of war itself.

There is an irony in the fact that, as our leaders gather to put on a show of respect for the millions who died in WW1, the structures that have kept the peace in Europe for the last 60 years are being dismantled, and the world is moving back towards the sort of Great Power politics that led to disaster a century ago. We owe it to the dead, and the living, to oppose this, and ensure that never again do workers kill workers in a capitalist war.

Northern lights

If, as looks increasingly inevitable, our dysfunctional government is unable to negotiate an orderly withdrawal from the EU, we may, enthusiastic Brexiteers tell us, end up enjoying the delights of free trade with the rest of the globe, especially North America.

I wouldn’t say that I was particularly keen on this, not least because we already have beneficial trade arrangements with most of the world, through the EU, and any unilateral deals we negotiate, from what will be an isolated and weakened position, are likely to be inferior, particularly in the areas of labour rights and environmental protection. However I could perhaps be persuaded of the virtues of a new accord with Canada, so long as it allows for tariff-free export of that nation’s new favourite product

Counsel of despair

I’ve consciously followed political developments for almost four decades now, actively involved in various political organisations for around thirty of those years, and, while I’ve certainly experienced more than a few disappointments along the way, I’m struggling to think of a period when I’ve felt so pessimistic about the immediate future. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most immediate is the looming, and ever more likely, prospect that the country will drop over the cliff edge of an no-deal Brexit.

There are some of my comrades on the left who are actually looking forward to this, on the grounds that such a severe shock to the current system will provide plenty of opportunity to press for progressive change. I can see the intellectual appeal of that argument, but I still worry that the whole thing is much more likely to follow a reactionary course.

I’m sure my apprehension is partly attributable to the fact that, at this point in my life, my accumulated responsibilities make the prospect of tumultuous social upheaval seem rather less attractive than it did to my younger self, but it’s also grounded in a realistic appraisal of the ideological underpinning of Brexit. However much we might want to imagine that disrupting the neoliberal consensus of the EU will be a blow to international capital, the truth is that the driving force behind Brexit has always been a backward nativism, whose leaders, if given free rein, will seize the chance to reverse the gains won by the last half-century of working-class struggle.

I used to wonder what it must have felt like to live in the years before the Great War, when any attentive observer would have been aware that a multitude of seemingly unstoppable forces were pushing the continent towards disaster, while a political class wholly unequal to the challenge blundered on ineffectually, but now I think that I might have some idea.

The ill-effects of this sorry business will, of course, be less catastrophic, and largely confined to the UK rather than being global, but, still, it would be preferable to avoid them. There might just be enough time left for the country to come to its collective senses, but I fear that Brexit is something we are just going to have to live through, so that future generations can learn from our mistakes.

Deutschland unter alles

The curse of SLS strikes again, as Germany, our tip for World Cup glory, ignominiously crash out in the first round.

I guess it’s early enough in the competition to make another pick, but, to be honest, I haven’t really been paying attention, so any prediction I make will be more or less arbitrary. My carefully considered choices haven’t been up to much though, so perhaps random is the way to go; [closes eyes, stabs finger at list] Switzerland! Hmm…

Teutonic reliability

Mid-summer is almost upon us, so it seems like a good time to revisit my new year predictions, to see if they bear any likeness to how events are actually panning out.

My first forecast concerned Donald Trump’s likely tenure in the White House, and nothing has happened in the last few months to change my view that he’s going to be around for the foreseeable future. Sure, his venality, stupidity and cruelty are becoming ever more evident, but it’s equally clear that a big enough proportion of the US population, and their (Republican) elected representatives, just don’t care. Progressive fantasies of impeachment – delivered by unlikely liberal heroes the FBI – seem destined to remain just that, sadly.

What then of Brexit? The first part of my prediction – Theresa May’s government collapsing under the pressure of irreconcilable internal splits – looks like it may well come true, perhaps as early as this week, as the relatively sane sections of the Tory party try to head off a disastrously hard departure. There is no guarantee of fresh elections though, and even less certainty of a Labour victory, due to Jeremy Corbyn’s inexplicable inability to appreciate that opposition to Brexit is massively popular in his own party, and only slightly less so in the country at large. It’s equally possible that May will be replaced by some zealous leaver who will gleefully drive the country over the cliff-edge. I’m still just about able to convince myself that there might be a happy ending to this story, but it’s getting harder every day.

Oh well, on to lighter things. Germany for the World Cup? Despite the fact that they lost their opening game, with what most pundits agree was a shambolic display, I’m still backing Joachim Löw’s team to win the tournament, on the grounds that their bad spells are rarely prolonged.

Alien life? They have found organics on Mars, which is good enough for me…

Full Marx

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx, and the papers are full of articles noting that his profile is higher now than it has been since the end of the Cold War, mainly because everything he said about the development of capitalism is vividly reflected in the world around us.

I read a lot of Marx’s work, and a lot about Marx’s work, back when I was a student, and, while the fine details have become a bit hazy as the years have passed, the main themes remain central to my political thinking. I remember feeling, when I first grasped the concept of historical materialism, that I had an insight into the hidden mechanisms of society, an understanding that allowed me to see things as they really were. Of course I was young and impressionable then, and vulnerable to the allure of all-encompassing world-views, but, even with the cynicism that comes with another thirty-plus years of life-experience, the key idea – that our consciousness is shaped by our material conditions, particularly our relationship with the process of production, but that consciousness can in turn change our material conditions – still seems to me the most useful way to look at our modern age.

The promise of progress is, I think, what keeps successive generations coming back to Marxism. As the man himself said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it“, and my favourites among the works of Marx are those which show him grappling with the issues of the day, issues that are mostly still relevant in our times, for, as Marx also commented, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce“.

So I’ll raise a glass tonight (for, by all accounts, old Karl liked a drink), in memory of a visionary mind, and in hope that I might yet live to see that vision realised.

Four-twenty

If there’s one glimmer of light in the increasingly gloomy vista that is our contemporary political landscape, it’s the gradual normalisation of marijuana use. In the US, even with a drug-hostile regime now occupying the Justice Department, the roll-out of legalisation at state level seems unstoppable, and, while we might be a bit behind the curve here in Europe (especially in the UK), medicinal cannabis is making inroads into public acceptance, and it seems only a matter of time before the prospect of relaxing the prohibition on recreational use becomes uncontroversial enough to persuade some ambitious politician that it might be a vote-winner with the youth, not to mention the ageing ex-stoner demographic.

I guess I’m broadly in favour of these developments (not that I ever have the time to get high these days), but there’s a sense of loss too, as my once radical lifestyle choice is commodified by big business into a pastime so unhip that even Canada has no problem with it.

When I was younger I looked forward to the day when my generation would grow up and take over the world, and, while legalising pot was certainly one of the things I imagined that we’d do, it is disappointing that we seem to have given up on all the other good stuff, like eradicating poverty and ending war, and are content to live like our parents did, only with better weed. Still, if, as seems increasingly likely, we’re all headed to hell in a handcart, at least we’ll be mellow…

The future is now

The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was when I visited San Diego in the early 90s. The morning I arrived, after a long overnight trip on the Greyhound, I dropped my bag at the youth hostel, just a short walk from the beach, and headed down to the shore to wash days of accumulated grime off in the warm sea.

I had travelled all the way from the cold east coast in a couple of gruelling bus journeys, and basking in the warm Californian sun felt like heaven. I ended up staying in San Diego for about a week, mostly just loafing on the beach, recharging my batteries while planning my onward course up the west coast. Wanting to travel a bit lighter, I packed most of my thick clothes in to a parcel which I sent back to the UK, figuring that I wouldn’t need them now that I had reached warmer climes. This was a decision I came to regret when I reached Oregon, and even more so when I got to Seattle, though the heavy plaid shirts I was obliged to purchase there to avoid freezing to death did make nice mementos of the trip.

The hostel in San Diego had a bookshelf with a good selection of pulpy sci-fi, which was perfect for undemanding beach reading. One story in particular caught my mood during those long, laidback days; a trippy tale of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy trying to invade the Milky Way through some kind of telepathic mind-control thing. I didn’t really comprehend all the subtleties of the narrative – the starships were all modelled on playing cards for some reason, meaning the stylised space battles took the form of cosmic games of trumps, and it was never clear which characters had and hadn’t been taken over by the aliens – partly because the volume I had was something like the third in a series of seven, so I had missed all the set-up, mostly because I was pretty baked at the time. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment though. In the years since I’ve occasionally thought about tracking down that book – I’ve forgotten the title of course – and the rest of the set, so I could finally work out what it was all about, but, wisely I think, I’ve always resisted that impulse, as it would probably spoil what is a very fond, if hazy, memory.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because the one thing that I do remember about that book is its author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, sadly, passed away last week. I’d read, and loved, her Wizard of Earthsea cycle when I was at school, though I’m not sure that that really prepared me for her more out-there sci-fi. I subsequently got to know more about her political outlook, which was not dissimilar to my own, and appreciate that her stories of the future, like all the best science fiction, were really about how we live now, what we need to change, and, most importantly, that change is not only possible, but inevitable. That’s a message that it’s good to hold on to in these dispiriting times.

Futurama

Here at SLS we’ve tried our hands at prognostication more than a few times in the past, with generally disappointing results; we’ve erroneously assured readers that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the Presidency (twice), confidently identified as winners teams in major sporting events who go on to exit at an early stage, advised against investing in dead-end companies like Google and Facebook, and completely misread the political mood of our own home nation. The only thing I can find that we actually got right was forecasting Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, which didn’t exactly require Nostradamus-level predictive skills.

Still, it’s the start of a new year, so I thought it might be fun to put down a marker on the two big political questions of the day; at the very least, come December, we’ll be able to look back and laugh at our hopeless naivety.

First up: will Donald Trump still be President of the United States at the end of 2018? I think … yes. The reasoning behind this answer rests on a recognition that, while Trump’s behaviour may well provide a legal justification for his removal, by impeachment, or through application of the 25th Amendment, the decision to actually trigger these processes is a political one, and there’s no sign that a sufficiently large section of the Republican Party has the stomach for it. The arithmetic may change after the midterm elections of course, but given that Trump seems to have a solid electoral base who will stick with him no matter the outrage he provokes elsewhere, I just can’t see the numbers adding up. Naturally I hope that I’m wrong about this, and that the kickback seen in Alabama (fuelled by an energised left actually getting its supporters to the polls) becomes a nationwide phenomenon, giving the Democrats the majorities they need in the House and the Senate to carry an impeachment through, while also moving the whole centre of political gravity leftwards.

Next: is there going to be a second Brexit referendum? I think … yes. This is based less on political calculation, and more on gut feeling, particularly the general sentiment that the country is becoming ungovernable, and that the current administration cannot last. It’s possible to imagine a series of events involving a collapsed government, another election, Labour opting to campaign on the issue of giving the population a chance to vote on the final Brexit deal, and a relieved electorate seizing the opportunity to ditch the whole sorry business. There are, admittedly, large elements of wishful thinking in this, but it’s not completely impossible. The timescale is tight though – we won’t have to wait until December to see if I’m wrong about this; if there isn’t an election by the summer the exit process might well prove to be irreversible.

Finally: two bonus predictions – Germany to win the World Cup, and definitive proof of extraterrestrial life to be found before the year is out.