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…

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.

L’Italia è vittoriosa

So, I finally got a sporting prediction correct, though it was a close-run thing. Most neutral observers agreed the Italians were worth their victory over the piece, but England did well to take it to penalties, and with a little more luck could have won.

What’s perhaps more interesting than the on-field action are the competing narratives around the effect that England’s good run has had on the national psyche. The optimistic liberal version – that the success of the racially and socially diverse squad has fostered an atmosphere of tolerance – is rather undercut by the racist abuse directed towards black members of the team from a section of their own fan base. The government’s clumsy attempts to appropriate the feel-good factor surrounding the tournament to bolster its fading domestic popularity look similarly out of place amongst ministers’ unsubtle dog-whistles to that same white-nationalist constituency.

The country may move on from this particular disappointment fairly quickly, as our attention shifts to getting through what promises to be some bumpy months ahead, but resolving these opposing conceptions of identity and belonging will take much longer, and require rather more in the way of political leadership than our current government seems able to provide.

Euro 2020 prediction

After my tips for Euro 2012, and Euro 2016, turned out to be, well, less than 100% accurate, I thought I would give myself the best possible chance of picking the winner of this year’s pandemic-delayed tournament by waiting until I had only two teams to choose from.

So, Italy or England? It’s a tough call. To be honest I wasn’t really expecting either side to get past the last eight; if you’d twisted my arm before the first game kicked off I’d have put my money on France and Spain to make the final. Italy are certainly the better team technically, but England are no slouches, and they have home advantage, plus a confidence-boosting narrative of national redemption to drive them on.

The statistics would seem to favour the Italians, who are ahead 11-8 on past wins, with 8 draws; for games this century it’s 4-1 to Italy, with 2 draws, which were the last 2 games played, though both were friendlies. The last competitive game was at the 2014 World Cup, which finished 2-1 to the Italians.

However football at this level is difficult to predict; in a one-off game even a heavy underdog always has a chance. As we’ve noted before (in a post explaining away a woefully inaccurate World Cup forecast), that’s what makes the game so enchanting.

But predict I shall – Italy will prevail.

Viral déjà vu

I guess that one of the advantages of an infrequent posting schedule is that it gives one the opportunity to consider events a little more carefully before venturing an opinion, reducing the risk of later looking back on a hot take that proved laughably inaccurate. The downside is that one is always tempted to wait for the conclusive data point that will confirm or refute an analysis, until one finds that the moment has passed, and no one is interested anymore. The challenge is to find the sweet spot between being an activist, engaged in events as they develop, and a historian, drawing lessons from matters that are settled.

Back in May, in the wake of the local elections, I was thinking that Boris Johnson might have hit upon just the right blend of social conservatism and and economic liberalism to convince a large enough section of the electorate to overlook the venality and incompetence of his administration to keep him in power. Of course this arrangement would be inherently unstable; a Conservative administration would be unable and/or unwilling to deliver the material benefits promised to working-class voters in the north, necessitating ever more reactionary rhetoric aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and whoever else Johnson chose to blame for his government’s failures. Still, I thought he might be able to keep the show on the road for a year or two at least, given Labour’s inability to provide any coherent opposition.

However recent by-election results suggest that Johnson’s scheme may be unraveling at a slightly faster rate. The supposedly safe seat of Chesham was lost to the Liberals, as affluent Tory voters balked at the prospect of subsiding spending in poorer constituencies, while Labour were able to hang on to Batley, amid signs that the electorate was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Johnson administration’s relentless grifting.

That said, Johnson is still in a strong position, though these events seem to have shaken him, and prompted a characteristically populist response; his determination to go ahead with the relaxation of practically all pandemic-related restrictions, despite warnings that, as was the case last year, this is somewhat premature.

So perhaps it’s not necessary to wait to see how history plays out in the fullness of time; rather, one can confidently predict that what unfolds will be a depressingly familiar rehash of old mistakes.

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