Cold winds blowing

My interest in US politics has waned a bit, now that Trump’s attempted coup has turned out to be less March on Rome, more Beer Hall Putsch, so we must, reluctantly, turn our attention back towards developments on this side of the Atlantic.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was in the Commons today, to give an update on the perilous state of the county’s finances; apparently things have not been this bad since the Great Frost of 1709. His response, at a time when the economy has all but ground to a halt, due to the government’s inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic, is to freeze the pay of most public sector workers, despite the fact that they are just about the only people confident enough to spend any money at the moment, as unemployment is set to rise to a ten-year high. Even with this penny-pinching, the National Debt is projected to increase at a rate not seen outside wartime, and GDP is unlikely to recover before 2022.

If this was not reason enough for pessimism, then a glance at the progress, or lack thereof, towards a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU would surely convince even the most Panglossian observer that the country is doomed. It is still possible that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose unfitness for the office becomes clearer every day, will, abandon all the commitments he made to the right wing of his party when he stood for leader, and sign up to a relatively sensible agreement, but it shows how far we have fallen as a nation that the best-case scenario for our future depends on the utter untrustworthiness of the head of government.

One bright spot amid the gloom is that it does look like we might have a functional covid-19 vaccine before too long, promising a return to some sort of normality. Of course that will depend on the government managing to distribute it efficiently, which, in light of their failure to control the pandemic thus far, is not a given. I might feel more confident if I thought the job would be entrusted to the relatively dependable public health system, but, since the Tories are ideologically committed to the idea of the free market, and even more committed to enriching their friends, there’s a good chance it will be handed over to the same private contractors who fumbled the contact tracing program, and have gouged huge sums from the public purse for the supply of PPE.

Still, we must remain positive. Only three months of winter to survive before the springtime…

Atlas mooched

In another generally gloomy week, what with the coronavirus pandemic threatening a resurgence, and the economy on the edge of collapse, there was a bit of light relief for leftists, when we learned that the Ayn Rand Institute had accepted a payout of between $350,000 and $1 million, courtesy of the US government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

No doubt the uncompromising Objectivists will rationalise this as reclaiming funds that had been unfairly alienated by a tyrannical state (the same logic Rand herself used to justify accepting Social Security benefits after she retired), but for more communist-leaning observers like myself it’s just more proof that capitalism is the most efficient welfare system ever devised by mankind, unparalleled in its ability to redistribute wealth from the workers who actually produce it into the pockets of the parasitical bourgeoisie.

Premature relaxation

The events to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day last weekend may have been scaled back a bit, but they still provided an opportunity for the country to remember past glories, and reflect on the quietly heroic nature of the national character, which, we like to think, ensures we can overcome any challenge.

Our current leaders seem to have less confidence in the resolve of the population however; while our forebears endured six years of war and hardship in the fight to destroy the Nazi menace, Boris Johnson evidently doubts that we can put up with much more than six weeks of lockdown, and is proceeding to loosen the restrictions with reckless haste. Underlying his rush to return to pre-crisis “normality” is of course a concern that the financial consequences of the current regulations will undermine his government’s reputation for economic competence.

I don’t want to understate the calamitous effects that the economic freeze has had on the more marginal sections of the community, deprived of work and largely excluded from the government’s patchy relief efforts, but it is these same people who stand to suffer most if the epidemic, which is just about contained at the moment, is allowed to run free, as they are forced back to their low-paid jobs with no regard to the risks that might entail.

The UK has, to some extent, rediscovered its collective identity over the last few weeks. A competent administration would build on that, by increasing support for the most vulnerable, while exhorting the rest of us to stick together in the face of a common enemy. Alas, as the country has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years it has become clearer that our political class, epitomised by the Prime Minister, lacks the capacity to deal with any situation that requires actual leadership.

So it looks like our best hope of avoiding a second wave of infection might indeed lie in the fabled national solidarity, as ordinary people follow the advice that will keep their fellow citizens safe, instead of listening to those politicians who care more about the lost profits of big business.

Perhaps, when all this is over, and we are able to assess the legacy of this troubled time, we will see that, like the war, it gave us a chance to rethink what sort of country we want to live in.

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.

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…

They shoot Youtubers, don’t they?

I may affect indifference towards the fact that, according to the merciless WordPress statistics page, virtually nobody ever comes to visit our little blog any more, but the truth is that I miss the days when we had lots of traffic, and I’d do anything to attract a few more views again.

Well, perhaps not anything; I’d probably draw the line at having my partner shoot live ammunition at my chest in a misguided attempt to capture the attention of the notoriously fickle YouTube demographic. Depressingly this story isn’t an aberration; there are plenty of examples of would-be social media stars abusing their children, leaping from high places, lighting themselves on fire, or doing other stupid stunts in the hope that it will be their ticket to internet fame, and the fabled wealth that comes with it.

The spectacle of the desperate poor demeaning themselves for our entertainment is nothing new; there were dance marathons and other indignities during the Depression, truck-touching contests have a proud history, and as recently as 10 years ago people were dying to win a video game console. Now, in our wonderful modern world of 24/7 digital connection, it’s not even necessary to leave the house to join in; that’s progress I guess.

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.

Trouble in paradise

I was thinking about Second Life for the first time in ages today, prompted by reports in several publications about the SL Bunny apocalypse. The ever-dependable New World Notes has the full story (and updates); the abbreviated version is that ersatz pet dealers Ozimals have shut up shop due to various legal entanglements, cutting off the sole supply of virtual rabbit food, and thus dooming countless beloved furry companions to an untimely demise.

This unhappy tale reminded me of a couple of columns I wrote in the early days of this blog, wherein I noted that one of the few ways of making money in SL was to induce residents into becoming dependent on some substance you controlled. Of course I never acted on this insight, partly due to my high ethical standards, but mostly due to laziness, and so missed out on my share of the millions of dollars that Ozimals were reportedly taking in.

I guess that with that sort of money washing around it was inevitable that things would come to a sticky end, but it’s still sad that there should be so much collateral damage. The whole sorry episode can be read as a parable of what happens when ugly commerce encroaches upon an innocent Eden. Bunnies – even virtual bunnies – should be free.

Indefinite article

So the government has finally triggered Article 50, setting the nation on the road out of the European Union. While there is no doubt that this is a deeply regrettable development, a major victory for the anti-progressive forces which have grown stronger in this country over the last few years, I’m actually feeling less anxious about the practical effects of Brexit than I was in the immediate aftermath of the vote.

Political opinion within the Conservative Party does seem to be shifting towards a realisation that granting the wishes of the more deluded members of the Leave camp for an uncompromisingly brutal departure will be economically disastrous, so I suspect that, despite her hardline rhetoric, Theresa May will end up negotiating a deal that leaves us with EU-lite; a single market and more or less free movement. She will be able to point to some reduction in regulation as supposed fruits of victory from the process, though whether this will be enough for the xenophobes who thought that Brexit meant an end to all immigration will remain to be seen.

What is certain is that the whole thing is very complicated; the two-year limit for reaching a deal seems extremely optimistic. There is time for a lot to change in domestic politics; it’s not unimaginable that the demand for a second referendum to approve any proposed agreement will become irresistible, giving the country a chance to come to its senses. Failing that there is always the potential escape capsule of Scottish independence, for those of us north of the border at least. I’m not ready to give up my European identity just yet…