Rowing back progress

Although today’s US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs Wade had been leaked some time ago, the reality of it still came as a shock. Even as economic inequality has deepened in the last decade or so, the left has been able to console itself with the idea that the social gains of the last 50 years or so were more or less secure. It’s harder to believe that now, with the Conservative wing of the Court openly gunning for every progressive gain from voting rights to interracial marriage.

On the other hand, the fact that this decision is so clearly out of step with US public opinion, and has only come about as a result of the flagrantly undemocratic packing of the Court, might be the straw that finally breaks the unfathomable reverence US liberals pay to the Constitution, a document drawn up two centuries ago by white male slaveowners to preserve their dominance over society. If that is too much to hope for, then at least the elections in November might see some blowback against a Republican Party which engineered this assault on the civil liberties of 51.1% of the population.

Boris lives on

As expected, Boris Johnson managed to rally enough support to survive the confidence vote, but the fact that 41% of his MPs felt unable to back him is rather awkward, to say the least.

Instant reaction in the liberal press is leaning towards the view that this result leaves Johnson badly wounded, and that disquiet in Tory ranks seems set to grumble on, but few are predicting that he will go any time soon. A more plausible scenario is that he will attempt to shore up his support on the right of the party by doubling down on the reactionary populism that got him into Downing Street in the first place. That might not do much for the Conservative Party’s chances of winning the next election, but that poll could be two years away, which would be a long time for the country to be without responsible government.

Boris on the edge

In a development that has been prematurely predicted so many times that it seemed it would never happen, a sufficient number of Conservative MPs have rediscovered their sense of decency to trigger a vote of no confidence in party leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Ballots are being cast as I write, with the result due to be announced later this evening. The smart money seems to be on Boris managing to hang on, but with his already precarious authority further diminished.

Most politicians would take this as a signal that it was time to retire with at least some dignity intact, but Johnson is shameless enough to portray the narrowest of victories as a resounding mandate, so I expect we will be stuck with him for the foreseeable future. He will have to devote his entire attention to party management, rather than running the country, but, given the mess he has created with his Statesman cosplay so far, that may not be an entirely bad thing.

Platinum indifference

I had a vague memory that I had written a post a decade ago to mark the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee; a quick search through the archive confirmed this, though it was a bit less profound than I remembered. I suspect the deep and insightful piece I was thinking of was actually this one, penned on the day Queen Elizabeth II became our longest serving monarch, though again my recall had perhaps exaggerated its intellectual heft.

I thus feel obligated to post something on the subject of the Platinum Jubilee, but, to be honest, I’ve found the whole thing rather underwhelming. I’m not exactly the target audience for the pageantry of the last few days I guess, but it hasn’t even inflamed my republican passions beyond a mild sense of disapproval. While, on an abstract level, my opposition to the institution of the monarchy remains as strong as ever, the concrete reality is that Elizabeth’s longevity has resulted in her becoming personally identified with the role to such a degree that to criticise it feels like giving an old and infirm woman a needlessly hard time.

So, like most of the population, I’ve spent the weekend enjoying the good weather, and trying to forget about everything else that is going on the world. There will be plenty of time for anti-royal agitation when Charles III is on the throne.

Fifteen Years Ago

Second Life Shrink made its debut on May 26th 2007, an exciting time when technology promised a future of unlimited opportunity. The must-have communication gadget was a BlackBerry, all the cool kids were on MySpace, and it was still possible to dream of making a living by blogging.

A decade and a half later, after nearly 700 posts, we’re still going strong, or still going at least. This would seem like a good opportunity to reflect on how the dream of internet liberation degenerated into the post-truth social-media dystopia that we live in today, but that sounds like hard work, so in true SLS slacker style I’ll just do what I did on our fifth and tenth birthdays, and list my favourite posts from the past 5 years:

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

2022

Perhaps this review will inspire me to post a bit more frequently again; we’ll see. In the meantime I’ll revive a favourite feature that has lain dormant since 2017, the post-title-related music link.

Outlaw government

As the war in Ukraine looks set to grind on through months of attrition, a scenario which, as we’ve previously noted, Vladimir Putin probably won’t be too unhappy with, domestic attention is already turning back towards more local matters. After the revelation last week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak much prefers taxing the poor to paying any himself (not to mention the fact that he has so little faith in the economy he is nominally in charge of that he maintains a personal plan B involving a US Green Card), Westminster has today been shaken by the news that Sunak, and his boss, PM Boris Johnson, have each been fined for attending illegal social gatherings during lockdown.

The liberal press is naturally calling for both to go, though there is a definite air of resignation around the editorials, as if the entreaties are made for the sake of form, rather than in any expectation that Johnson and Sunak will do the decent thing, either of their own volition or at the behest of their party. Mendacity is so baked into our political system that the idea that a Prime Minister who breaks a law that he himself has promulgated, then brazenly lies to Parliament about it, should see these transgressions as a resigning matter seems like an echo of a distant, more honourable past.

In anticipation of today’s events Johnson’s allies have been spreading the message that his misdeeds were of a nature so trivial that he cannot be expected to quit, especially at this time of national and international crisis. This argument might be more plausible if the current administration displayed any signs of competence, but, as shown by their shambolic response to an energy price spike that threatens to plunge millions into poverty, Johnson and his cabinet would probably do the country a favour by spending from now until the next election drinking in the garden of Number 10, well away from the levers of power.

Fog of war

Of the many things I find unsettling about modern life, one of the more perplexing is the fact that, despite having a multitude of news sources literally at my fingertips, I often find myself unsure that I have anything other than a superficial appreciation of what is actually going on in the world, let alone why it is happening, or what I should think about it. I don’t know if things really have become more complicated in the last 20 years or so, or if it merely seems that way because of the cacophony of instant opinion that assails us at all hours these days; it certainly doesn’t help that my critical faculties are not what they once were. Whatever the cause, I have largely resigned myself to being in a more or less constant state of disconcertion, which, I tell myself, is really a manifestation of Socratic Wisdom.

This is all very well when it relates to matters that are fairly insignificant, like ephemeral cultural trends, but occasionally something comes along that is obviously more consequential, and that I feel sure my younger self would have had a strong and settled opinion about. In such cases it seems dishonourable to avoid clearly speaking one’s mind, though I can’t shake the feeling that the more critical the issue, the more important it is to acknowledge the extent of one’s ignorance.

So, what are we to make of the war in Ukraine, as the conflict enters its fourth week? Some things at least are clear; the war is an unmitigated and completely avoidable tragedy, the responsibility for which lies entirely with the Russian government, and the only reasonable demand that can be made is for a return to the status quo ante bellum. It gets murkier however, when one tries to understand how such a disaster came about, or what might happen next.

First, the causes. The Russian narrative – that the war is a defensive operation, provoked by fascist aggression against the inhabitants of the Donbas – is so obviously preposterous that it can only be construed as a signal that Moscow sees Ukraine as so far inside its sphere of influence that there is no need to offer even a semi-plausible explanation for the action. However the tone of the dominant western narrative, which implies that Vladimir Putin has simply lost his mind and launched the invasion on a whim, seems equally unsatisfactory. I think that Putin has a clear motivation – to re-establish Russia’s status as an undisputed Great Power – and a rational strategy to achieve this, by demonstrating that his forces can operate freely within the former Soviet borders, while withstanding the economic response of the West. Whether this strategy will succeed is another question of course, but it can’t be dismissed as madness.

As to what will happen next, well that’s where the uncertainty really kicks in. Without knowing exactly what Putin’s immediate goals are, it’s hard to see where he might be willing to compromise. Western media analysis has been rather dismissive of Russian performance on the battlefield, but it seems likely that, unless there is increased NATO involvement, the Russians will eventually wear the defenders down. I think they will avoid a direct assault on Kyiv, and focus on an effective blockade of the southern ports. The Ukrainian army may be able to slow this down, but does not seem to have the capacity for the sort of offensive that would be needed to expel the invaders. Putin may be calculating that, if the war drags on, the willingness of European governments to bear the direct and indirect costs of the conflict, and the associated sanctions, will begin to fray, and the Ukrainians will be compelled to agree an armistice on Russian terms.

That outcome, which would involve months more of death and destruction, is actually the optimistic scenario, as it assumes that the war does not escalate beyond the borders of Ukraine. The Kyiv government has been talking of the conflict as a clash between European liberal civilisation and totalitarian despotism, which I think is an overstatement, as Putin’s actions are in line with a long tradition of Great Power politics, albeit elevated to an extreme degree of ruthlessness. Kyiv’s position is understandable in the circumstances, but, equally understandably, European leaders have merely paid lip-service to the idea, while ruling out a direct confrontation with Russia. The temptation to whip up anti-Russian sentiment as a distraction from domestic problems may prove irresistible to some though, especially in this country, and since there is always the chance of misunderstanding when such rhetoric is flying around, the situation could become very dangerous, very quickly.

So that’s my brief analysis, for what it’s worth. I feel a little calmer for having thought about it, and better able to focus on doing what I can, which is to contribute to the relief effort. There is nothing good about war, but if the events in Ukraine remind us even a little of our common humanity, then perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing.

War in Ukraine

I had been thinking, or perhaps hoping, that the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine was an elaborate feint, intended to provide cover for a smaller-scale operation, such as a partial occupation of the Donbas, but today’s events seem to indicate that Vladimir Putin has a bigger objective in his sights, though exactly what that is is still unclear. An invasion of the entire country would surely be significantly more trouble than it was worth, so Putin may be content to inflict a heavy defeat on the Ukrainian army before withdrawing to the newly-declared republics in the east, perhaps retaining territory along the Sea of Azov to secure a land corridor to Crimea.

Of course the war is unlikely to play out exactly the way that Putin intends, and there is always the risk of unintended escalation, but one does not get the impression that there is any appetite in the West for a general continental war, so the actual violence will probably be confined within the borders of Ukraine. The diplomatic and economic effects of the crisis will spread more widely though, and the long-term consequences of a full-scale renewal of the Cold War are unlikely to be benign. I’m clinging to the hope that, contrary to recent appearances, Putin is in fact a rational actor who has some sort of strategic plan, and that things won’t get too out of hand, but that belief may prove hard to sustain in the days ahead.

Ukrainian tensions

Two issues have been dominating the news in this neck of the woods recently; the first, of little interest beyond these shores, is the continued unravelling of the Johnson government, the second, rather more globally important, is the prospect of a general continental war breaking out as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.

It had been looking like both of these stories were petering out over the last week or so, as Johnson moved to shore up his position with a somewhat reckless scaling down of pandemic-related restrictions, while President Putin’s military posturing appeared to have produced diplomatic results sufficiently impressive to allow him to avoid the risks of a hot conflict.

I think Boris has done enough to see him through the immediate storm, though the looming cost of living crisis may yet sink him as the year goes on, but the Ukrainian situation has taken an unexpectedly alarming turn, as western governments, led by the US, have ramped up talk of an imminent invasion, making it harder for Putin to back off without at least some sort of offensive action.

I’m hoping that this latest development is a finely-calibrated move by the Biden administration to limit Russian diplomatic gains, rather than an attempt to goad Putin into a military adventure in the expectation that it will be as disastrous for Russia as the invasion of Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union back in the 80s. That conflict, kindled by the CIA, may have achieved its Cold War aim in hastening the fall of the USSR, but it was an unmitigated catastrophe for the Afghan people, who, along with the rest of the world, are still living with its consequences 40 years on. A repeat, this time in the heart of Europe, doesn’t bear thinking about.

It is hard to believe that even the most belligerent elements on either side would be willing to roll the dice on such a scale, but, then again, history is littered with examples of comparable misjudgements, and events rarely follow the plan once the shooting starts. I guess we’ll just have to hold our breath, and hope that we’re soon back to a time where a clown in Downing Street is the biggest thing we have to worry about.

Dishonourable member

I watched the film Munich – The Edge of War at the weekend. Although it has had some good reviews I was rather unimpressed; for a supposed thriller the pace is painfully slow, and the central premise – that bourgeois liberal democracy, personified by Neville Chamberlain, defeated fascism by revealing Hitler’s lack of honour – is somewhat fantastical, to say the least.

Interestingly, today’s liberal press and opposition seem to be adopting a similar approach in their efforts to topple Boris Johnson, with equally uninspiring results. While it would obviously be ridiculous to equate Boris with Adolph, the common theme is the liberals’ complete inability to understand that their opponents are no longer playing by the rules of the game. Loudly denouncing Johnson’s transgressions, then waiting for him to do the decent thing, doesn’t look like a winning strategy. Relying on the Conservative Party to depose him is an equally forlorn hope, as Tory MPs seem increasingly willing to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile whatever high-minded ideals they might profess with their desire to remain in power (see also: Donald Trump, the GOP).

As ever, liberals shy away from the conclusion that the behaviour of the likes of Johnson implies; that the problem lies not with one or another disreputable politician, but with the system itself.

I guess it’s possible that Johnson may eventually push his luck too far, and precipitate a Tory revolt, or perhaps he will grow weary of all the drama and quit. If so, his successor may placate bourgeois sensibilities by displaying a more refined sense of decorum, but fundamentally things will remain the same. Capitalism produces the inequalities in wealth and power that allow the ruling class to live in a different world from the masses, and as long as that state of affairs persists then nothing will really change.

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