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 soon enough.

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.

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.

Midsummer daze

As I have grown older my perception of time has become ever more fluid; thus it is that one day I can be enjoying the first warmth of spring, and looking forward to a period of heightened intellectual productivity, only to wake up the next to find that weeks have passed with nothing to show for them, and the turn of the year is already upon us.

Of course this phenomenon is not entirely a product of my increasingly fractured psyche; the unsettling period we are living through, with its repetitive cycle of promised normality undermined by demoralising setbacks, has made it difficult to work towards any but the most immediate goal. The seemingly endless pandemic is the most obvious physical manifestation of this melancholia, but not far behind is the relentless tide of aggressively ignorant reaction that is sweeping through politics into the general culture, turning every news report into a litany of despair.

All in all, hardly a propitious climate for the author of a whimsical blog such as this; hence my silence of late. I do have some vacation time coming up though, and, unlike last year, I may actually get away somewhere, so perhaps the summer light will belatedly awaken my muse.

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.

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.

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.

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