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.

Party on Boris

Just when one thinks British politics can become no more ridiculous, our current government manages to plumb new depths of farce. The best spin that can be put on Boris Johnson’s transparently mendacious explanation for his attendance at a lockdown-busting party in his own garden is that it is an ambitious attempt to gaslight the entire nation; inviting us to accept that he thought the crowd of people standing around drinking was just a normal work day at Number 10 is such an obvious lie that no rational person could possibly expect it to be believed, therefore we must conclude he is actually telling the truth.

If Johnson was hoping that this daring manoeuvre would disorientate the opposition then he has been woefully disappointed, as critics from every point of the political spectrum have lined up to solemnly contrast his callous frivolity with the noble sacrifices made by the population during the pandemic. Seldom can an easier target have been presented, and, most worryingly for Johnson, the condemnation is resonating far beyond Westminster, shaking the confidence of many Tory MPs, and fuelling talk of a leadership challenge.

So, slightly unexpectedly, we are presented with our first opportunity of the year to make a political prediction; will Boris still be Prime Minister at the end of this month?

I’m going to say yes, since serious candidates to replace him, like Rishi Sunak, are likely to be reluctant to take over at the top just when the country is facing a particularly rough patch, as the pandemic, Brexit, and spiralling energy prices combine to produce a cost of living crisis. Better to let Johnson take the flak for a bit longer, then make a move when the worst has passed. If Boris makes it to the end of the week then I think he’ll last until the summer at least, but he may not get the chance to host any more Christmas parties in Downing Street.

Viral déjà vu revisited

I may find the unchanging nature of Second Life strangely comforting, but the fact that events in the real world seem to be stuck on infinite repeat is rather more unsettling. Almost exactly a year ago we were dealing with the disappointment of Christmas being cancelled due to the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus, and, well, here we are again.

Of course the outlook is not quite as gloomy as it was last December; the reasonably high rate of vaccination in the UK population does give some cause for optimism. Set against that however is the ever more obvious incompetence of the government, presided over by the increasingly ridiculous figure of Boris Johnson, lurching from scandal to scandal, his authority so diminished that he struggles to win the support of his own party for the measures necessary to head off the resurgent pandemic. In another echo of the recent past, a hazardous by-election this week, in what should be a safe Tory seat, seems likely to precipitate a fresh crisis for Johnson, potentially rendering him powerless at just the time the country needs decisive leadership.

It could be worse I guess; Brexit might be going badly

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.

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…

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.

2020: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that 2020 was an eventful year; certainly there has been no shortage of topics to blog about, and we managed to keep up a fairly steady stream of posts throughout the year.

Most of our pieces focused on politics. We obviously couldn’t avoid touching on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic (once we finally noticed how serious it was), but the bulk of our commentary concerned the two areas we had identified as important back in January; the US Presidential election, and the Brexit endgame.

The result in the US was not quite as good as we had hoped – our prediction of a President Sanders was a little over-optimistic – but nowhere near as bad as we feared during the summer, as the threat of a Trump coup turned out to be nothing more than empty rhetoric. Whether the election of Joe Biden represents a return to some sort of normality, or just a pause in the downward spiral, remains to be seen.

Over here, the Brexit saga dragged on through countless missed deadlines, before culminating in a last-minute deal that promises to be merely semi-ruinous, rather than a complete disaster. There is a chance that, now the political heat has been taken out of the issue, the country will be able to start quietly rebuilding relations with our continental neighbours, but that was what we hoped for after the election last year, so I expect that this story has a few more unhappy chapters still to come.

We actually wrote surprisingly little specifically about the pandemic, considering that it is probably the most globally significant event since WWII. I think that this is mainly because I am aware that my personal experience of the lockdown has been far from typical. My job has changed a bit, my social life has been slightly less active, and I haven’t had a proper holiday, but apart from that it’s been more or less business as usual. I’ve managed to avoid contracting Covid-19, at least as far as I know, and nobody of my acquaintance has died, or even been particularly unwell with it. If anything I’m better off than I was last year; with the pubs and cinemas closed I’ve been exercising more, and I’ve been getting paid extra while having less to spend the money on, so I’m in pretty good shape, physically and financially, a fortunate position when half the country is facing a bleak winter of enforced idleness and financial precarity. In any case, the true significance of events like these often takes a while to become fully apparent, so it feels like it’s a bit soon to comment. We may have more reflections on all this, particularly the social and psychological effects, in the months ahead.

In between all that excitement we also found time for a bit of cultural commentary, and a couple of obituaries. We even gave a rare mention to Second Life, though only in the context of comparing it unfavourably to Animal Crossing. Despite otherwise completely ignoring virtual worlds in a year when, arguably, they have been more relevant than at any time in the last decade, I did keep my connection to SL alive by renewing my premium membership. This now costs a not-inconsiderable $99, so I’m hoping that 2021 will be the year that Linden Labs finally produce a mobile app that will let me get back on to the grid.

Anyway, on to the statistics; here are our top ten posts of 2020 by traffic:

  1. The Linden Principle
  2. There is no land beyond the Volga
  3. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  4. Watching the Okhrana
  5. Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19
  6. Six hundred
  7. Furry traversing
  8. One further message to my friends in the US of A
  9. Lost Christmas
  10. Get well Boris

The good news is that, after years of coasting on our past glories, over half of the top posts were published in the last 12 months, perhaps indicating that we are engaging more with a new audience. Less encouraging is that the most popular piece, by some distance, is one from 2010, which owes its hits to people searching for something else entirely, specifically the Linden Method, a rather costly repackaging of standard anxiety-management techniques. I could probably monetise this confusion by directing visitors to my own website, and overcharging them for some proprietary self-help therapy, but that seems a little unethical.

Other posts I was quite pleased with this year:

Of all of this year’s output, I think our Camus review was probably my favourite.

The US and the UK still provide the bulk of our traffic, but we did see a big jump in visitors from China this year. Our posts were read in a total of 49 countries, from American Samoa to Zimbabwe; the top ten were:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. China
  4. Germany
  5. Canada
  6. France
  7. India
  8. Australia
  9. Japan
  10. Brazil

So, 2020, with all its challenges, has come and gone, and we’re still here, which feels like some sort of triumph. 2021? Bring it on, we say…

Festive half-cheer

At last, something to be vaguely happy about, at the tail-end of a year that hasn’t given much cause for optimism; Boris Johnson has finally managed to get a trade agreement with the EU over the line, with over a week to spare.

The fact that announcement of the deal was delayed until late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve may suggest that closer scrutiny will reveal it to be something less that the unimpeachable triumph that Johnson is presenting it as, but, such were the low expectations generated by the government’s shambolic approach to the negotiations, anything short of an actual outbreak of war seems like a positive development.

Relief at avoiding disaster is tinged with the sadness of knowing that we now stand unequivocally outside of Europe, with all the narrowing of our cultural outlook that that implies. If one were trying to be positive, one might observe that European integration has, since the war, been an essentially organic process, driven by economics more than ideology, which suggests that all the links which are currently being torn asunder will eventually regenerate. We may have to spend some dark years in the wilderness before then though.

Lost Christmas

Just when it seemed like humanity was finally getting on top of the whole Covid thing, and we could to go back to worrying full-time about Brexit, the virus has apparently mutated into a new super-infectious strain, precipitating a fresh surge in cases, and prompting Boris Johnson to reintroduce a lockdown, effectively cancelling Christmas for much of the population.

This isn’t actually going to have much practical effect for me, since I had no plans to do anything over the festive season other than sit in the house watching TV in a state of semi-intoxication, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of gloom that has swept the nation since the news broke. Restrictions that were just about bearable during the summer seem especially grim in the darkness of midwinter. We have little to look forward to, and a lot to be apprehensive about, not least the aforementioned Brexit, which promises to plunge the country into a fresh crisis in less than a fortnight. The government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, with the U-turn over Yuletide only the latest blunder, does little to inspire confidence.

One can just about cut Johnson a little slack on his response to Covid; it is after all the sort of once-in-a-century challenge that might have tested any leader, though it’s not hard to see how his administration could have done better. The Brexit debacle is unforgivable however; an entirely self-inflicted wound that even a semi-competent premier should have avoided. Both issues highlight Johnson’s essential weakness; having attained his position by deploying populist rhetoric, he now finds himself unable to make decisions that might prove unpopular, particularly anything that reminds his supporters that a course of action he commended to them will inevitably involve unpleasant consequences.

The irony is that, had he shown more decisiveness, Johnson could have exploited these extraordinary circumstances to entrench the Tories in power for a generation, in the way that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher used the economic turmoil of the 1980s to unravel the post-war social compact, and tip the class struggle decisively in favour of capital. As it stands though, barely a year after his triumphal entry into Downing Street, Johnson’s authority has all but completely ebbed away, and his downfall in the next 12 months is not unimaginable.

Johnson’s departure might be a welcome outcome, but it’s not clear whether, given the opportunity to choose a new course, the country will go for the Biden option of comforting centrism, or double down on the nationalist extremism. Sadly, there isn’t much indication that the population is ready to take a turn towards progressive radicalism, though perhaps collective solutions will become more popular as people observe the inability of the free market to respond to the Covid emergency.

Any sort of happy ending may seem a long way off, but it’s the winter solstice tomorrow, and after that the days will be getting longer, reminding us that, however cold and dark it is now, spring and summer will always come around.

[We haven’t had a musical link for ages, so here’s a suitably seasonal one, if you’ll excuse the pun.]

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