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…

Separation anxiety

Last week wasn’t a great one for anybody who has some residual belief in the intrinsic goodness of humankind, what with homophobic mass murder and political assassination, set against a background of the cross-Atlantic crypto-fascism that underpins Trumpism and Brexit.

I’m still just about convinced that there is no way the US electorate will take leave of its collective senses and hand the keys of the republic to the Donald – there is a non-negligible chance that he won’t even make it on to the ballot – but domestically I’m much less optimistic that the Remain case will win out out once the votes are counted in the EU referendum this week.

The consequences of a Leave victory hardly bear thinking about; economic meltdown and the far-right triumphant just for starters, with worse to follow. I’m hoping that the looming reality of such a doomsday scenario will focus the minds of those on the left who are thinking of voting for an exit, or abstaining, and convince them that such a course of action is absurdly risky. I’m aware that there is a perfectly sound progressive case against the EU, but that’s a fight for another day; it’s clear that in the current political context nothing good will come from handing a victory to the most reactionary elements of British society.

It’s all an unsettling reminder of the way that one’s life can be upended by events almost completely outwith one’s control. I guess I’ll know by Friday whether my gut feeling that people are basically decent is accurate, or hopelessly naive.

High times

Another 4/20 has rolled around, and I’m glad to say that it’s looking like the tide of marijuana legalisation is unstoppable, in the US at least. The dope business is booming in Colorado and Washington, and, more importantly, pot is becoming an uncontroversial part of everyday culture. It’s not hard to imagine that weed will be legal in most if not all of the country before President Clinton finishes her first term.

It’s not clear how much impact this will have on drug policy in Europe, but hopefully the successful US experience, not to mention the tax dollar bonanza, will nudge things in the right direction before too long. At the very least it’s given me another incentive to plan a long-overdue trip Stateside sometime soon…

Post-oxi

So the Greeks held their collective nerve and voted No on Sunday; now we wait to see whether Germany will follow through on the threat to throw Greece out of the Euro, and perhaps out of the EU altogether.

On the face of it, it makes no economic sense to take such drastic action over what, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively small sums of money, but this has always been as much a political crisis as an economic one, and, in political terms, allowing popular democracy to win out over neoliberal discipline is a much bigger threat to Europe’s rulers than even the worst shocks that might follow a Grexit from the Euro.

So my money (euro, not drachma) is on Merkel sticking to her hard line. Whatever happens, difficult times ahead for Greece.

Oxi

I’ve been involved in a lot of political activity over the years, but, being honest, I have to admit that most of it has been, if not exactly inconsequential, then marginal at best. A few minor victories here, some setbacks there, nothing that will trouble the historians. I don’t mean this dismissively; progress has always come in countless tiny increments, and some occasional leaps, and it’s usually only with the benefit of hindsight that we can tell what is significant.

That said, I have often found myself daydreaming about what it would have been like to have been around when things were really going down – Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936, Cuba in 1953, Chile in 1973; when the struggle reached a point of crisis and irrevocable choices had to be made. In the accounts I have read of such times life certainly seems to take on an intensity unmatched in my own more pedestrian experience, but often at a considerable personal cost to those involved. On balance I guess I’m glad to have lived, so far at least, in a relatively quiet period.

Of course no one really gets to choose the circumstances they live through, and people can find themselves making history without ever having sought out that responsibility. Such is the fate of the population of Greece, who go to the polls tomorrow to choose between two visions of their future, and perhaps of the future of Europe.

I wouldn’t presume, from my position of comfort in Northern Europe, to fully understand the pressures that will weigh on the Greeks as they cast their ballots, but if I were there I would be voting No. It’s far from certain that a rejection of the EU austerity plan will give Syriza the leverage they need to negotiate a better deal, but accepting a continuation of the disastrous program of the last few years will surely condemn the Greek working class to inescapable poverty.

What I have heard about the political engagement of Greek workers is encouraging, and I am hopeful that they will back Syriza in sufficient numbers to deliver a victory, though it looks like it will be close. Whatever the outcome, something has started – the long, difficult process of turning Europe away from its current course. It’s a task that will require united action across the whole continent, but the movement in Greece could be the inspiration those of us who have thus far lagged behind need to get our act together.

Greeks bearing gifts

It generally takes something momentous to wake me from my mid-winter slumber, but such an event has just arrived in the shape of the very encouraging victory of the radical left party Syriza in the Greek general election.

The next couple of weeks will be interesting, as we wait to see who blinks first in the negotiations over reducing and/or rescheduling Greek debt. It seems likely that there will be some sort of deal, since I don’t think either side is willing to see the fallout that would result from a default. There isn’t much room for manoeuvre though; the Greek people desperately need some relief from years of crushing austerity, and failure to deliver this would precipitate a massive political crisis in Athens, while the ECB is wary of seeming too lenient on the debt question, lest it encourages similar popular uprisings in other parts of the Eurozone. My guess is that the eventual compromise will favour the Greeks, since things can’t get much worse for them, so they have less reason to back down. The Germans don’t seem to be in a forgiving mood though, so it could go either way.

The situation in the UK doesn’t really parallel that in Greece. We have had some austerity, but it’s been on nothing like the same scale; crucially the middle class, while squeezed, have not been completely impoverished. There is no left formation analogous to Syriza either, anti-austerity sentiment taking on more of a diffuse, localised form. That said, if things work out well for the Greeks it will give a boost to the left here, and perhaps inject some excitement into our own election campaign. Whatever happens the result has shown that markets and bankers don’t have a monopoly on power, and that the voice of the people can’t be ignored.

Bad news for bears

Disappointing, if unsurprising, results in the US midterm polls, after the GOP finally realised that elections are won on the centre ground, rather than the wingnut fringes. It probably means that the last two years of the Obama administration will be even more underwhelming than expected.

It wasn’t all bad news; weed is now legal in Alaska, Oregon and DC, and there were minimum-wage hikes all over the place. Sadly the proposal to ban the use of donuts for bear-hunting in Maine was unsuccessful…

The value of application

I’m middle-aged, and sensible, and a bit dull, so of course I have a monthly contract for my cellphone, with unlimited minutes and texts (not that I ever use many of either, since I don’t have much of a social life to speak of). Anyway, I guess that means that I’m well outside the target demographic for WhatsApp, and not really in a position to even begin to understand why it might be popular among the youth, or what its revenue model might be.

Even if I did comprehend how money can be made by facilitating gossip among teenagers, I’m still not sure that I would be able to get my head around the fact that Facebook just paid $19 billion for the app. How did they come up with that valuation? Why not $12 billion, or $25 billion, or some other random figure? For $19 billion they could have got a proper, profit-generating, corporation like ConEdison, and still had some change left. I know that the deal was mainly financed with Facebook stock, which may or may not hold its value, but reportedly there was about $4 billion in actual real cash involved too. The guy who sold them Instagram must be feeling he left some money on the table.

I probably shouldn’t care what Silicon Valley venture capitalists choose to waste their money on, but it’s impossible to read about these astronomical sums being thrown around and not wonder if some more productive use might have been found for the cash, like, you know, fighting world hunger or something.

No doubt such naive sentiment would earn me a stern lecture from today’s tech entrepreneurs, about how enriching the wealth-creators is the true road to global prosperity, just like Ayn Rand said, but even if I was a hard-headed capitalist rather than a soft-hearted communist the WhatsApp deal might raise a few concerns. If the rate of profit in traditional industries has declined to the point where capital is forced to find a home at the risky edge of new technology, then it doesn’t auger well for the economy as a whole. Of course tech enthusiasts will argue that we’re talking about a new, disruptive paradigm, and that the old rules don’t apply, and that the sky-high valuations of internet stocks are completely justified and not at all based on any sort of irrational exuberance, but that’s what they’ve said about every bubble since the days of tulip mania.

At least us poor folks can look forward to the whole edifice collapsing at some point in the future, though the Googles and Facebooks are probably already preparing plans to lobby the Government for a bailout when the crash comes, because these arch-objectivists do tend to embrace corporate socialism when times turn hard (for them). In the meantime I guess we just have to keep organising, and resisting where we can.