Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Falling standards

I know that the passage of time tends to smooth off the rough edges of history, but it’s still been rather disconcerting to read the obituaries of the late George Herbert Walker Bush, in which he is portrayed as a wise statesman who skilfully navigated the treacherous international waters of the early 90s, and not, as I remember him being thought of at the time, as an out-of-touch elitist who oversaw an economic nosedive, and suffered the ignominy of being thrown out of office after only one term. Establishment commentators have generally downplayed his domestic shortcomings, and focused on his role in cementing US hegemony in the post-Soviet world, as demonstrated by his orchestration of the 1991 Gulf War, taking for granted that this development was a good thing, which is of course debatable.

I guess the present incumbent has reset expectations to such a degree that the 41st President’s failings now seem more forgivable, and, to be fair, he was clearly dedicated to public service, albeit in a patrician fashion, rather than personal enrichment. Still, I suspect that, when posterity draws up the rankings, HW will be firmly mid-table – not as bad as Harding or Buchanan, but no Lincoln or Roosevelt.

Remembrance Day 2018

When I was younger there seemed to be a clear distinction between the general cultural perception of the two global conflicts of the 20th century; while everyone agreed that defeating the Nazis in WW2 was an unequivocally just cause, WW1 was almost universally viewed as a senseless affair that had sent the youth of the nation to their death for no particular reason.

A century on from the end of the Great War everything is much more fuzzy. The tone of today’s Remembrance Day events, while not exactly celebrating war, does convey the idea that there was a nobility to the sacrifice of the fallen, and that no further comment is needed, certainly nothing that questions why they fell.

This is understandable to some extent; the political upheavals of the 19th century which primed the conflagration that finally ignited in 1914 are all but incomprehensible today, and simple human stories of loss and resilience are much more accessible. However we must not allow our instinct to support the men and women who went off to fight in that war (and all the wars since), commendable though it is, to be used to silence criticism of war itself.

There is an irony in the fact that, as our leaders gather to put on a show of respect for the millions who died in WW1, the structures that have kept the peace in Europe for the last 60 years are being dismantled, and the world is moving back towards the sort of Great Power politics that led to disaster a century ago. We owe it to the dead, and the living, to oppose this, and ensure that never again do workers kill workers in a capitalist war.

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.

Red October

Today marks the centenary of the events in Petrograd which would culminate in the foundation of the world’s first workers’ state. Plenty has been written about this subject over the years, and it would be somewhat of an understatement to say that there are a multitude of opinions on the nature and legacy of the October Revolution, from right-wing hostility to the whole project, through the standard liberal view that a Bolshevik coup derailed the progress promised by the bourgeois overthrow of Tsarist feudalism, to the embrace by the left, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, of the vision of communism proclaimed by Lenin and his allies.

I’ve been consciously involved in political activity for more than three decades now, and the arguments about October 1917 haven’t changed much in that time, though perhaps the “Bolshevik coup” theory has become more solidified as accepted wisdom, even among elements of the left.

What is different these days is that the debate doesn’t seem as vital as it once did. While the centenary has exited activity in academic and left political circles, the mainstream media has more or less ignored it, and it would be hard to say that it has impacted on popular consciousness at all.

Of course the degeneration, and eventual demise, of the Soviet Union, along with the general decline of the left in the West, does seem to confirm the idea that the October Revolution is nothing but an episode of distant history, no more relevant to today’s politics than the intrigues of Ancient Rome. On the other hand, the class struggle, which so animated the workers and peasants of Russia at the start of the 20th century, is still with us, and in a form which is not so different from that which was so successfully waged by the Bolsheviks.

Perhaps I’m just an aging revolutionary, clinging to dreams of the past, but I still think that that October 1917 represents the most progressive period in human history, one from which we can learn a great deal. The problems facing the world today, stemming from levels of inequality in wealth and power not seen since the days of the Tsar, call out for an upheaval in social relations on a similar scale. One hundred years on, armed with a knowledge of how things went wrong last time, it’s time the workers took power again.

Guidance from above

I’ve always been quite proud of my navigational skills; while I’ve never exactly been through the wilderness, I have managed to use map and compass to plot a course around fairly remote places like Yosemite and the Cascades without getting more than temporarily lost, and I’ve traversed many a new city with only a glance at the guidebook.

That said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any need to utilise this talent, partly because I never go anywhere new these days, but mostly because, like just about everyone else, I carry around a handy gadget that always tells me exactly where I am, and where I should be going. I do like to think that I could manage without it, and orientate myself old-style using features like rivers and railway lines, but still, I’m in no hurry to test that out.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because today marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the event that kick-started the space race, its simple beep the forerunner of the GPS signals that guide us today. Yet another facet of modern life that we owe to the command economy.

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.

International Women’s Day 2017

One hundred years ago today, a march in Petrograd to mark International Women’s Day set in train a series of events that culminated in the October Revolution, the best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world.

It’s heartening to see that today’s women still have the fighting spirit shown by their sisters all those years ago; they might yet save the world from the mess we men have made of it.

Long to reign over us

Around 5.30 this evening Queen Elizabeth II became the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch, beating the 63-and-a-bit years managed by her great-great-grandmother Victoria. She shows no signs of flagging, so the second Elizabethan age is likely to run for a while longer, much to the chagrin of republicans like myself.

It’s easy to view British royalty as a quaint and essentially harmless anachronism, given that Elizabeth has largely refrained from directly interfering in politics, and the country is effectively a typical bourgeois democratic republic, but I think that underestimates the extent to which the institution of the monarchy underpins the conservative structure of our political culture. There is a big psychological difference between being a subject and being a citizen, and the deference to authority that is inherent in a monarchical system is a major barrier to progressive change.

Generations have grown up seeing Elizabeth on the throne as a fact of life, and her longevity has meant that the patent ridiculousness of choosing a head of state by bloodline hasn’t been a live political issue in recent years. Even queens are mortal though, and some day the country will have to consider whether the royal charade should go on. I can’t believe that the succession, when it comes, will be a smooth one; surely reason will prevail and Elizabeth will go down in history as not only our longest-serving monarch, but also our last one.