2020 vision

[I guess it bodes ill for my serious writing career that I have been unable to resist such a painfully obvious title for today’s post, but I was up late last night, so I think I can be excused.]

What lies ahead for SLS as we enter the new decade? I expect that we will feel compelled to continue commenting on the unfolding political situation, on both sides of the Atlantic. My prediction is that the Brexit question will actually calm down a bit now that Boris Johnson has a solid majority and, no longer beholden to the ultras in his own party, is able to negotiate a sensible trade deal with the EU. Things are likely to get more lively in the US though, since the long-awaited impeachment process has significantly raised the already-high stakes in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump will be going to jail if he loses, giving him the motivation to abandon the scant regard he has for constitutional niceties, assuming he allows the election to go ahead at all.

Away from politics, I would like to start posting longer, more considered, pieces on broader cultural topics, perhaps once a month or so, but that’s an ambition I’ve had for several years now and it’s never happened yet, so we’ll see.

And Second Life? I did renew my annual subscription back in October, which cost about $90, even though the only way I have of accessing the grid these days is via an old copy of the now-defunct Lumiya app on an elderly tablet, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t produce a particularly satisfactory graphical experience. Theoretically that shouldn’t matter too much if I just wanted to interact with people, but the perennial SL underpopulation means that one has to wander around for ages before bumping into anyone, and it’s difficult to stay interested without something pretty to look at. I should try to get back into virtual living again, because I’m sure SL will just disappear one day, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. It might be quite interesting to compare my thoughts about it now with my first impressions from back in 2007.

So, politics, culture, Second Life, that should keep me busy for the next twelve months. I may even find time to cover our other main neglected category, psychology. I could do something tomorrow on avoiding procrastination….

State of disappointment

It’s the evening after the morning after the night before, and I have to say I’m still feeling pretty bummed out. I’ve purposefully avoided reading any news today, because I know it would just have depressed the fuck out of me even more; instead I spent most of the day in bed, and the rest watching movies.

I guess I’ll pick myself up in time, and get back to the struggle, but for now I just need a bit of space away from reality . If only there was some sort of virtual world I could lose myself in…

Long dark night

It’s that point in the evening where the exit polls and early results are in, and the crushing wave of depression is just about being held at bay by the increasingly forlorn hope that it might not turn out as badly as it it’s looking at the moment.

In my younger days I used to stay up until the early hours on an election night, but I don’t have the stamina for that now. Of course back then I was often actually at the count, which was much more fun than sitting at home alone, following the outcome on a laptop. I’ll probably stick it out for another hour or so, but finding something to feel good about amongst the gloom will have to wait for the morning.

Nervous anticipation

I’m just back from casting my ballot, not that it’s likely to make much difference – the constituency where I live is a Labour/SNP marginal, and since the only plausible alternative to a Tory majority is some sort of coalition of the anti-Conservative forces, in practical terms it won’t make any difference which of the two comes out on top around here. For the record I voted Labour, since they do have a fairly progressive programme, by contemporary standards at least.

So now we wait; the exit polls should be out in half an hour or so, and then we’ll know our fate. All the pundits are predicting a win for Johnson, and while forecasts of a May landslide were badly wrong in 2017, I’m not at all confident that Corbyn will pull off a similar escape act this time. There are reports of a good turnout, especially among young voters, which is a source of faint hope, but at best it’s going to be a close thing. We’ll find out soon enough I guess…

To the polls

I regularly exhort the citizens of other countries to go out and vote for progressive candidates, or at least against reactionaries, so I guess I should do the same in the UK’s hour of need, however unlikely it is that the SLS-reading demographic will make the crucial difference.

I’m not usually a big advocate of tactical voting, but the present danger does seem serious enough to justify it, so, if you’re reading this, and still in any doubt about where to place your X, please support whichever of your local candidates is best placed to defeat the Tories.

Scritti di Twitter

So, only a day to go until what most observers agree may be the most consequential election of the modern era. The nation is faced with a clear choice; Labour, offering a modest package of tax rises and state spending that would just about bring the UK into line with the social democratic model of most European countries, or the Conservatives, who promise a fantasy of national renewal and prosperity through the dark magic of Brexit and unregulated free markets.

On the face of it there should be no doubting a Labour victory, but, as they were last time around, the Tories are strong favourites. If the opinion polls are to be believed – and the pollsters claim to have fixed the flaws that derailed their predictions in 2017 – then huge numbers of working class voters, particularly in the north of England are going to vote directly against their own economic interests, and usher Boris Johnson back into Downing Street.

This is, of course, a conundrum that has troubled the left since the days of Marx – the problem of false consciousness. One might think that, in the prevailing economic landscape of low wages and precarious employment, not to mention ecological crisis, progressive socialist ideas would be more popular, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Economics, as Gramsci noted nearly a century ago, isn’t everything. Culture, and who is in control of it, is equally, if not more, important, and modern life, in post-industrial societies like the UK at least, is increasingly mediated by online experience.

The last few years have seen a rise in critical interest directed towards the way in which the internet, especially social media, influences electoral politics. A lot of anxiety has been generated by the role it plays in propagating the outright falsehoods that seem to make up the greater part of political discourse these days, but I think this misses a bigger point. The main problem is that these new forms of communication – and the old ones they are supplanting for that matter – are dominated by the corporations that are the contemporary embodiment of capitalism, and, as such, are central to generating the sort of hegemonic “common sense” that Gramsci would recognise, perpetuating our current system of rampant inequality.

Can these immensely powerful tools be subverted to further the cause of raising class consciousness? I was sceptical about that at the start of the decade, and have only become more so in the time since then. Perhaps we need to throw away our smartphones and start talking to one another again, if we are to rebuild the proletarian solidarity we need to take on the ruling class.

In the meantime I’m hoping that things are not as far gone as they seem, and that the residual anti-Tory traditions of working class life will derail Johnson’s plans, and put us back on the track of, if not revolution, at least some modest reform.

Conflicting narratives

Last night saw the first set-piece event of the election campaign, as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn squared off in the initial leaders’ debate.

Most commentators have scored the contest an uninspiring draw; certainly neither man landed a significant blow, nor made a major blunder. There was nothing to surprise potential voters who have paid even scant attention to political developments over the last few months, but the outlines of the respective campaigns were clarified; Johnson is determined to keep the focus on Brexit, while Corbyn wants to fight on the broader front of opposition to Tory austerity.

How this will all play out is still very uncertain. Johnson’s strategy hinges on winning support from Labour leavers in the north of England, while hoping that Tory remainers in the south are put off defecting to the Liberals by fear of a Corbyn administration. Labour’s hopes rest on their traditional heartlands staying loyal, while Johnson’s lurch to the right drains his support among moderate conservatives.

Add in the wildcard of the Brexit party, the national question in Scotland and Wales, and doubts about turnout in the middle of winter, and it all looks quite bewildering. The polls are suggesting that Johnson’s gamble might pay off, but the polls were badly wrong in 2017, so I’m sticking to my forecast of a minority Labour government before the end of the year.

Questionable things

It’s November 2019, which, as all sci-fi fans and film buffs know, is the month when the events of Blade Runner take place.

We wrote about Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece back in the early days of this blog, when 2019 still seemed like the semi-distant future, and, while I did have an inkling that the decade to come was going to be a bit grim, the way things have turned out in reality makes Rick Deckard’s neo-noir Los Angeles look quite attractive in comparison, despite the perpetual rain, and the homicidal robots.

Interestingly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel which provides the source material for Blade Runner, is in many ways a more accurate portrait of 21st century life. It envisages San Francisco in 2021 (or 1992 in the earlier editions); the elite have long fled to off-world colonies, leaving ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a world overtaken by ecological catastrophe and drowning in the detritus of a collapsing civilisation, their lives ruled by unaccountable corporations in a brutal police state, finding solace only in technological simulation of lost nature, and bogus virtual-reality religion.

The book and the movie do share a common theme about the nature of humanity, but the former is significantly darker, and much more downbeat in its conclusion. Dick died shortly before the film came out, but he did see a pre-release version, and apparently liked it, though he felt it complemented his story rather than directly reproducing it.

While android technology may not have advanced as far as Dick imagined, the cleverness of today’s Artificial Intelligence does seem to exceed that displayed by the replicants in the story. Roy Batty may trick his way into Tyrell’s residence with an unexpected chess move (though he’s actually just reproducing a game played out by humans back in 1851), but chess is old hat for modern AI; just last month it was reported that Google’s Deep Mind program had mastered that most advanced of intellectual pursuits, the online real-time strategy game.

Some people warn that AI is approaching the Singularity; the point where it can improve itself faster than humans can keep up. This is generally followed, in classic science fiction at least, by the newly-conscious super-computer taking over the world, though this does depend on humans doing something stupid, like handing it control of all the nuclear weapons, and it usually all works out well in the end, once we manage to teach the machines the power of love or something.

I do sometimes worry that AI will kill us all eventually, though not with an army of cyborgs; it will just get us to do the job ourselves, by using social media algorithms to divide us into mutually destructive tribes, or, failing that, to convince enough of us to eschew vaccination that we all die of measles.

At heart though, I’m still enough of a techno-utopian to believe that humankind is sufficiently smart to stay in control of the technology we create, and that our social organisation will evolve to allow the whole population to benefit from the advances that, at the moment, are just enriching a few. All going well, the future will be less like Blade Runner, and more like … actually I can’t think of a sci-fi film where the utopia doesn’t turn out to be a dystopia before the second reel. Maybe Logan’s Run, for the under-30s?

All I want for Christmas

So, we finally have a date for an election, which feels waking up from a nightmare, for the moment at least. I suspect the sense of relief will be short-lived though, since the campaign that will now ensue is likely to be ill-tempered and divisive.

The final result may turn on the degree to which Boris Johnson is able to keep the focus on his preferred narrative – the one that casts him, an absurdly privileged toff, as the unlikely tribune of the common man – and away from where he actually wants to lead the country, which is not a destination likely to appeal to the working-class voters he needs to win over. Conversely, Jeremy Corbyn will be hoping that the electorate can look beyond the immediate question of Brexit, and buy into the progressive Labour programme that proved popular in 2017.

Whatever plans the parties may have are unlike to survive first contact with the population, so predicting the outcome is a fool’s game, but I’ll go for it anyway – Johnson’s gamble won’t pay off, and our Yuletide present will be a Labour government.

 

Time to vote

So, are we to have an election before the end of the year? One might think, after yet another week of parliamentary manoeuvring, we would have an answer to that question, especially since all the major parties are, in theory, in favour of an early poll, but uncertainty persists. Boris Johnson’s latest attempt to dissolve parliament, which came to a vote this evening, was unsuccessful, as, unsurprisingly, the opposition was reluctant to take him at his word when he promised not to try to push through his Withdrawal Bill before election day.

He’s going to try again tomorrow, with a motion that ties him down to a definite date, which would make it all but impossible for him to engineer an exit in the meantime. This time he might get it over the line, since the EU have granted another extension until the end of January, providing reassurance for the opposition parties with most to gain from an election, the SNP and the Liberals, who between them have enough votes to give Johnson a majority, assuming he can keep his own party on board. Labour remain ambivalent, but may have to accept that the numbers are stacking up against a further delay.

The Tories are ahead in the polls, but even so, an election is a major gamble for Johnson. He would be banking on picking up enough seats from Labour in the north of England to offset what will probably be a total Conservative wipeout in Scotland, and heavy losses to the Liberals in the south. He would need to keep the campaign focused on Brexit, and hope that Labour leave voters were prepared to overlook a decade of austerity, and the promise of more to come, and give him the mandate to finally carry through a departure. This seems unlikely, to say the least.

My view is that an election can’t come soon enough. A win for the left is more than possible, and while a Johnson victory would be a nightmare, at least we would know where we stood, and could get on with the class struggle, instead of prolonging the current paralysis.

My predictions? There will be an election in the week beginning 9th December, Labour will win enough seats to form a minority government with the loose support of the SNP, and Johnson will take his rightful place as a footnote to history.