Friday, 24 October 2014

Pet Shop Boys - Suburbia

I know it's all been filler on the blog this week. The old brain has been addled with too much work-related stuff. Normal service should resume shortly. But not just yet. As we segue into the weekend let's mark its start with a slice of 80s wonderfulness.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Marx on Alienation

Forgive the 19th century language:
What then constitutes the alienation of labour?

First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. /his labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else's, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, if the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him - that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity - so is the worker's activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.

As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions - eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.
Karl Marx 1959 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Lawrence & Wishart, pp.65-6.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

EU Support at 20 Year High

Calling it support might be a bit of a stretch but nevertheless this is interesting:

Here's your source.

The professional pundits are probably right. This is a backlash of sorts against UKIP. The greater their presence is felt, the more their backwardness is plastered all over the media the stiffer the resistance to their blandishments becomes.

But that is not all. Weirdly, I think a little bit of anti-politics sentiment is bound up with this. Consider it, every time you turn on the news or open a paper, politics stories always seem to be blah, blah, Europe, blah, blah, referendum, blah, blah more Europe. It's really bloody dull. The problem is as the Tories have stupidly decided to try and out-UKIP UKIP by offering a referendum on a renegotiated relationship with the EU - a series of negotiations Dave will flunk in spectacular style - the knee jerk rejection and reaction to this interminably boring, alienating and remote politics finds itself expressed in maintaining Britain's membership. Perhaps its just as well Labour and the LibDems aren't making a big deal about EU support in the run up to next year. Unlike the Tories and UKIP, they are aware it's a priority for approximately seven per cent of voters.

Is this existential crisis time for UKIP? You know how the story goes. In fact, the Tories are banking on it. The blue team are returned next year, Dave successfully renegotiates EU membership, the referendum happens, a yes vote wins out and UKIP withers away to nothing. All those voters dutifully return back to the Conservatives and they go on to win a thumping third term in 2020. Sadly for Dave and everyone pinning their hope to this scenario, no. The salience of UKIP is expressive of and capitalises on long-term social trends that have, for a section of the population, made living in Britain feel as if it is a scary, insecure and unfamiliar place. To think an EU referendum followed by a yes vote is going to kill the kippers stone dead is to indulge Westminster determinism of the very worst sort. They are a sociological phenomenon and as such only long range policies that ease insecurity, such as building more affordable homes, tackling low pay and job insecurity, and doing something about the mountains of private household debt piling up will sort them out. After all, whatever happened to the SNP after the Scottish referendum?

Monday, 20 October 2014

UKIP Calypso

Words do not yet exist that adequately sum up what an ear-bleeding travesty this cacophonous cack is.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

How Labour Can See Off the Greens

Political parties are always coalitions of interests, and nowhere is that truer than our dear old Westminster: practically the last bastion of winner-takes-all parliamentary elections in the world. All it takes to form a majority government is 325 seats, a feat that can be managed without winning an absolute majority of votes. And so to win our parties have to build up blocs of support, and do so by appealing to certain interests. The Tories traditionally cornered the market in business, big and small, a managerial section of the middle class and a smattering of working class voters for whom individual, not collective self-interest mattered most. Labour's core coalition was always a key section of the professional and public sector-oriented middle class, as well as the bedrock of the labour movement. And the smaller parties, the Liberals, the nationalists, they've had to get by on those left outside.

Now the coalitions comprising the two main parties are fragmenting. The process is quite advanced regards the Tories as UKIP gobbles up the rural reactionaries and anti-Labour working class voters. But Labour is also vulnerable and has to start paying proper attention to its sociological roots. A nod in this direction, albeit only on the level of electoral competition, is the announcement that Sadiq Khan is heading up Labour's anti-Green Party strategy. Complementing a similar initiative looking at the UKIP threat, this is a smart move. However, given the policy menu Labour has so far revealed it's probable any recommendations Sadiq and co. come up with will not stymie the Greens permanently. The best we can hope for is a rearguard action before May next year.

Reasons to be pessimistic? There's plenty. Firstly, the Greens are part of a rising constituency Labour needs to win. Historically, it has been able to do just that. But the party's continuing commitment to austerity-lite and softer market fundamentalism in health, public transport and education imperils this. Far, far too many on the front bench have either forgotten or do not know that markets are not a technocratic mechanism for delivering public services. Markets are fields of power. Every private provider makes profit by skimming off a margin for its shareholders, and does this by driving down costs in the service they deliver. There are more than one ways to skin a cat, but usually it's done by reducing the staffing bill by redundancy, wage reductions and/or imposition of new terms. In other words our people in public services, from professionals to support staff find themselves bearing the costs of so-called "efficiencies" So immediately you have a chunk of more-or-less loyal Labour support who have a material interest in not supporting the party that supposedly represents them, but will find their hopes and concerns expressed in Green Party policy. The Tories have never made the mistake of hammering their core business constituency. It's about time Labour learned a similar lesson.

Second, as noted by The Graun Green voters tend to be among the most engaged of Britain's electorate. This echoes findings of 30-odd years worth of research on Green Parties across the world. For example, Paul Lichterman's 1996 classic The Search of Political Community found Green activists and supporters tended to be or have been involved in a variety of political causes. The consistent feature of their activism was something he called 'personalism'. This was an individuated (but not individualist) approach to politics in which a Green activist undertook party activism as one commitment amongst many. What mattered most was not so much party or movement building, as per labour movement traditions, but the diffusion of a values frame among wider layers of people. What you might call consciousness raising. Filtered through to electorates, there's long been a section of relatively affluent, well-educated voters who have a similar personalist approach to conventional politics. This so-called post-materialist bloc are likely to pick and choose support on the basis of values and beliefs any socialist would find progressive. Putting Labour and the Greens side-by-side, whose programme appears more appealing to this layer of people?

Lastly, because the social landscape has been reshaped before our very eyes the terrain on which every election battle is fought differs greatly from the previous skirmish. Political scientists generally make great play of the difference between first and second order elections. The latter, comprising of local, European, assembly and by-elections "don't matter" because the only one that does is the one election that decides who governs every four or five years. In Britain this usually manifests itself in higher turnouts and a solidification of support around one of the two natural parties of government. That will be no different next year, albeit with one major caveat. First order elections are starting to look like second order elections. In 1979 Labour and the Tories had 80.8% of votes cast between them. In 1997 it was 73.9% and at 2010 it was 65.1%. Voters increasingly aren't playing by the rules, and there's no reason to believe next year will be any different.

Unfortunately for us that means attacks along the lines of 'vote green get blue' and playing the lesser evil card is unlikely to sway nearly as many progressive-but-peed-off voters as on previous occasions. When they perceive a Labour Party responding to UKIP's rise by tacking right on immigration and social security, now the Greens are an increasingly credible proposition electorally speaking they might well vote for something they do want than something they don't.

But all is not lost. The challenge posed by the Greens is nowhere near that currently rending the Tories. It's rather a problem storing up big trouble for the future. It might damage our chances in 17 seats now, but that will be much bigger come 2020. The thing is winning over Green voters permanently doesn't even entail a lurch into electorally whiffy ultra-leftism. Tackling marketised chaos and insecurity in the public sector is hardly storming the Winter Palace. And putting front and centre realisable social democratic policies with cross constituency appeal would be a massive help. Such as abolishing tuition fees, for example.

Labour has to move from the propaganda of the word to the propaganda of the deed if it is to win, win, and win again. That's the choice. Change tack, stop attacking our base and developing a popular programme of social democratic transformation. Or carry on with a programmatic mix of the good, the bad and the ugly and see a section of our coalition melt away to the Greens. What's it to be?

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Saturday Interview: Stroppybird

Stroppybird - not her real name - is a socialist feminist activist and Facebook obsessive currently living in London. Stropps wrote things for five years over at the eponymous Stroppyblog. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Why did you start blogging?

I got into blogs when my partner started one. I read and commented on lots and then thought, why not, ill give it a go.

What was your best blogging experience?

The blog was a mix of politics and humour and one of my favorite posts was the Leftie Sex Survey. Quite an eye opener into the world of the left!

Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Be aware there is a time commitment if you want to get views and comments. It's best to try to blog once a day. Comment on other blogs with a link to your own and respond to comments left on your own blog.

And why did Stroppyblog fall into disuse? Will you be coming back?

It started to become hard work. I didn’t have the time or headspace to blog everyday and trying to run a group blog was also a headache, trying to get posts from people who were busy.

I also found that although got views, I didn’t really get that many comments.

I'd take time on a post and get a few comments. I'd do a one liner on Facebook and get a heated debate. So Facebook won out. The blog became hard work for little return.

Do you find social media useful for activist-y things?

Yep, it’s a good way to getting info out on demos, groups and communicating across areas and countries. But, there can be a bit of preaching to the converted and I’m as guilty as anyone. I'll share a link and it will get liked. But what difference does that make. I didn’t change any ones mind.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

I think it’s been more about intellectual debates than individual influences. So in the 80s when I first got involved in politics I was very involved in what was then the lesbian and gay movement, but did include trans and bi people. Also how this interacted with socialist and feminist politics. I tended to gravitate to socialist feminist politics and with LG activists that accepted I was bi and didn’t see me as a cop out.

Other debates that occupied me were around revolution or reform.

I became involved in politics at 16 as a result of my experiences, my background. I was the first in my family to stay on in education after 16, let alone get a degree. So at 18 my experiences came together with ideas and debate.

What are you reading at the moment?

I tend to have a few books on the go. I am reading Espadair Street by Ian Banks. I am also dipping into The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-1999 by Gitta Sereny. I admire her writing and humanity; sad she is no longer with us. I read her two books on Mary Bell, highly recommended.

What was the last film you saw?

Bit late to it, but watched Scandal on DVD. The whole Profumo affair is a fascinating period. It lead me to reading Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK by Geoffrey Robertson Q.C. Recommended to see how the establishment stuck together and that the law was abused to get a conviction. I am planning to read An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines, to read more about the times. The film really only skirted around the issues of the time. Nothing said about how young the women were, the racism and the demonisation of the lifestyle.

Do you have a favorite novel?

Well novels, The Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin. I have read them a number of times. Very sad and anoraky, but before I visited San Francisco where they were set, I read them again and noted down the landmarks and then visited them.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

I think possibly sex work. I don’t think I listened enough to those involved in it. I feel strongly that it’s about supporting those who want to exit to do so, to address what is keeping them there if they want to leave. To focus on criminalizing the men only puts women in particular at more risk. I'd highly recommend people to read what Ruth Jacobs writes on the subject. I am proud to call her a friend and hugely admire her bravery in the campaigning she does, sadly sometimes in the face of attacks by women. She is a true survivor who campaigns often to the detriment of her own health. She is an ex sex worker and I’m sure she won’t mind me saying, ex junkie and survivor of abusive men.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Surprising only the Labour Party and LRC. Oh and various campaign groups. Being lectured by middle class lefties on the working class, coming from the working class, that never encouraged me to join any of the far left parties or groups.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

To wider society? Socialist feminist ones.

To the left, well they could do with some basic 101 on feminism.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

The usual. Sexism, racism, homophobia, capitalism etc

Linked to that what I’m finding the most worrying set of ideas is how certain groups are being scapegoated and demonised. The old divide and rule. Basically The Daily Mail worldview; attacking Easter Europeans, Muslims, those on benefits, the disabled, the homeless and anyone they consider does not fit in and can distract from the real causes of poverty, war, not enough homes or public services.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

The major influence for me was not what I read, but what I had lived and those around me experienced growing up as a child. That formed my political core when I was 16.

Experiences such as being mocked for being poor by other kids, being homeless as a family, having a father who was mentally ill and that services let down, leading to him taking his own life, having a best friend at school who was bullied for being gay. Books just reinforced that. I think this is why I didn’t take kindly to some on the far left, from middle class backgrounds, lecturing me about the working class. For them it was out of a book.

Who are your political heroes?

Noooo, heroes are the weakness of the left. Well I could name the usual leftie and feminist heroes, but I'd rather focus on people who are not the ‘big names.’

Before I do, the biggest hero and political influence for me was my mother. Never read Marx, but in her heart and mind was a socialist, a feminist and did all she could to improve things for people as a local councilor. She could never be bought of with positions of power.

Other people I admire and respect:

All the women of the SSP, especially Rosie Kane, Catriona Grant, Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran.

The Focus E15 Mothers. Just hope the left don’t fuck up a brilliant campaign by working class women.

Kate Belgrave, for her work speaking to and telling the stories of those on the sharp end of this government. She reported on the Focus E15 campaign before it took the interest of Russell Brand.

All the LGBT people living in countries where it’s illegal to be themselves, campaigning bravely and risking their lives.

Ruth Jacobs, mentioned earlier.

Janine Booth. The first woman to complete a term on the RMT Executive and survive what was at times a macho place to be. Also all her work in the RMT and the TU movement on women, LGBT and Autism. Oh and a poet and author, where does she find the time.

And Southall Black Sisters

How about political villains?

Oh dear.

Well sadly quite a few are of the supposed left: Sheridan. Comrade Delta. The SWP. Galloway. Assange. And those who play down abusive men in our movement in the name of the ‘cause.’

Right-wingers, well the usual: Thatcher, Cameron, Clegg, Farage, Putin, both GWBs and many more.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

To have an effective reality based left that can work together to bring about socialism. Lets just say I’m not holding my breath.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

I have no idea where to start.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?


What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Question everything.

What is your favorite song?

This is pretty impossible for me. Two songs, but not my favorite, that have a meaning.

I consider Psycho Killer by Talking Heads to be ‘our song’ as the first night I went back to Dave’s flat (who am I kidding, the first night I met Dave!), he played it. Hmm, in a flat with a strange man playing Psycho Killer.

Over the Rainbow. I want that sung by a drag queen at my funeral. Love it.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Last time I was into games was when I had a Game Boy. I know if I got into them again I'd get addicted, so don’t start.

What do you consider the most important personal quality?

In me? That I try my best to do something on an individual level whether that’s in my work, or standing up and saying something when I see someone being racist, or cruel to an animal or I am asked to buy a copy of Socialist Worker

In others, well I suppose principles and honesty.

What personal fault do you most dislike?

In terms of me its self-doubt.

In others its cruelty.

What, if anything, do you worry about?


And any pet peeves?

Where do I start!

Slippers. Hipsters. Hipsters in slippers.
Ponytails on men, especially balding men.
Stoke Newington Church Street
Inappropriate and over use of the words so, like, literally and really.
Hipsters with beards and slippers
Hipsters on unicycles
Hipster pop ups.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Be less obnoxious and stop pushing people away. Don’t trust that person who went on to be abusive.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Reading, arguing with my partner via Facebook, Facebook, music, gigs, politics, films and catching up with friends

What is your most treasured possession?

Old photos

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Jim Denham

What talent would you most like to have?

Hmmm. I’d love to be able to write fiction. Or be a lead singer in a mega successful yet still critically acclaimed band and have loads of groupies.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

To be able to travel in time and space. A bit like the transporter in Star Trek, but added to that travelling across time. To see the future, but mainly to go back and be with people who are no longer alive and who I miss.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

Hmm, how enormous. Well I’d do ‘good’ things and also be indulgent. I'd buy a big warehouse flat and fill it with books, CDs and buy Dave even more guitars. I'd travel. Id helps out friends. I'd set up an animal charity and helps out other ones such as around poverty, homelessness and campaigns. Yes I know the issues with charity, but in the here and now I'd rather do something for those suffering.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Well I’m not a dinner party person; find that all a bit odd. I never feel at ease. Id rather have a big party, but if I have to limit to three, lets see. Well I likes to have a laugh, so I'd invites Rosie Kane. I love Marilyn Monroe and would like to see what she was really like and also sit and just look at her beauty and lust. I'd like Maya Angelou, an interesting life and person. I think all three would get on.

I would need Dave to cook, else they would get burnt halloumi and pittas.

Will Labour win next year?

No idea. It could be another coalition.

Which way forward for the left?


Until the left seriously address how they treat women and take sexism seriously in the here and now and while the SWP fucks up everything it touches, there won't be a way forward. The right, in the form of UKIP, will fill the gaps of dissatisfaction.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Remembering Mark Bell

Some very sad news for dance fans I've only just picked up. Mark was an important influence on the wave of rave and electronica that conquered Britain in the early 90s. As such, and as one half of LFO there can be few better ways to remember him.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

UKIP, Symbolism, and Image

This tweet by Ellie Mae O'Hagan planted a seed. Strip away the populist politics for a moment, what is it that UKIP's chosen symbol - the pound sign - says about their party? Or, to be more accurate, what is it about the logo that resonates. What about Nigel Farage. Is his appeal solely down to his cigarette quaffing, pint-smoking persona? Let's play with the signs that feature prominently in kipper material and prise them apart like so much mouldy pulled pork. What does it say about message and audience?

The first thing, perhaps what one might be tempted to overlook are the party colours. This leaflet from Northamptonshire is typical. Apart from the blatant "factually accurate" scaremongering, if anything the chosen colour scheme wrenches my guts more than the putrid politics. There's nothing wrong with purple or yellow in themselves. Design-wise the LibDem make okay use of their colour. And Progress combine purple with red and white to give their website and publication a pleasing pastel vibe. It's inoffensive without being twee. Which is exactly why UKIP have plumped for the opposite. The rancid colour clash is more than just a refusal to bow to good taste. It's brash, loud and uncompromising, exactly how the party likes to see itself. The bold colouring is accompanied by bold, spiky policies. It's also instantly recognisable. With the LibLabCon competing for space on your doormat, UKIP's rancid colour scheme stands out a mile.

Then there's the pound sign. A naff choice to be sure, but then again UKIP are not interested in appealing to reasoned debate, let alone electorates who prefer their politics progressive side up. As a nationalist movement it will annex everything and anything redolent of Englishness and Britishness. Can't use the royals because they're neutral (and, whisper it, not really British anyway). Can't use Westminster because it supposedly embodies everything UKIP is against. Putting aside sporting endeavour and iconic wartime imagery, there's not a lot left. A cup of tea? Chicken tikka masala? Not on your nelly. But good old sterling? Why not. It's quintessentially British and is instantly recognisable wherever you go. As symbols go we interact with it everyday, acting as a banal reminder that this is England/Britain and that our money remains our own. It symbolises economic might, certainty and sovereignty. Packed into what would otherwise be a nonsensical squiggle is the DNA of a nation - enterprise, hard graft, and independence. The pound is not stained by the blood of empire, tainted by lingering racism or the stuff and nonsense of the hooray henry classes. It's the one thoroughly democratic symbol all Britons have no problem acknowledging. And what's more the semiotics suggest that if this irreducibly British totem is sacrificed on the Euro's altar, it won't be long before our plucky national character follows the currency into an unnecessary grave. So yes, a naff choice. A canny choice.

Now to Farage. I think we've only got part of his appeal right. The plain speaking man in the pub, yadda, yadda, yadda. But leaving it at that underestimates the connection Farage has to his late middle age and elderly white male core vote. Dave Renton notes this core voter is someone who's worked all or most of their life, has acquired a modest to middling capital through savings and home ownership, were educated in the school of hard knocks and the university of life and feel a deep unease about the social change sweeping the land. While it counts some former Labour voters among the cohort, most are from that segment of working class/middle class men who don't vote Labour.

Enter Farage. His is a deeply reassuring presence for men so positioned. He's less the pub bore and more the hands-on company owner mucking in with his employees. He's well heeled, had every advantage moneyed birth can convey, but avoids condescension and patrician off-handedness. At some point in their careers millions of UKIP voters have met or become acquainted with an employer like Farage. Someone who knows it's a tough life, expects you to do the job he's given you and in return he'll level with you. Not for one to hide behind management suits, if he thinks you're crap he'll tell you. If you're shit he'll sack you. No verbal warnings or second written warnings. This is straight down the line you-know-where-you-stand-ism. Farage has a non-showy confidence in his self-presentation and what he says. Like the best bosses, he knows the score and is on top of what needs to be done. The boss of old might have won grudging respect, even if he was a bastard. But he gave it in return. What Farage has got going for him then is a masochistic nostalgia that speaks to senses of "how bad" kippers had it back in the day. Farage speaks to a band of bloodied brothers manhandled and battered by life, but who narcissistically revel in their tougher, more authentic, more certain past. That's why millions of older men are besotted and bowled over by his peculiar charisma. His like is already positively embedded in their life experience.

Loud and proud. Identity and sovereignty. Certainty and authenticity. These are concentrated in UKIP's art style, semiology, and person of their Gaffer. The fit between them is almost seamless. Decoupling them is one of the many things that need to be done to eradicate their poisonous presence for good.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Goffman and the Sociology of Video Games

Erving Goffman. Certainly a sociologist who hasn't had much of an airing round these parts. Not that I have anything against him or his body of work, it's more that we have very different problematics. He was interested in the micro level, of the practices, stratagems and conventions of interaction between individuals. And me? You know what this blog is all about. But on occasion, I like a straight foray into things sociological and this is one of those moments.

Goffman was interested in developing analytical frameworks for the study of face-to-face interaction. While he did develop a number of concepts for the highest level of sociological magnification, his work did not have a systematicity in the same way possessed by systems theory and Marxism. But there were a set of key premises he returned to time and again. There's a social psychology of expressiveness, a tendency for us to mobilise speech, expressions, gestures, inflections to convey information to the other person(s) involved in a particular interactional encounter. How this is done is constantly reflected on and modified in light of the response of the other to our expressivity. This rests on forms of co-presence (from fully engaged interaction to merely being in the presence of others), and behaviours Goffman divides up into ritual, theatrical and game metaphors. These respectively denote modes of regard and respect, of acting and performing roles, and approaching an encounter in a calculated way. It's gaming, sans any implied Machiavellianism that interests me here.

Commentary on video games has been parked up a cul de sac for too long. It's partly historical and partly the specificity of the medium. Indeed, the so-called GamerGate controversy owes something to self-identified, self-important "gamers" realising that the games they play can contain objectionable cultural content some people want to write about, call attention to, and critique. I digress. As artefacts of late 20th and early 21st century culture, sociology should have something to say about it. This is where Goffman might come in.

For Goffman, an encounter is a world-building activity that generates meanings for all who participate in it. There are a set of tacitly-understood rules determining what counts for appropriate conduct. Hence behaviours are produced and reproduced: social action is seldom if ever invented anew. Games are structured in this way, but the fun component - the reason why we play a game - resides in the imposition of a problematic on the situation, a win/lose dynamic. Fun resides in the uncertain balance between familiarity and uncertainty. We can appreciate the excitement of a footy match because we know the conventions. Whether it's Trivial Pursuit, British Bulldog, or competitive sports the uncertainty surrounding outcomes exists with the opportunity for players/participants to show off their attributes, to the entertainment of the co-present and gratification of the player. For Goffman, game playing is about dicing with fatefulness and overcoming the circumstances it can throw at you.

While multiplayer is big across all the top whack titles these days, for the majority of video game history the core gameplay experience is the traditional single player affair; of meat facing off against machine. Can the basic sketch of Goffman's approach to game encounters help illuminate video game interaction and kickstart a sociology appropriate to it? These suggestions, which might become the basis of subsequent work on this topic, bracket the wider social world and concentrate on what happens as a gamer games.

1. Video gaming generates meaning. Software is comprised of a set of responses that are pre-programmed or, occasionally, generated on the fly within tightly-defined parameters. Key enemies and major plot points are revealed at moments determined by the development team. The player responds to this in two ways: as a participant in the unfolding action, and as a meaning making animal. Some of the meanings are pertinent to how the game is played - for example, the appearance of puzzles or plot-relevant information, and another layer of "meta" meaning that locates the game and its game world in relation to their expectations and imagination. For example, how many players of Capcom's Commando played it straight as a military-style vertically scrolling shooter vs how many cast themselves as Super Joe mowing down the bad guys vs how many invented an elaborate backstory for the game to take place in? Interpretation and meaning construction takes place on a number of levels the game playing experience makes possible.

2. Video games have rules. Different genres mean groups of games have a lot in common with others. If you've played the Resistance trilogy, you have the competencies to do well in Killzone, Halo, Destiny, Call of Duty, etc. The player understands the behaviours the game demands of them. These can, to a degree be subverted in-game, but see how long you manage to get through Tetris without completing any lines or by racing backwards on Gran Turismo. One's accumulation of video game experience produces and reproduces certain game behaviours. Players are habituated and know what to expect. Like a normal co-present social encounter, conduct and strategy is followed but it is an encounter where one of the elements is an automated stand-in. In the absence of additional human input, game playing is a simulacrum of interaction.

3. Despite the bewildering array of game types, win/lose continues to structure the scene. The challenges curled up on cassette tapes and blu-ray discs are invitations to fatefulness. Pick up a game and it tries slapping your face with a glove. How a player comes to respond to certain challenges over others, how one's taste in games is formed is a formidable project in and of itself. How winning and losing is interpreted and experienced, is another. Does 'winning' mean running through the game to the end, abandoning or fighting shy of unearthing secrets and performing side quests? Or is a challenge only met when a gamer has experienced all there is to experience, that each and every ephemera has been hunted down, be it power up/weapon combination, vehicle, hidden area, or trophy? Is deep understanding an experience the hallmark of the hardcore gamer, or the capacity to whiz through the 20 hour solo campaign before taking on the next game?

4. If showing off one's mastery in front of others is another fun reason why we play, that makes perfect sense in multiplayer settings and one-on-one competition. Where does this leave the solo player during their sojourn to realms digital? The challenge provided by a video game might be a simulacrum of interaction, but they offer real enough tests of ability. As one plays, gets a grip on the mechanics and meets the trials laid out mastery and virtuosity is asserted against the software. Pulling off a brilliant combo in Tekken 3, dodging every bullet in Ikaruga, flying here, there and everywhere in Super Mario World sees the gamer as performer and audience for their exploits. To this end, if Goffman's interaction is about expressivity, of conveying information and meaning, the video game is a canvas on which the gamer presents their gaming self to themselves. In solo play the approval of other human beings is unnecessary. Gratification is a property of the private universe gamers engage and co-construct with a machine.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Labour's Whipped Palestine Vote

Picking a fight with one of your party's most powerful lobbies is a risky affair. When so doing having a clear objective in mind helps, as well as a strategy that shows off your leadership virtues. Think Tony Blair and the unions. Think - yes - Dave and equal marriage. Which brings us to the curious case of the vote for Palestinian recognition due to come before the Commons tomorrow afternoon.

Originally, Ed Miliband had instructed the whips office to issue a three-liner commanding Labour MPs to turn out and support Britain's acceptance of Palestinian statehood. Unfortunately, things went awry after several shadow cabinet members made their opposition known. Now instead we have the fudge. Labour MPs will be expected to vote for the unamended motion, but only if they can be arsed to turn up. A shambles, in other words. Or is it?

Labour Friends of Israel is one avenue Israel and its sympathisers make its influence felt in British politics. Again, this has nothing to do with conspiracy theorising. Like all wealthy states Israel expends resources pushing its interests in friendly states. Britain and the USA do exactly the same. In the Labour Party itself, LFI cultivates links between labour movement organisations and individual politicians with their Israeli counterparts. It is a well-funded, well-connected lobby organisation attractive to genuine sympathisers and careerists alike. Its event at party conference is always one of the best attended along with, ironically, Labour Friends of Palestine.

LFI commands the affiliation of a good chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party, notably Chris Bryant, Luciana Berger, Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy, Rachel Reeves and John Woodcock. Had Ed persisted with the three-line whip he would face the prospect of losing several shadow cabinet members. When one trump card Labour has over the Tories is unity, a public scrap about an issue that is not a core concern of the electorate in general might not turn out to be "helpful".

Of course, the Palestinian vote sans the wrecking amendment deserves to be supported. Israel's summer massacre showed the world a cynical political elite maintaining the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza to pretend Israeli jews still face an existential threat. If you can terrify a populace, otherwise rancid politics gets a free pass as long as it pretends to be most serious about "security". A lasting peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority raises the prospect of "normal" politics and limited room for hysterical, populist manoeuvres. If Britain, as one of Israel's most loyal arms suppliers and backers on the international stage, recognise the Palestinians it is a foreign policy defeat for Netanyahu and his odious cronies. Instead of talking about peace while shelling civilian population centres, they might have to start taking it a bit more seriously.

It's the right and good thing to do. What about the real reasons? It's easy points among soft left-liberal voters who might have their heads turned by a growing and nominally left-er Green Party. But this is about internal matters. In making their discomfort known, in the medium term Reeves, Berger and Murphy will be for the chop. Westminster watchers will recall the shadcab reshuffle a year ago. Then Jim Murphy was chopped for being indiscreet about his desire to bomb Syria. Also getting the heave ho were Diane Abbott and Chris Williamson for venturing criticisms during that summer's recess. Only Andy Burnham got away with it, not least helped by his popularity among party members. By putting this issue out there Ed has flushed out some potential opposition. And by coming out a bunch of cards are now marked. Upon the next reshuffle, demotion and the back benches await.