Monday, 22 August 2016

Ants in the Coffee

I'm working on what the trendies and hipsters call a 'long read'. It's about Neoliberalism - what it is and what's likely to come after. I'm about 2,000 words in and not sure if the mid-point has been reached. Yikes.

You're here looking for a bit of blogging red meat to play with, and so ...

I've been making cups of coffee since I was a little kid, mostly for myself and mum. And I followed the standard prep format. Coffee and sugar in first, followed by the milk and then topped up with boiling water. Seeing the half/semi-dissolved granules swimming about the surface was, in my book, the sign of a drink well made.

Then, over 20 years ago, I went to university. In the second year our house was in a street about two minutes walk from the main entrance to the ivory tower, so all the folks we knew would pile round inbetween lectures. Many hours of Neighbours and Home and Away were spent with cakes from Wright's Pies and beverages from, well, me. And I recall one of my housemates (hello, Liv!) moaning about my "ants in the coffee". Imagine my horror that, apparently, the trusty and tried Cartledge way of doing things was wrong. The water goes in first and the "ants", my beloved melting coffee sands, were unworthy. Sad to say, I capitulated and adopted the "proper" method and have added the milk last ever since.

The important questions then are:

a) How do you make your (instant) coffee?

b) Is it a region thing?

c) Is it a class thing?

This has puzzled me for the best part of 15 minutes, so can you shed some light on the situation?

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Annoying Necessity of Facebook

In the recent past, Facebook has advertised Britain First to me. It has dangled anti-semitic conspiracy sites before my eyes. I've had adverts for Nazi memorabilia and militaria. On occasion, it has even alerted me to Gary Barlow products. Imagine my surprise when, on Wednesday, I found this peddler of dodgy politics and suspect pastimes had banned me from posting links to this here blog. That's right, because - apparently - someone had made a complaint about my content, the site was on the naughty step before the ban was lifted this evening. Perhaps the fashions in the previous musical posting were too offensive for someone's snowflakish disposition.

Unfortunately, Facebook has come to matter. Social media-wise, I've always been into Twitter more, even though micro-blogging has tended to displace proper blogging, effectively leaving the field of extended political comment the preserve of professional journos. For me, Facebook has always been for snarky comments away from the public eye, sharing cat and retro game photos, and the things not entirely suitable for here. Only slowly have I woken up to the potential of Facebook as a platform for driving a larger audience this way. Probably because I'm a rubbish accelerationist and, well, you don't know despair until you've seen a Facebook group. Anyway, despite knowing for a while that a punter is more likely to follow a link from Facebook than practically any other social media platform, including Twitter, it was only last year I started taking it semi-seriously by setting up a dedicated page for the blog (give it a like if you haven't already!). And as you can see from the side bar, 223 likes isn't much to shout about. Yet in the last few months it has started paying dividends.

Blog traffic has shot up to just over 100,000 page views these last couple of months, and August is all set to be busier still. Chicken feed for the big boys, but a big deal for what is essentially a hobbyist's obsession. Obviously, recent events have suddenly made my wares more compelling to larger numbers, but the analytics show the sharing on Facebook is driving a not insignificant audience in this direction. And lo, for the four days it had banned links to here, readers dropped by about a quarter. This internet and social media lark is a funny old game.

Naturally, as a private network owned and operated for profit, Facebook can do what it likes. It is no more obliged to carry my content than I am the sundry ravings of assorted conspiracy theorists. Well, that is if you subscribe to an archaic notion of property completely unsuited to the internet age. There are two dimensions to Facebook that demand there be proper accountability and democratic say over what it can and can't do. In the 21st century, the platform is part of the global infrastructure. Business opportunities are scoped out and realised. Friendships are won and lost. Ideas are shared and debated. Had Facebook not emerged when it did, something very similar would have had to have been invented. Therefore to have such a key piece of infrastructure not only in private ownership, but ultimately under the sole, virtually unaccountable command of Mark Zuckerberg and his senior management team is not very zeitgeisty, at the very least.

Second, I've been on Facebook a long time. I got my account sorted in 2007 when it was a plaything for postgrad students looking for new procrastination opportunities. Instead of moaning about Facebook inconveniencing me, some might suggest I should be grateful for them providing me bandwidth for nine years' worth of status updates. Huh, pity the fools. Facebook's core business is data, masses of it. Every time they "do me a favour" by moaning about my age or a night out with the comrades, each utterance is mined for tiny packets of data about where I am and what I'm doing. Aggregated together, this data builds up a digital doppleganger about my preferences, behaviours, and so on. They do this with me. They do this with their 1.7bn active monthly users. All their big data is chopped and changed in any number of ways, and allows Facebook to sell targeted advertising to folks who want to flog their wares to particular demographics. The Tories, for example, used this to good effect in their social media campaign last year by funneling messages to key mosaic groups in key marginals. I don't know how much my data is worth, but as Facebook's profits were $1bn last year, they make more money from me, you, and everyone else on the site than the funds expended maintaining the network. There's an argument that all social media users should be paid directly for their data, but until such a time there is a relationship of unequal reciprocity, and this applies to Facebook and its users. Like the formal equality of employer and employee in a job contract, the relationship is mutually dependent but one profits more from it than the other, usually without the latter's knowledge. Therefore, as they profit from my data we should feel perfectly entitled to moan, gripe, and demand they be transparent and responsive.

As the networks continue to proliferate and social media becomes even more fundamental to the infrastructure of our globalising civilisation, so the democratic pressure on the tech giants and their business models will build. Until then, this small corner of the internet relies on those networks for making its mark on the world, much to my annoyance.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Can Owen Smith Win?

Long-term readers know one of my favourite games ever is Civilization III. As you busily set about conquering the world militarily or, depending on your play style, kindness, you get to sign treaties with computer-controlled opponents. It being a title from 2001, the options are a touch limited. You can put together a peace treaty if you’re concluding a war, sign a right of passage agreement, or a mutual protection pact. Signing the latter has you declaring war on anyone who attacks your ally, so it’s not something to enter into lightly. Should you break any of the treaties your civilisation will suffer a hit to its reputation, making future diplomacy more difficult and the odds of AI opponents attacking you more likely.

I mention this in light of the comments made about NATO by Jeremy Corbyn, and more pointedly his refusal to say whether a Jez-led Britain would come to the aid of an alliance member attacked by Russia. In real life, just like Civ that would have dire repercussions for Britain's standing in the world, as well as doubts over its commitments to other international treaties. Now, it might be unfair he was asked this question. Can you recall Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband getting asked something similar? Well, tough. Politics isn’t fair. Jeremy’s equivocal answer probably didn’t matter a great deal to his firm supporters. After all, we know that as a committed anti-war activist and critic of US foreign policy, he wouldn’t be fussed about the abolition of NATO. But, as I’ve argued before, giving the impression of being blasé about defence and security (and therefore stoking insecurity) never sits well with the electorate, and it might reap Team Jeremy negative dividends when it comes to the leadership contest.

Oh really? Hasn’t Jeremy got a commanding lead among the constituency parties? Yes, he has indeed. But as the Owen Smith camp (remember him?) have pointed out, taking together all the people to have indicated a preference so far the margin is much closer than you would expect. As Stephane notes, while Jez wracked up the CLP nominations the actual votes cast in the contest isn't as one-sided as they suggest. From the start, I’ve believed his challenge, as cobbled together and opportunist it is, Owen has stood an outside chance of winning, especially in the event of some Jez gaffe. And it’s not the membership Jeremy would have to worry about as they remain likely to back him, it’s the affiliated members in the trade unions.

Readers with long memories and/or an understanding of labour movement history will know well the balance of forces in the party in the 1970s and 80s. Despite being much stronger and a touch more militant, affiliated trade unions played a conservative role in the party. Uncle John Golding in his unmissable Hammer of the Left demonstrates how bureaucratic chicanery in the party allied to having the unions onside was the path to defeating and isolating the left in the 1980s – a lesson those who would follow in his footsteps failed to grasp because, well, they don’t understand how the party works, let alone the wider labour movement.

In the current leadership battle, it appears to me neither side have paid much attention to the affiliated members in the trade unions, but this would be a mistake. Having most of the unions formally endorse Jeremy was always going to happen. Likewise, Community and USDAW backing Owen was as predictable as tomorrow’s sun rise. The eyebrow raising came when the GMB’s membership plebiscite delivered the union’s support to our Owen. Sundry Corbynites cried foul. The general secretary’s preamble was “biased”. The wording on the ballot paper was tilted against Jez. And turnout was pitifully low. Oh dear. It appears the right of the PLP aren’t the only ones who don’t understand trade unions.

Despite the leftist reputation unions have acquired over the last decade-and-a-half, on the whole, they’re not stuffed with right-on lefties. A trade union is an institution supported by a collective of dues-paying workers to represent their interests in the workplace. That is all a trade union is. They are not a gaggle of bolshevists pregnant with insurrection. It’s an organisation that fights on issues of economic relevance to its members, and as such can only ever be as strong as the width and breadth of that membership. It's also why trade unions were won to founding the Labour Party. The separation of politics and economics exit only in the scholastic imagination; securing the economic interests of working people requires political struggle, up to and including winning parliamentary representation and forming governments. As such, while unions can mobilise large numbers of working people and see them engage in militant action, it doesn't necessarily mean they're equally militant in their politics. For instance, I remember a comrade telling me about how her then boyfriend came from a family of militant dockers. Yet above the family dining table was a portrait of the Queen.

In the seldom read but much maligned What is to be Done?, old Lenners talked about trade union consciousness, how the immediate realities of wages, speed ups, work load, managerial control, lay offs, and so on tends to focus the minds of workers around these issues. Winning wage rises or more autonomy in the work place does not put capitalism into question. The job of socialist politics is to bridge that gap, of linking the experience of working collectively to win concessions at work to the wider project of remaking society. And so, because trade union consciousness spontaneously coheres around economistic issues, there is a tendency for it to be expressed in sectional ways. For instance, workers who struck to to keep colour bars in place, the replacement of "indigenous" by migrant labour, or to keep in place the exclusion of women from workplaces are all examples where the immediate, sectional interest is at odds with the interests of labour in general.

Which brings us back to the situation we find ourselves in. As readers know, Jeremy has already copped criticism from Unite and the GMB for his opposition to Trident. From a trade union perspective, it's obvious: scrapping the replacement programme means no Trident jobs, and therefore an uncertain future in the shipyards and for the communities that depend on them. It doesn't matter that Jeremy supports the redeployment of these skills and reinvestment in socially useful industries of the future. There is a tangibility to Trident whereas the alternatives, at present, are a pipe dream. From this perspective, Jeremy represents a double whammy of insecurity: in terms of their livelihoods and in terms of making the country weak in the face of foreign foes. And for those groups of workers concerned about such things, yesterday's remarks about NATO is like topic off a toxic fudge cake with radioactive sprinkles.

This then is the only real possibility Owen has of winning, by banking on the less politically conscious component of the selectorate mix in the trade unions going for him because they feel Jeremy's leftyism isn't just a problem when it comes to elections, but that it appears to be against their interests. The question is whether there are enough to outweigh pro-Corbyn affiliated trade unionists, and the bulk of the membership and registered supporters. I would say no, but this is 2016, and stranger things have happened. It also presents a future problem for Jeremy if he does win. There is now a section of the trade union members that are opposed to his continued leadership, and this could prove useful to know for any future coup plotters unless his leadership ups its game. He and his team should regard the GMB vote as a warning and act accordingly.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Labour and Anti-Semitism

Like cat piss on your carpet, the stench comes back regardless of what you do to it. I'm talking, in this instance, about the Labour Party and anti-semitism. Despite an inquiry that issued clear guidelines and repeat condemnation by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Momentum, and everyone associated with the party's leadership, it will not go away. So what is going on? As I've said on occasion, if you have recurring phenomena then we're talking about social relationships, not something that can be put down to individual oddities. And, to note, just because it has become a factional football doesn't mean anti-semitism is not important or isn't happening. It is. Where then does Labour's issue with anti-semitism come from?

What the party isn't is institutionally anti-semitic, in the sense it structurally discriminates and disadvantages members from a Jewish background. In fact, the argument can be turned on its head and the case made it's institutionally anti-anti-semitic, in the same way it is also institutionally anti-sexist and anti-racist. Before anyone rolls their eyes and gets a letter from compliance for it, this isn't the same as saying sexism and racism aren't problems in the Labour Party. Rather it is the banal observation that because of work done by previous and current generations of women and BME comrades, formally the party is against chauvinism and racism. Members can and do have action taken against them for making these unwelcome views known and engaging in unacceptable behaviour. And the party tries to overcome the legacies of sexism and racism through the use of shortlists, diversity training, and so on. That said, because Labour is a mass party and not an ideologically pure sect, its membership has, to greater and lesser degrees, the tendency to reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the constituency it reflects. If you like, the institutionalisation of progressive attitudes and the activists that uphold them are in a ceaseless battle against what we might euphemistically term "unreconstructed" views constantly being fed into the party from its relationship with wider society.

However, this can explain why racism and sexism remain party problems but it does not account for anti-semitism. While there have been spikes of anti-semitism over the years, it hasn't had a mass base or following in British society since the 1930s. What is it about the Labour Party now that is attracting anti-semites in disproportionate numbers and to the Corbyn campaign in particular? I think it's down to a mix of naivete, stupidity, and in a number of cases, hardcore racism.

Dealing with the first, Jeremy Corbyn has a long record of anti-war activity. His 33 years in Parliament have seen him take up the cudgels against British foreign policy, whether it was popular or politic or not. Similarly, he has never hidden his criticisms of US and Israeli policies in the Middle East either. Unfortunately, this kind of stance often comes with a studied silence about the countries and organisations at the receiving end of Western bombs and, in some cases, de facto united fronts with outright supporters of these regimes/outfits. These characters can be most unsavoury. You could say that some folks who are especially active in anti-war work are a little care free when it comes to associating with people who, on the one issue of opposing such-and-such a conflict, there is a shared position. And so where opposition to the criminal policies of the Israeli state are concerned, you might find people in this milieu, especially those new to it, getting rather over-enthusiastic in their denunciation of Israel's actions. They might bang on about Zionists and Zionism, might shout off about "Zios", and make clumsy, inappropriate, and offensive comparisons between the Nazis and the Holocaust and Israel and the occupation. And they do it because too few within this milieu actively challenge it. So as Jeremy has risen to prominence, this sort of clumsiness has been imported into the Labour Party and become more visible than has hitherto been the case. Something I've been worried about for a while.

Overlapping with this is an anti-establishment politics at its most basic and primitive: conspiracy theorists. If porn is the main contribution the internet has made to popular culture, opening mass audiences to the idiocies of conspiracy theorising comes in a close second. You can understand the cognitive basis for these views. The world is a complex scary mess with clear winners and losers, and can appear as if a shadowy elite has it all under their thumb. It's not. There is no one at the helm, and not even being the richest nation with the most powerful military the world has ever seen can impose its will at will on the world, or defy the head winds of global economic turbulence. Conspiracies then are comforting because there's a weird form of security knowing someone's in charge, and that you stand out from the herd because your keen brain has connected the dots and cut through the bullshit. After the September 11th attacks, the conspiranoid 9/11 Truth Movement were an identifiable anti-war trend that not only peddled nonsense about remote controlled airliners and buildings pre-packed with demolition charges, but fanned the flames of anti-semitic conspiracy theorising. It was a false flag operation run by Mossad, or Jewish employees were warned to stay away from the Twin Towers on the morning of the attack being two choice examples. The problem is this sort of thinking never disappeared. It scooped up gullible adherents here and there and continued to fester on email lists, forums, and Facebook groups. And so, just like the "careless" people this variegated bunch have also joined up and used their conspiranoia to make sense of Labour's faction fight. The links between some Labour MPs and Israel via Labour Friends of Israel are "proof" they are taking orders from Tel Aviv. Some are associated with very rich people, who happen to be Jewish, and, of course, because some sitting MPs helped save the banking system from collapse they're in the pay of the Rothschilds. These entirely unwelcome elements, again, aren't drawn to Jeremy because he's one of them, but rather in the terms of their anti-semitic conspiracy theology, it's him versus the Zionist lobby and therefore deserves their support.

These people are badly mistaken and seriously deluded, and I would say there are a portion of them who don't even realise they're being anti-semitic. But on those occasions it happens time and again, and despite it being pointed out to some of them carry on willy-nilly, then they have passed over into outright racism.

And this brings me to the third kind, those that really do have anti-semitic issues. It doesn't matter how they arrived at this perspective, the fact is they single out Jews and attribute all kinds of social problems to them. Classic scapegoating, classic racism. Wherever they are found they should be turfed out of the party, no ifs, no buts. However, while these people do undoubtedly exist, are there others at it? While anti-semitism in wider society is diminished, there are still enough people miles away from left wing politics with axes to grind. Grabbing a Momentum twibbon and using the furore around Labour anti-semitism to vent their bilge is easy enough to do. And then there are obvious troll accounts like this and this operated by folks unknown to keep those flames fanned. Imagine being an opponent of Jeremy Corbyn and cynically using racist abuse to "prove" his support is anti-semitic. Is that the mindset of someone you'd wish to be associated with? Do you think that sort of person should have a place in the Labour Party?

I am glad that most people in our movement have woken up to anti-semitism, and I hope wherever comrades find it a swift complaint to follows in short order. Anti-semitism is not just the socialism of fools, as August Bebel put it, but is the very antithesis of a politics founded on solidarity and collective action. It's in all our interests to be on our guard against it, and attack it wherever and whenever we can.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn in Derby

12pm on a Tuesday in the middle of August perhaps isn't the best time ever to hold a rally, but the odd scheduling did nothing to depress turnout at Jeremy Corbyn's rally in Derby city centre earlier today. I'd say between 500-600 assembled in the summer sun to listen to what the Labour leader had to say, as well as a few others. Again, like last year's rally at the Roundhouse the former Derby North MP Chris Williamson oversaw proceedings.

If you've seen or heard a Jeremy Corbyn speech before, there isn't a great deal to tell. We too often think of the orator as a demagogue, but Jeremy's presentation is as far away from this as possible. His style consists of listing a series of problems and posing a number of solutions. It doesn't require much in the way of theatre nor the raising or lowering of the voice. And herein lies his appeal. As Chris rightly observed in his introduction, the people who label Corbyn's support as a cult don't understand or begin to address the causes of his popularity. The "secret" is he speaks up for an alternative politics that has equality, justice, and the good life at its heart. Jeremy says what was pretty much unsayable in politics for the last 30 years and it's refreshing to hear. For those entirely new this is the first time in their lives socialist ideas have gained any prominence. Jeremy's not-ranty and reasonable style works because these views are plainly stated. They require no spin.

That said, I would offer a couple of comradely criticism's of Jez's speech this lunchtime because, you know, I address rallies of hundreds and thousands regularly too. Firstly, his events are lefty rallies but he shouldn't assume everyone is conversant with the lingo and know what our movement's multiple acronyms mean. For instance, you and I know who the RMT are, but do the few students I spotted from my degree programme? Just prefacing it with something like "the railworkers' union, the RMT ..." might help cut through the blizzard of big letters. The other thing is I'd like to see Jeremy say more things about the party and trade unions. Hold on a minute, isn't that pretty much all he talks about? It's one thing to talk about the good works our unions do, and how we have the largest political party in Europe, but for us to succeed and win we've got to keep piling up the members. The vast bulk of today's audience weren't in the party, and I'd wager a good chunk aren't in a union either. Jeremy absolutely must use his platform to encourage/invite/cajole the crowds to join and join now.

The most interesting thing about today's rally, however, was the crowd. I've been around the block and lost count of the demonstrations, rallies, and other labour movement gatherings I've been on. But what they all had in common, regardless of size, militancy, and politics is their composition: they were all blessed with an over-preponderance of middle-aged men. It was nothing like this earlier. Young and old, women and men, disabled people, mums and dads with prams and pushchairs, it was easily the most mixed political crowd I've been in - even better than last year's Jeremy event. And from the standpoint of what rallies do, and the health of our movement, this is a good thing.

Overall, a job well done. A tired old cynic is what I am, but today I got a sense of the hope more enthusiastic Corbyn supporters feel. And when was that the last time a factor in our politics?

Monday, 15 August 2016

Animotion - Obsession

I have the lazy Monday blues, so no blogging tonight. Only a tune, and what a tune it is.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn and Rallies

Provided I'm not knocked down by a bus or get buried by work, I should be attending a Jeremy Corbyn event this Tuesday lunch time in Derby. When the photos showing the crowd start circulating, knowing wags will put down their pipes, shake their heads and lecture the children about the difference between the people turning up to a rally and the wider electorate. Our Jackanorys might pepper their yarn with a choice Uncle John Golding quote about 50,000 fans thinking Michael Foot sounded wonderful on a speaker's platform, but at home there were millions who thought he was crackers.

The latest to spin a variation on the theme is Abby Tomlinson of Milifandom fame (remember that?). In her piece, Abby talks about her electrifying experience sharing a platform with Jez and Owen Jones in Manchester. Typifying Jeremy's political life, she argues this acts as a closed circuit. Jez says something at a rally, the crowd lap it up, and he comes away thinking he can win a general election. The problem, and one of the reasons why she's not supporting his leadership, is an apparent unwillingness to reach beyond the "safety" of the rallies where he preaches to the converted. As she acerbically observes, "do you know who have literally zero rallies? The Tories. Do you know who keep winning elections? Also the Tories ... there is no real correlation between rally attendance and being electable to the general public."

Abby is right. Then again, there is no evidence anyone but the rawest, freshest recruit believes Labour can win an election by having mass rallies here and there. But that isn't to say they don't have a place. They do.

Rallies are useful because the consolidate support and firm it up. When I was in the Socialist Party, Herculean efforts were made every year to turn out a few hundred members and guests for the annual Socialism rally at Friends Meeting House. This had the effect of sharing (drunken) experiences and the horrors of the youth hostel. All good bonding fodder. The Corbyn rallies have been and are necessary because the people his leadership has drawn into politics are mostly atomised and new. A rally is a way of sharing an experience that can be talked about with like-minded others in real life and on social media. They are also places where local party and Momentum activists speak to people, give them literature, let them know about meetings, and so on. They are moments that offer an opportunity to become familiar with the movement and, hopefully, get drawn further into it.

Secondly, to borrow a horrible phrase from spin-spaddery, it makes good optics. Traditionally, labour movements have mobilised large numbers and marched with the express purpose of demonstrating the strength of feeling about particular issues/policies, and pressuring Parliament into doing something about it. We've understood this for about 200 years and, as with any kind of extra-parliamentary activity, it has a mixed record. 250,000 in London followed by a riot brought Thatcher down in 1990. A dignified march of two million against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 wasn't able to dissuade Blair from the course that subsequently damned him.

A similar logic applies to rallies. You're walking about Liverpool city centre when, bugger, you bump into 5,000 people gathered to listen to the Labour leader. Impressive. You're at home despairing about the state of politics, and then a report comes up that sees Jeremy addressing huge crowds. Isn't he supposed to be really unpopular? Again, the optics appear to counter the established narrative, and it will have a modest but real impact on some voters.

More importantly, they can act as weapons of psychological warfare. As Abby notes, the Tories get by without rallies. That's because as a party of elites whose sole purpose is to win elections to defend entrenched interests, it doesn't need them. They don't even really need a mass membership, seeing as they are the party of the few and have the cash to make up the numbers. Whereas Labour, of course, is the party of the many and a mass membership is its lifeblood. So the sight of lots of people turning up can leave some people rattled. One of these is Jake Berry MP of Rossendale and Darwen. Writing last month, he frets that the massive, ravenous Labour beast could savage the Tory lambs, and that the Tories have to also pile up the members to counter this fiend. Wouldn't it be a shame if the Jeremy bandwagon was to roll into his constituency and add to his discombobulation and strengthen party organisation in that part of the world? If that was to happen in all of our target seats over the next couple of years, it would certainly make a number of their MPs sweaty.

Now, of course, Abby, John Golding, and the social media wiseheads are right up about rallies. They don't win elections in and of themselves, but they can make a useful contribution, and should be part of our electoral strategy. And while Jeremy needs to up his game when it comes to other aspects of his leadership, doing fewer rallies is something he shouldn't worry about.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

No Man's Sky and the Political Economy of Hype

You've heard of GamerGate, right? The "movement" of online men-babies who harassed, doxed, and attacked women game developers and game firm employees because they were ostensibly upset about "ethics in video game journalism". No? Well here, knock yourself out. Anyway, "professional" video game journalism has another problem: a tendency to fall for the hype it generates. This reveals itself in the release of Hello Games' No Man's Sky, the much-trailed space exploration game.

What is particularly eye-catching from a game development/technical point of view is that its universe contains over 18 quintillion planets. These are generated procedurally from the developers' algorithms, which specify planetary formation, the distribution of sea and land, atmospheric composition, toxicity/radiation, and the appearance and behaviour of alien flora and fauna. Players wake up on a random world and start their exploration from there, with an official (but non-compulsory) objective of working one's way to the centre of the galaxy. Money can be earned from identifying the native wildlife and uploading your discoveries to the servers where, in the first 24 hours, players had "discovered" some 10 million species. These discoveries become fixed points in the universe which can later be visited by other players, but given its size ... And that's all there is to it. Explore, mine, trade, very, very occasionally shoot things, and follow the loose story threads weaved into the game. It's definitely the kind of game I avoid because I'd never have the time to inflict my writing on you. But my nearest and dearest is hooked. She might resurface in time for Christmas.

Not everyone is satisfied, though. Destructoid moaned that it's all a bit samey, and the differences between worlds are cosmetic. Slapping down a six-out-of-ten, Video Gamer made similar points, saying it becomes endlessly repetitive. The question has to be asked, after talking it up for so long, what were they expecting?

Since I was a nipper, hype has been part of any big game's pre-release. Game mags did then as games mags and websites do now. They wax lyrical about the game, bigging it up right to the release date. As far as the industry's political economy is concerned, it serves the interests of the game companies because interest and sales go hand-in-hand. And for the reviewers, it drives sales and web traffic as regular readers stick around to await the final verdict. You don't have to pretend a conspiracy between developers and reviewers, even though they have been uncovered in the past. Both have an identity of interests in the hype and will work independently of each to feed the machine. In No Man's Sky's case, Sony threw their full weight behind the project and have ensured it got plenty of coverage since its first appeared in late 2013. But unlike other huge games, Hello Games' Sean Murray has been scrupulous describing what the game is and isn't. Extensive previewing and interviews have set out the game world, what the thing entails, the slim chance of ever bumping into another player in the universe, and the very light plot elements. So to see it copping criticisms for "being boring" and not being a fast-paced first person shooter like Destiny, well, it's a bit like attacking Tetris for lacking platforming action.

It's not like we haven't seen this sort of game before. No Man Sky is more of a direct sequel to the classic Elite than Elite's official follow ups are. Back in the day on the trusty old Spectrums, BBC Micros, and the like the same procedural trick was pulled to produce a universe of just over 2,000 planets. Game play was about trading commodities between planets, upgrading your ship, shooting up space pirates (or becoming one yourself), and that was it. Completely without aim, it was a fundamentally open gaming experience that just wasn't available elsewhere, and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. I have very fond memories of using the mining laser to light everything other than asteroids up. I have not jumped on every scrap released or leaked about No Man's Sky but, again, no claim has ever been made that we were looking forward to something qualitatively different to its illustrious ancestor.

And here lies the problem. Hype is inevitable when it comes to entertainment commodities, but time and again the political economy of reviewing inflates and distorts expectations. A preview creates a frame which is populated by all manner of wonderments and claims designed to generate interest in the game and its coverage, and it is through this distorted view that the game is subsequently evaluated. It's a bit like economists or sociologists creating models of the world, and then criticising real-life social action for refusing to conform. And in some cases, it leads to reviews that are egregiously off-centre and structurally dishonest. How about a critique within its own terms, like the mysterious absence of gas giants (when they dominate our own universe), or lack of variety among solar systems which, again, nowhere near match the diversity we've turned up in our own telescopes?

No Man's Sky is a refreshing change to the cavalcade of shooters, action RPGs, shooters, and action RPGs that are the lot of modern video gaming. If you want a change of pace, then approach on its own terms.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Stoke Central CLP Nomination Meeting

46 people turned up for tonight's nomination meeting which, thanks to the Appeal Court ruling earlier today, depressed the numbers we were otherwise expecting. Indeed, two people that hadn't heard about the upholding of the NEC's decision had to be turned away. I do hope that isn't the last we see of them.

Looking around the meeting before it properly started, apart from a few folks away on holiday (which, in case you were wondering, included our MP) nearly all the stalwarts who attended religiously during the quiet times turned out. But there were a good chunk of newer members who had joined before the cut-off date. It's a bit weird not knowing everyone in the room any more, but a good weird. Also, I'd decided before the meeting not to say anything and give people who don't normally speak more of a chance. It seemed most of the regulars had taken the same view.

Anyway, as per the meeting running order handed down from on high, assembled members had 10 minutes to read the statements supplied by Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn, as well as have a bit of a catch up. Once sorted the speakers were called. The format was to be one Jeremy, one Owen, and on until the end of the meeting. Unfortunately, there proved to be a bit of a problem - only one person was willing to speak for Owen.

After the introductory remarks from one of the newer comrades, who noted Jeremy was a rarity in that he cared about the problems disabled people faced, our Owen Smith speaker spoke about the despair she felt about the state of the party. Having voted Jeremy last time thinking he'd be a breath of fresh air, she believes he has taken the party to the edge of the abyss, and it's possible it might not even survive the next few months. On electability, she was convinced we cannot win with him and he is driving voters away from us. Owen isn't ideal, but he is an interim answer to the danger facing us. She also expressed doubts whether the broad church would continue.

Member A's response was a broad church is fine, but when you have a prominent member calling on the Tories to crush a rail union that founded Labour, there are limits to how far this should stretch. He spoke with some anger about the misrepresentation of Corbyn and his positions in the media, an observation now backed up by two academic studies. He also noted how Owen was running with policies previously regarded as "unelectable" just to try and get elected, concluding he was a weather vein and not a leader. Member B focused on Jeremy's character as honest and caring, but the main reason he was supporting Corbyn was because he understood that party members need a proper input, not just the MPs. He was also against the constant sniping of the leader by the PLP and didn't believe getting into power to behave like the Conservatives was something worth working towards.

Member C echoed these comments saying we should be more than a pale blue opposition, and Jeremy was the man taking us where we needed to go. Member D was a bit more sceptical of Jeremy and said she wanted to vote for Owen, but feels like he can't be trusted. She was disgusted with the behaviour of the shadow cabinet (as was), and only someone like Corbyn can get Labour back to the kind of politics it should be espousing. Member E added that the party's achievements of the last nine months were purposely underplayed, while sedition has undermined Jeremy's position and masses of Labour supporters vilified. He noted there were people in the PLP who would rather see the party split than a socialist Labour government come to power. It's time for a new politics. Member F challenged the notion that Corbyn supporters are uninterested in winning elections - he's supporting him because there is no one better. The danger with Owen Smith winning is he would demobilise the huge interest in the Labour Party and take it back to where it's come from. Member G, a union rep in his warehouse, was keen to emphasise that Corbynism can win over workers when it gets a fair hearing. To illustrate, his workplace alone has 20 party members. Member H attacked the PLP for betraying the membership and not allowing their choice have the chance he should expect and deserve. He also cast doubt on Owen's candidacy, asking whether he was the best or the only candidate they could find. He was allowed to run precisely because there was no chance of him winning. Lastly, Member I said she was neither a Trot nor a Corbynista, but just wanted someone she could trust and had the right politics.

With the half hour over and no signs of abuse or uncomradely behaviour, we totted up the votes taken by secret ballot. As one of the tellers, even before counting started it was clear Jeremy had won by a landslide. The final result was two spoiled ballot papers, four votes for Owen, and 40 votes for Jeremy, making our existing leader Stoke Central CLP's nominee.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Against Entryism

Haven't we already done this? The spectre of Trotty entryism is being raised again, this time by deputy leader Tom Watson. Writing to Jeremy Corbyn, his recent warnings that the Old Man's followers are pouring into the party to twist minds as well as arms now, apparently, has some evidence to back it up. In addition to a dossier comprising the pronouncements from the likes of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, Tom exposes a nefarious document allegedly passed between Momentum activists on how to take over Labour Party branches. As this recommends making meetings interminably boring, uncomfortable, and adversarial, long-term members could be forgiven for thinking the party has been infested with Trots for years. Alas, there is a problem with Tom's claims of leftist diabolism. Embarrassingly, and hat tip to Dave Osland, the lines are lifted from a Progress book review. Super ouch.

Tom's claims are ridiculous and overblown, but there is no denying the two principal organisations of the far left - our aforementioned SP and SWP friends - would dearly love a piece of the Corbynist action. I mean, to think of yourselves as the most far-sighted section of the proletariat and spending decades attacking and standing against the Labour Party, only for a mass take over of the party by the left to happen. And all without you, how embarrassing. I guess when you don't bother analysing anything afresh and stick with creeking formulae from 20-odd years ago, you're bound to come unstuck from time to time. Still, with so much new blood for the left around they want in. Here are some very good reasons why they should be kept out.

The first is their modus operendi. As each, even the smallest group, believe they are the future revolutionary party in embryo, it is the building of that organisation that matters first and foremost. And as there is no higher authority than the central committee, that inevitably leads to the subordination of all political activity to its self-interest. It's one reason why all the extra-Labour left unity initiatives of the last 20 years have failed. One would-be Lenin could never submit to the will of another, even if the political moment demanded it. And when it comes to campaigns, again, there are countless examples of left groups, and the SWP in particular moving into/trying to take over campaigns, and then running them down or smashing them to bits when they no longer serve their purposes - which is always party building. Truly an example of the goal being nothing, and the movement being everything. Though the "movement" in this case is a cranky cult with an unenviable record of covering up sexual assault allegations.

Ultimately, what all Leninist groups share is a parasitic approach to politics: find a host, attach, suck in as much fighting fund and recruits as possible, and then move onto something else. The SWP do it. The SP did when they were Militant, and subsequently have pined for a return to that time where they could play a similar role in the new workers' party they kept wishing for. Their shared political parasitism is at odds with the patient, methodical activity the building of a truly mass, deeply rooted party demands. Nor would it be helpful for the party to have its name hijacked and traduced by people wedded to the fantasy of revolution when, in fact, they speak only for themselves.

The second issue is related to the first. While obviously a revolutionary as opposed to a constitutional reformist party with extra-parliamentary extensions, the Bolshevik party that led the October Revolution was criss crossed with platforms, open factional presses, and a democratic culture of debate and accountability. Yes, really. In form, Lenin's party bears more of a passing relationship to the freedom that exists within the Labour Party than the small groups claiming our Vladimir's mantle now. Our contemporary advocates of workers' democracy finds parties groaning under a "managed democracy" in which that year's outgoing central committee is always the incoming central committee, that internal debate exists within tightly circumscribed lines and pays all due deference to an entitled and overblown full-time apparatus; and as an authoritarian culture breeds sycophancy and unaccountable power, both organisations have an ugly history of mistreating and, in some cases, abusing their members. Something you might expect from a religious cult, the last thing from collectives nominally committed to building a socialist society.

Thirdly, their authoritarian politics are absolutely not suited to the moment. Where it had a mass base, revolutionary politics in Western Europe were symptomatic of the workers' movement being largely outside of political systems. The reason why Germany's SPD voted for war credits, attacked revolutionaries, and later dumped its formal adherence to Marxism wasn't solely because of its leadership. Much more importantly, their members were getting progressively integrated into parliamentary politics with all the opportunities and problems that brings. It has since proven to be true that wherever representative democratic systems are at the heart of political systems, the tendency is for the majority to be brought "inside". Only those who, for whatever reason, are or feel excluded are likely to be drawn into revolutionary socialist politics. Hence why the far left here remains marginal - the natural constituency for them is vanishingly tiny.

As well as being obsolete, politics is now undergoing profound change. A key contradiction for contemporary capitalism is between the need to maintain labour discipline, and the active, creative forms of subjectivity (modes of living, self-identities) we all possess which it is simultaneously dependent on for aligning them with consumption and, more importantly, for generating the innovative, analytical, critical cognitive skills becoming more central to work (and therefore surplus value production) in the 21st century. These modes of life are embedded and and cannot easily, if at all, be disentangled from the social media networks that enable the sharing of interests, the swapping of knowledges, and the senses of mutual recognition these have brought. Left politics is still in the process of figuring out what this means, but it's clear that when widespread horizontal communication exists and is part of the everyday existence of masses of people, and that the numbers engaging in these practices continue to grow, the command-and-control politics espoused by our Leninist friends is, at best, ill-suited. At worst, it works against this progressive trend, severing its adherents off from it while wasting their time on political work that has next to no impact, or frustrates the work of others.

In short, the revolutionary left as represented by British Trotskyism is a dead end trend, albeit one that could cause damage and division if they were let into our rapidly changing, rapidly growing party. Best to keep the proscription on Militiant and its successor organisation, to tell both the SP and SWP their parasiting the Corbyn campaign is not needed, and communicate to them in no uncertain terms their "support" is as welcome as syphilis.