Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Dirty Politics of Cambridge Analytica

Splish, splosh, there goes the sound of Cambridge Analytica executives tripping over and "accidentally" dropping hard drives and servers into the bath. The Observer/Channel 4 News/New York Times expose has been variously billed as shocking and earth shattering. It's certainly welcome and everyone who cares about politics should take the time to read The Observer splash and watch the reports. But it's either a measure of my cynicism or having been in politics for too long that none of it surprised me. The micro targeting of voters by segmenting huge data sets is nothing new. It is, after all, the way Facebook makes its money. Neither does Cambridge Analytica's confession, on tape, that they entrap political figures and muckrake have one reaching for the smelling salts. It's par the course where bourgeois politics are concerned. So why the big deal?

Generally speaking politicians do not understand social media, let alone how its political economy works, the wider questions arising from private ownership of personal and intimate data about the users of these networks, and how it can be manipulated to meet certain ends. Nor is there much of an appetite to learn, which suits social media giants - and those who ponce off their networks, like Cambridge Analytica - down to the ground.

Facebook and Google are the most important social media giants and their business models depend on advertising, which in turn demands the retention and manipulation of the data they hold about their users. Your Facebook presence, for example, is a place where you show off photos of your kids, what you had for dinner, the songs you happened to hear while passing through the shopping centre on the way home from work, and other fripperies. You react to things other people post into your feed, like missives from a certain blog, news articles, opinions and so on. Each and every action is recorded by Facebook and collated in its unimaginably vast database. With such huge data sets, Facebook uses algorithms to sift and sort the profiles into demographics and segments of demographics and uses this data to sell advertising space. So, for instance, because I have an interest in politics and plug posts from here on war and suchlike from time-to-time, the segmenting algorithm had me down as the sort of gentleman likely to be receptive to stockists of WWII Wehrmacht memorabilia. They provide the infrastructure, you stump up the content. They convert this to data and make money from it, a pattern of exploitation reflective of changes in capitalism generally.

On the surface, Cambridge Analytica's pitch to election campaigns is no different from what Facebook offers all its advertisers: ensuring the right messages appear on the screens of the right people at the right time. However, Cambridge Analytica went a step further. According to the allegations made by Christopher Wylie, the hip young gunslinger responsible for building the firm's data mining tools, Cambridge Analytica obtained 50 million Facebook profiles under false pretenses - ostensibly for an academic study. They were able to segment this data as they saw fit, and start disseminating their own messages on Facebook directly. This drew the attention of Facebook itself and ... they did nothing. Indeed, Facebook workers were embedded with Cambridge Analytica in the lead up to and during the 2016 US presidential campaign. A cavalier attitude to an unimaginably large data breach, you can see why the blessed Mark Zuckerberg now faces awkward questions. What makes matters stickier for Cambridge Analytica is their admission, again on camera, that their efforts targeting black propaganda against Hillary Clinton as an "independent" Political Action Committee was coordinated with the Trump campaign proper - for whom they also provided services. That violates US campaigning law.

Therefore are we dealing with a data science firm or an enterprise steeped in criminality? That's one for the cops and the legislators to work out, though there is one measure by which Cambridge Analytica resembles other firms in the social media ecosystem: a propensity to disregard the rules (and sometimes the law) and resort to very old, tried and tested methods. In his look at platform capitalism, Nick Srnicek discusses how the mega profits of social media can only be fully realised by cornering markets. Gone are the fictions of market economies as finely balanced equilibria between competitive but roughly commensurable actors (in terms of size) to a capitalism in which the market is merely a by-word for monopoly. To achieve this position, the struggle to become a platform through which economies can flow (like Google and Facebook) sees peaceful competition displaced by sharp elbow tactics. Looking at the shenanigans of Uber, we see legal threats and action, the stealing of data, damage of rivals' property, negative social media campaigns, evasion of the law, and so on. The potential of monopoly mega profits encourages behaviour bordering on petty gangsterism. Cambridge Analytica do not break with the corporate practices and culture of their brethren: their dirty tricks are their logical extension.

It might be the case we see a month or so of liberal hand wringing about the dark arts polluting our politics. The firm itself might even get broken up. Already, Chief Executive Alexander Nix has been shown the door while the rest of them try coming up with a way of saving themselves. But ultimately, if they disappear someone else will pick up the slack. Who knows, perhaps a dormant shell company of Cambridge Analytica will acquire the assets, the staff, and the supposedly deleted data sets and begin again. If there are markets for social media psyops, a service provider is bound to emerge sooner or later.

That said, I don't think there's a need to go about wearing a rain cloud. The delivery of dark, dirty politics of which Cambridge Analytica specialised are not automatically efficacious. In the first place, the purveyors of these campaigns and the people who hire them (no prizes for guessing the Tories are on the list of clients) have a very deeply cynical view of the political process. For them, voters are a herd to be prodded and nudged in certain directions. A manipulation of media messaging here, the dissemination of a campaign attack there and the sheep will lap it up. It's one of the reasons why the mainstream media matters so much to elite, establishment politics: they assume punters believe each dot and comma of their paper. Second, the political message they specialise in is relentlessly negative. Images put out by Cambridge Analytica during the Kenyan presidential election emphasise the horrors al-Shabaab would wreak, and the threats to national security posed by Raila Odinga and his centre left National Super Alliance coalition. Very similar to social media fodder that circulated in the USA and, dare we say it, Britain during the general election. Increasingly the right, worldwide, have nothing to offer but fear.

This can only work some of the time. When electorates are socially isolated and atomised, this kind of messaging is more powerful and can have just enough effects at the margins to swing a state here or a seat there and win an election. This politics of manipulation start breaking down when significant numbers of the electorate start moving. Compare the Conservative social media campaigns of 2015 and 2017. Three years might be an eternity in politics, but I remember well the praise the Tories received for their intelligent spending on Facebook. They used micro targeting techniques in the key marginals and blasted messages (and physical literature) at the people their segmentation said were amenable to what they had to say. Then in June last year it was rinse and repeat time, and they fell flat. Some of it could be laid at the feet of the worst campaign ever, which was wooden and less flash than Dave's, but the targeting didn't work. Why? Because the electorate were different. The Tories may have won more votes, but large sections of Labour's vote were politically active. Levering the party's massive organisational capacity to have millions of face-to-face conversations, and aided by the cascading mobilisation of self-organised networks online, the politics of cynicism and fear were swamped and swarmed around by millions of people entering the political stage on their own terms. The amplifying effects of atomism the Tories and, ultimately, Cambridge Analytica-style campaigns rely upon were largely nullified. Undoubtedly they will try again whenever the next election is, and likewise Labour's mass networks will respond in kind.

The forces of the left then have got something the right, at least in Britain, lacks: and that's numbers. The left elsewhere can learn from the Corbyn experience, of how popular participation in politics has the power to render the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and their ilk, as well as political fear mongering generally, utterly obsolete. This is the answer to the problem they pose, by confronting their efforts at manipulation with an unapologetic politics of mass mobilisation.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

10 Points on Russia and British Politics

1. Was Russia set on murdering Sergei Skripal? I don't know. You don't know. Even Theresa May doesn't know, not that it stopped her from apportioning blame. As she belatedly acknowledged, there are two possible explanations for what happened: an action officially sanctioned by the state, or a poisoning using nerve agent stocks looted from chemical warfare labs as the Soviet Union crumbled and vast chunks of military infrastructure were abandoned. Yes, but it could be even more complex than these two scenarios suggest. Anyone bothering to follow Russian politics for more than five minutes will tell you that as a mafia state there are many rivalries and enemies criss-crossing it. Putin is certainly the creature of this state, but that doesn't mean the state is the creature of Putin. Not every assassination of a journalist, which happens with disturbing regularity, is ordered by him. Not every attempted hit against exiles residing in London and elsewhere is undertaken with his nod. Among the coterie seeking his favour and promotion, there is an element of "working toward the fuhrer" guiding their actions.

2. This isn't to exculpate Putin and his rotten gang, but simply a statement of how things are. An irony of authoritarian government is how chaotic they tend to be. Even under Stalin, when the USSR was the exemplar and epitome of the totalitarian state, the terror his regime visited upon millions had a dynamic of its own, of ambitious office holders and state employees using the febrile atmosphere of the purges to settle scores, bump someone out of a flat they fancy, disappearing a co-worker so their job could be given to a mate, securing your own position from ambitious underlings or covetous outsiders, or taking out one's immediate superiors to get that promotion. A river of blood and misery separates Stalin from the current occupant of the Kremlin, but we see a similar pattern of behaviour in and around the state and its agencies.

3. Memory is a useful thing to have in politics. In the first place is the acknowledged plundering of Soviet military secrets as research labs and weapons facilities right across its vast territory were abandoned. Who is responsible for this, apart from the people who did the looting? In an effort to appear reasonable in the absence of evidence, May was open to this possibility - at least rhetorically - but moved to quickly shut it down by issuing her ludicrous ultimatum to Putin to prove (by the stroke of midnight) that criminal or other rogue elements were responsible for deploying the nerve agent. Failure to do so would render him responsible. If his or elements of his regime aren't responsible, how do they prove a negative? How could any state? The absence of evidence never constitutes evidence. Saying otherwise is conspiracy theorising, and is not an argument a supposedly serious government of a supposedly serious power should be making. But we're not dealing with a serious party or a serious Prime Minister, because ...

4. Politics, politics, politics. Moments of national crisis, especially on matters of external threat, are always an opportunity to grand stand and play politics, which is exactly what Theresa May has done. Getting up and categorically pinning the attack on Putin is an attempt to reset the political story of her premiership. A Falklands moment for May is not only good optics that could restore her strong and stable/bloody difficult woman reputation, it's electorally popular. After all, her numbers peaked when, early in the general election campaign, she attacked Brussels for "meddling" in British politics. Leading the charge against Putin allows for a similar dynamic to come into play. She becomes the focal point of defiance against a hostile action, and one that everyone in politics will subsequently cede authority to. Expect on this occasion it did not turn out like this.

5. When Jeremy Corbyn rose in the House to condemn the attack, and raised the awkward issue of the penetration of the Tory party by Russian money, not all of which was given by involuntary exiles and opponents of Vladimir Putin, he was absolutely right to do so. If the party in government charged with opposing Moscow and its various shady works is simultaneously in receipt of donations coming in at just under a million quid from Russian exiles as well as figures close to Putin, elementary security demands questions be raised about these relationships. What checks have been done on the sources of this cash? What was talked about when Boris Johnson played tennis with a Putin crony? (Ditto Gavin Williamson. The Tory party having accepted £30k from the very same individual for dinner with the defence secretary, this is one Russian he won't tell to "go away and shut up".) Don't the public have a right to know more about these cash-for-access shindigs? And, we have to ask, why is it Russian oligarchs, whether pro or anti-Putin, are happy to funnel their money to the Tories? What's in it for them?

6. Corbyn has been attacked for playing politics, not least by fools sitting on the Labour benches. But the real games' playing was by the Prime Minister. It emerged over the last couple of days that she withheld access to the highest level of intelligence from Corbyn. The politics of this is so obvious even my cat gets it. After their recent campaign of insinuation and lies, informing the press that Corbyn was kept out the loop not-so-subtly reinforces their argument that he is a threat to national security, that he just cannot be trusted with the most sensitive stuff. Additionally, it allows the Tories to frame the situation to their advantage. Remember, Dave shared intelligence with Ed Miliband in the lead up to the Commons vote on bombing Syria and Labour refused to play along. Giving Corbyn all the facts allows him to contest their interpretation on a level playing field while, at the moment, they can claim, or insinuate, their "tough" stance is informed by the bigger picture. Keeping it under wraps also helps maintain the reputation of the secret services. Declassified materials often show a good deal of intelligence is no better than unsubstantiated rumour and tittle-tattle, and no doubt would have been questioned by the Labour leader. Ultra secrecy suits the politics of the Tories and protects the reputation of a service yet to recover from the Iraq debacle.

7. Are fist bumps and posing with babies an appropriate prime ministerial response to a chemical weapons attack?

8. Turns out Corbyn has friends on the right. As the press have predictably piled in to the attack - institutions Tim Bale rightly characterises as the "Conservative Party in the media" in his history of the Tories from Thatcher to Dave - it's interesting that a unanimity of opinion is lacking. Take The Spectator for instance, or Peter Hitchens rushing, not for the first time, to defend Corbyn's position against the mainstream right. One or two straws, maybe, but Hitchens is a star columnist in one of the right's biggest titles and The Speccie is generally reflective of what remains of Conservative intellectual opinion. Both know that hasty judgement now stores up penitence for later. With the media reach of the right crumbling away and mass scepticism toward anything whiffing even slightly of military action, they know the political cost if British evidence of Putin's culpability falls short of that demanded by international law.

9. If only certain sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party were as questioning and sceptical. It was disappointing to see some of the names on the EDM backing the Prime Minister, but others were the usual pathetic bunch of malcontents. When the time comes, one hopes their constituency parties press the deselect button with the alacrity these honourable members have previously shown in Commons votes to bomb people. Their EDM was and is a transparently factional stunt. One, because they didn't like Corbyn reminding them and the country that politics is about irreconcilable interests. Two, they foolishly believe taking a hard stand on international issues endears them to Tory leaning voters (it doesn't) and the Tory press (two time). And three, they are saying to anyone paying attention that they trust May more than the leader of their party. As such are participants in her efforts to salvage her reputation, whether they see it that way or not.

10. Politics, like history, is full of irony. For all of May's posing, for all the ego massaging she received from Labour MPs, it is the case Jeremy Corbyn's position on Russia is tougher. Going down the international law route, working toward stronger international controls and enforcement of bans on chemical and biological weapons, and - what the Tories have hitherto resisted - a crack down on Russian money laundered through London and the crumbs eagerly scooped up by the Conservative Party in political donations, all these are more powerful and more forceful responses to Kremlin gangsterism.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Jax Jones ft Ina Wroldsen - Breathe

Unfortunately, just as one of this year's big ructions convulses Westminster I find my writing powers have gone on holiday. As readers will have noted 2018 isn't proving to be as prolific as recent years, so bear with us. I'm not dead and neither is this place, though infrequent forays are likely to reign here for the next few weeks.

That may mean a break from writing, but not from my music taste. Which is the real reason why you come here. Far be it of me to disappoint, here's a ditty that has gone down a storm with the yoof.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Corbyn in Government

Guest post from Dave Renton

On Saturday, I was at an anti-fascist conference in London. The comrades there were young, excited, with a range of views from Labour loyalists to anarchists. I heard a discussion begin which I've not heard anywhere else. If Labour comes in, I suggested, expect the far-right to organise; Corbyn is their hate figure. Yes, a comrade from Greece accepted, they hate him. But if the left is in government, we can't stand down our forces.

She's right. After two and a half years of Corbynism, we can start to predict with some certainty what a Labour government will be like:

+ To a greater extent than any previous Labour government it will be open to policies suggested by the social movements. From blacklisting to autism, Labour figures have pledged to take on board our campaigns.

But being "open to", is not the same as actually using the state. It can mean a range of things, from in the best cases introducing legislation, to in a middling case providing public, spoken support (in the style of those Labour cabinet ministers of the 1970s who would stood on innumerable picket lines, but declined every opportunity to actually legislate for beleaguered workers), to signalling goodwill but not doing anything more than signalling.

Politics will not stop at the moment Labour is elected. In office, Labour will have a limited amount of parliamentary time, a limited amount of goodwill and it will have to choose - while also being subject to lobbying against action from the unions, the Labour right, the press and increasingly (as the government goes on) from capital.

+ Repeatedly, a Corbyn Labour government will give opportunities for people to put pressure on it. Corbyn will welcome that dynamic. But, it also likely, that he will require the pressure to come through the Labour Party (the recent campaign against the HDV in Haringey may turn out to be a good example; it was a mass movement, but the "mass" aspect was mediated through the Labour Party. The old Labour councillors lost control when hundreds of people streamed along to Labour selection meetings and voted against them). Expect under Labour repeated polls of the membership, and conference votes which put demands on the leadership. Corbyn and McDonnell, to their credit, want to be subject to demands and know that reforms will only be introduced under pressure.

+ When Labour starts to choose which parts of its programme to introduce, the key force in the Labour Party will be the trade unions, or more precisely UNITE, which already has the casting votes on the NEC, controls Corbyn's office, and will soon control the key position of General Secretary in the Labour Party. UNITE's politics are Milibandish: the union swung to supporting Corbyn late in 2015. In practice, therefore, there is already a veto of Labour policy on nuclear weapons, nuclear power and immigration. Indeed, this is part of a general problem under which Corbyn, in order to build up a team, has been compelled to draw on the existing Left and has acquired our weaknesses (e.g. over Syria). He takes up our best and our worst and he is shaped by them both. UNITE is by far the most important part of this. If you think Corbyn's government will be unilateralist, you aren't listening closely enough to him. Before he was leader of the Labour party, Corbyn was the closest figure we had in parliament to a supporter of free movement. As leader, he has given multiple speeches insisting that free movement will end and blaming (in line with the policy of the UNITE leadership) migrants for lowering wages. A Corbyn government will reluctantly, agonisingly and with as much kindness as the leadership can supply go along with the positions he has argued for ever since he became Labour - i.e. a slow reduction in migration to the UK. His position in the Labour Party, and his dependence on UNITE, will prevent Corbyn as PM from doing anything better.

+ We all have an idea of how Labour governs from the left: i.e. the party adopts policies, *persuades* voters of their need, and then relies on popular approval to act as a counterweight to the pressure from the right. This will not happen under Labour - policies will not be communicated in advance. The public will not be prepared for left-wing government. In the last two years there have only been two periods where the leadership articulated coherent policies - during the initial phase of his 2015 leadership campaign - and again, after the negotiation of the manifesto, during the election campaign. What is Labour's policy on student loans? What is Labour's policy on the EU? Is it still Labour policy, as Corbyn argued in 2015, that there should be right to buy for private tenants? It's impossible to know because on each of these policies, Labour figures have made a flurry of proposals. The priority has been positioning, not policy. Ideas have been raised, dropped, exchanged for others. I am not being critical - Labour has been under enormous pressure, Corbyn has been vastly better than any under Labour leader would be. All I am saying is that no-one will know in advance of a Labour government what Labour's priorities really are; Labour will not have a programme for the first 100 days. Now, positioning is not trivial - it may enable Labour to introduce radical policies quickly in response to emergency situations - but in the absence of prepared policies the likelihood is that for most of its period in office Labour will feel significantly more like "politics as usual" than most of my friends expect.

+ Finally, Labour will face a new and unfamiliar form of political pressure - hostility not merely from the press, the Labour right, within Parliament, but also (and for the first time) from the international markets. I expect that Labour will enjoy a longer honeymoon than any government since 1945 (being seen to have been sensible on Brexit will buy Labour an opportunity space, and many kinds of capital would do very well under a McDonnellite expansion of our national infrastructure). But at some time, and with increasing force as Labour gets in - expect opposition to potential policies such as confiscation of unused land to build council houses. The longer Labour is in and the more Corbyn tried to do, the harder government will be.

None of these are arguments against Corbynism, rather they are ways of saying that even if Corbyn doesn't feel much like the Syriza government of which the comrade warned us: it will still be a project of reform, i.e. negotiated change, and there will be more defeats than victories.

If there are victories, they will come about because the movements have needs which last longer than any Labour government. And because people (whether in Labour or outside) see beyond the leadership and continue to press and put demands on it. Even the best of Labour leaderships will need people outside, putting demands on them.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Kim & Donald: A Love Story

Can the worst of enemies become the best of friends? We might find out, given the news Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are set to have a face-to-face meeting. "I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world", declares Trump. Yet, bizarrely, reading past the tragicomic threats routinely made by the North Korean monarchy and the incomprehension establishment commentators approach the Kimist regime and the chaoscracy headed by Trump, the chances of a deal might be good.

On Kim's side, as argued here repeatedly, North Korea is not "mad". Kim is caricatured as some kind of Bond villain with the sinister global designs and weapons to match, but these lazy takes cover for the failure to analyse the North Korean regime, make sense of its internal dynamics, tendencies and power struggles, as well as the preoccupations of its leaders, its position in the international system, and the drivers of the regime's militarism. It is eminently knowable and can be understood in such terms. There are two main concerns Kim has: the keeping of power and its preservation in the long-term. These objectives were shared by pops and grandpapa, and is the main filter through which the regime's actions should be perceived.

Take the nuclear programme and missile programme. An attempt to conquer the world? Or the means of deterring an attack from a cabal of the most advanced and powerful nations in possession of a record of attacking and invading countries without access to such weaponry? For decades, the North has maintained their own cold war frontier against bigger and more sophisticated militaries not by mutually assured destruction, but making certain any war would be prohibitively expensive. Whether it's artillery pieces pointing at Seoul and threatening to obliterate it before American and South Korean air power can take them out, to the extensively booby-trapped border, to over a million personnel on active service at any given time, to nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them, a war would be catastrophic with a huge price due the victors payable in blood. Since Soviet aid was withdrawn in the 1970s, being forced to rely on itself to maintain the stand off has led to a lop sided development of the economy and a huge diversion of resources into unproductive assets. Infrastructure and consumption has suffered - to the point of not irregular food shortages and famine - and only intense repression maintained by an overblown police state has kept a lid on tensions. Yet Kim isn't stupid. China provides a model of a dynamic state-led capitalism, massive growth figures and breakneck development alongside the retention of the party and, now Xi has got his way, one-man leadership for life. This is what the regime aspires to, and going down this road means freeing up scarce resources currently pouring into the army. Nukes and rockets, while initially expensive, over the long-term render obsolete the need for a huge military. Just as Deng Xiaoping struck deals with the People's Liberation Army that allowed them to become a privileged economic actor, so Kim the younger has tried taking a similar approach.

Following this, the overriding objective of North Korean foreign policy is neutralising the militarised frontier. Not that Kim wants to relive the early days of the Korean war, but because taking them out of the equation removes the requirement for the weapons' programme. Therefore it is seeking an accommodation with the US and would like to draw it into a non-aggression treaty. In this it is entirely unremarkable. Much of Trotsky's output in the 1930s was his persistent criticisms of the Soviet Union and its willingness to sell workers' struggles down the river on condition Stalin's regime be left alone with its special shops for the favoured and the gulags for the unpeople. As the broken machinery of state planning in North Korea can't keep the regime afloat indefinitely, especially as new sanctions start biting, including China's capping of petrol exports, it's clear something has to give before the hairline cracks in the regime's foundations become something more serious.

How about Trump, what does he and the US gain from brushing aside the Bush and Obama-era approach and coming to a deal with Kim? There is personal vanity, of course. Defusing the tensions on the Korean peninsula would be a masterstroke of diplomacy and assure Trump goes into the history books as something other than a joke. It wrong foots the Washington foreign policy establishment and enhances his credibility over whatever Beltway insider the Democrats decide to run against him in 2020. Also, because a deal is possible. Trump may be profoundly unintelligent and ignorant, but he knows deal making. He has the sort of low cunning to be able to read the position of opponents vis a vis his and act accordingly. What he sees in Kim is someone not too dissimilar to himself, but is playing a poor hand well. And he knows how desperate they are to come to some kind of arrangement - the threats the regime is famed for compute as cries for help to Trump, but he's savvy enough to realise they're playing the same sort of unconventional game that brought him to the White House. Additionally, the issue just isn't that intractable. As complexity goes it's nothing like Syria, Israel and Palestine, or Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement. A little bit of give, perhaps the phased removal of troops and easing up of sanctions, costs America very little assuming the North reciprocates and they agree to means for each side to monitor the other. Second, there is a real will in the South for better relations. The President, Moon Jae-in, is a popular centre left leader associated with a new "sunshine policy" with regard to the North, and one of his objectives is a formal peace treaty that brings the official state of war to an end. He has certainly drawn criticisms from the right but, as elsewhere, the Democratic Party's key voters tend to be younger and are less amenable to the anti-Kim buttons frequently pushed by conservative opponents. Conservative voters are never going to vote for him regardless, and as his right wing predecessor got sent down for 30 years and another former president is in the dock on serious corruption charges, Moon can afford to sideline the right as so much bleating. Therefore Trump has a willing partner with connections and a good relationship with the regime.

Lastly, there are realpolitik aspects to consider. Detente with the North opens a possible front against China. Relations between China and North Korea grew more strained over the course of 2017, even to the point of the regime declaring Russia its BFF. Cooperating with UN sanctions helps China's reputation as a responsible actor on the international stage, but ultimately they are a weapon to try and bring the North to heel. Beijing prefers having the North as a buffer against the US-dominated South, and is trying to use economic pressure to render them a quiescent if occasionally noisy client. For Trump a US-North Korea deal weakens Kim's dependence on its big neighbour, and could drive a wedge between them in much the same way Nixon used clever diplomacy to widen the rift following the Sino-Soviet split. With a firm if unstable ally suddenly became less reliable, then China might not prove to be as assertive elsewhere - such as prosecuting its claims in the South China Sea. It also gives Washington a lever for inflicting economic damage in the event of Trump's trailed trade war. North Korea might not amount to much with regard to the Chinese economy as a whole, but shrinking trade with them will impact negatively on a region not quite as dynamic as other parts of the country.

Whatever the case and whatever the motives, the prospect of a permanent settlement is suddenly possible. One that serves the interests of an appalling regime, the designs of the world's biggest superpower, and the vanity of the White House's most awful occupant certainly. But there is also a chance of burying permanently the prospect of an ugly, mass casualty conflict with worrying geopolitical implications. An imperial peace is still a peace, and can only open a new period with new tensions and contradictions, not to mention new opportunities for political change.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Žižek on This Week

The worst programme on television meets Europe's leading radical intellectual. What could go wrong? Not a great deal, as it happens. Having Slavoj Žižek on the This Week sofa facing Michael Portillo, Caroline Flint and Brillo certainly helped "raise the level", as we used to say in Socialist Party meetings. The subject? The miserable malaise or, to be more accurate, the abject collapse of European social democracy and rise of the populist/far right. Žižek's argument was that the left hadn't risen to the challenge, and what we're seeing advancing across the world instead is a recrudescence of authoritarian capitalism. America, Russia, Turkey and China were name checked, but he could easily have included the likes of Poland, Hungary, Austria and, yes, Venezuela too.

Used to spouting garrulous verbiage at spellbound interviewers, needless to say Brillo had an easy time with Žižek. The first, and entirely reasonable question was why the crisis of capitalism has taken down the left rather than the right. After all, the former are/were rooted in its critique and amelioration while the right are vehicles for the defence of bourgeois class interests. Surely the right should be a bloodied, quivering mess dirtying up the carpet instead of the left. He might be able to turn around wadges of books on Hegel and Lacan at the frequency of tweets, but on this occasion our Slovenian champion of lost causes couldn't provide a coherent answer.

Let me offer a suggestion. Social democracy is in crisis not because it neglected its base; it actively hammered it. Greece, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany, even here in the UK the centre left has undergone partial or complete collapse because the core constituencies of these parties have found themselves made to pay for the crisis, bear the brunt of cuts, get thrown out of work, and had tin ears turned to them. If the left are not articulating the grievances people have and, worse, are playing a role stoking them in the first place, millions of people will look elsewhere. On this point, even Caroline Flint showed glimmers of awareness by pinning it down to globalisation. Though, true to form, social democracy should get on the immigration-bashing bandwagon as well to turn things round.

Brillo did have a bit of fun at her expense while noting the one centre left party standing above the carnage is our very own Labour Party. Unfortunately, the discussion didn't progress onto whether a similar approach could reverse the fortunes of the left elsewhere. In my view it can, but it cannot simply be declared or imposed from the outside. Remember, less than a few weeks before Jeremy Corbyn got onto the ballot paper the fragments of the far left here did as poorly at the 2015 general election as they did at any other, despite standing on platforms trying to articulate the interests that gave Corbynism life. Similarly in Germany, the SPD are polling worse now than when Hitler let his thugs loose in the compromised 1933 election, and yet Die Linke are not storming ahead. Success has to be bottom up, self-activating, and able to pour through an opportunity afforded by a gap in an existing institution. Only then can its transformation into something else respond to and articulate the inchoate collective will coursing through it. If Labour is any model or a vision of the European left's future, this means rejuvenating its relationship to wider movements and simultaneously present as a serious contender for government. It's not an easy process, and each country has to find their own way to it. But if there is a universal lesson, it is to stop hammering your own.

Žižek was sharp enough to acknowledge that it's possible the left won't get its act together, and the new populist authoritarianism (authoritarian populism?) could sweep to power as it has done in the US. This, obviously, should be a focal point for left resistance and might, for some, be a way of touching off the radicalisation and rejuvenation we need to see. We should also avoid the stupidity of supposing that once a Trump screws things up the left will automatically benefit.

Žižek then didn't have any prescriptions, suggestions or much in the way of advice, but Corbynism at least represents one of the best kind of answers: those that emerge from the process of struggle, and expression of the collective wisdom of politicised crowds.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Tories and Betrayal

I regret to report the Tories are at it again. Ben Bradley having been forced to apologise for claiming Jeremy Corbyn was an agent of a Warsaw Pact signatory, the Tory rhetoric has moved on to the language of terrorism and betrayal. Not that they're accusing Corbyn of anything specific, mind. It's betrayal in the abstract. We have "respected" Tory cadre Tim Montgomerie going hard on non-existent terrorist sympathies supposedly harboured by the Labour leader. A case of physician, heal thyself if I ever saw one. Then yesterday, "Kaiser" Bill Cash asked Theresa May if she thought Labour "betrays the country", to which she replied yes. And I got it first hand from Stoke's own idiot squad, who were apparently out knocking on doors about Labour "betraying" Brexit.

Terrorism, betrayal. Betrayal, terrorism. None of this is new. Indeed, back in the dog days of the Michael Howard Tory party when policies like subsidising private health care costs were failing to catch the electorate, the then not disgraced, but already reprehensible vacuity Liam Fox went about suggesting New Labour was "un-British" and Tony Blair the most "un-British" Prime Minister ever. Then, as now, the Tory party were fast running out of options about what to do, and without a record worth defending or anything positive to offer they plump for the name-calling and the lies. On this occasion we have the PM, the defence secretary, and myriad others carping on about betrayal. There's no use pretending this is a few bad apples mouthing off; it is instead a cold blooded, deliberate strategy.

The Tories aren't interested in winning over new votes. The polarisation we saw at the election and faithfully replicated in every poll since is pointing toward the next election being a turn out game. Whoever can get the most supporters to the polling station wins. There's no room here for fudging or middle ground shallying, this is the game the Tories are playing. Why then do they keep banging on about Corbyn and Venezuela, or communism, or Hezbollah, or practically everything to the exclusion of addressing Britain's pressing problems? Why play necromancy with political phantoms and not deal with real people? Because they know talking constantly about betrayal, regardless of what is being "betrayed", dredges up all that's been said about Jeremy these last three years. By inserting a particle of doubt into the minds of mainly old, mainly retired Labour-leaning voters about his patriotism and loyalty to the country, whatever these may mean, they hope it will suppress Labour's vote and perhaps turn some of them toward the Tories. We're not talking big numbers, but as the last election showed this was enough of a factor to ensure ex-Labour kipper voters disproportionately transferred to the Tories than go back to their old party, and that cost Labour places like Stoke South and Mansfield. Whether this would repeat again, especially after the chaos the Tories have wreaked on the NHS, remains to be seen. But regardless, they're running with it.

What can Labour do? Carry on campaigning, carry on talking about the issues, carry on trying to win over new people, and carry on mocking the Tories for these desperate tactics. There is, after all, an apposite Thatcher quote for such occasions.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Toward a Sociology of Conservative Crisis

Talking about research projects, one of my colleagues pointed out to me the Conservatives and Conservatism group of the Political Studies Association are having a two-day workshop this summer, and have issued a call for papers. And so I've submitted this abstract to help focus the mind and encourage me to get a wriggle on.

Toward a Sociology of Conservative Crisis

Despite winning the largest number of seats and 42% of the popular vote at the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party is in crisis. Rather than relying on explanations emphasising a catalogue of missteps by the party leadership to the exclusion of all else, this paper argues the election result and divisions over Brexit negotiations has brought to a head a number of long running tensions symptomatic of the party’s long-term decline. These are expressed in diminishing party organisation, the reliance on a declining voter base and media support, and its retreat from a party of business-in-general to an increasingly sectional party. The opposite but complementary process to the growth and recomposition of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, this working paper draws on the cognitive capitalism approach of Hardt and Negri (2000, 2004, 2009) and others to explain the trajectory of the Conservatives, how it lost “natural” seats but gained "traditional" Labour seats at last year's election, the delicate balance of power at the top of the party, and the low chances of it being able to reinvent itself sufficiently to overcome these structural difficulties in the short to medium term.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Porsche Challenge for the PlayStation

There are games in my collection that have knocked about for 20-odd years. Since returning to gaming, there are some that have got picked up again for a blast of nostalgia. There are others we fed into our latter day consoles as warnings that no amount of fond memories can make a game good with the passage of time. And there are yet others who've sat in their stack glowering at me, daring to be played again. Porsche Challenge is such a title.

We got our PlayStation as an engagement present. Along with it came Tekken II, Worms, Crash Bandicoot, Adidas Power Soccer, Rayman, the obligatory demo disc, and our aforementioned sports racing title. Each of these save the footy got a good play, but it was Porsche Challenge that became the bane of my existence. No matter the number of tries, for whatever reason I just couldn't get it. Even the simplest of corners in the game proved too much for me, and so I was relegated to look on in a sulk as my significant other mastered the game and completed it with seeming ease. When the PlayStation 3 came along and the PS1 collection was disinterred, Porsche Challenge sat there mocking me. Everyone has a snapping point and mine was finally reached last week. It was time to meet it head on, to resume where we left off two decades ago.

Porsche Challenge is pretty standard PS1 racing fare. There are four tracks to race around, and these are modified slightly as you progress through the game. Five opponents take to the track against you and the simple task is to win each race. Along the way there's a timed checkpoint system to encourage sharp and efficient driving. And unlike other racers of the time, there is but one car, the Porsche Boxster. But is it any good?

Well, yes, if you like PS1 racing games. It was overtaken by the steam roller that was Gran Turismo, and for plenty-of-frills arcade action is easily surpassed by Ridger Racer Type Four, leaving it trailing in the wistfully-remembered stakes. Holding it back is its lack of variety. As it was based on a manufacturer's license and, apparently, close cooperation between the studio and Porsche itself this was something of a novelty, though it was preceded by Core's Jaguar XJ220, Gremlin's Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, and Sega's licensing of the Ferrari F40 for OutRun. Still, this was enough of a selling point then to give it a little bit more market clout and gaming press interest. The Boxster was marketed as an aspirational but relatively affordable luxury car, and just like OutRun before it the game was used to sell a lifestyle. You get to choose between six different drivers - a model, a mechanic, a journo, a hacker, kick boxer, and a DJ. There are supposed to be differences and rivalries between them, but I couldn't spot them. Anyway, your cadre of glamorous drivers have accompanying them some contemporary-ish tunes, redolent of the faux 70s instrumentals we later find in Driver, and for night time racing in Japan we get some light techno a la the Wipeout series. I suppose the package does a good job of selling the Boxster, but it limits the game's longevity. Yes, racing around Porsche's own Stuttgart test track is a nice touch, but doing it three times and three times in reverse is a bit wearing. Confusingly, when you do clear the game you get some grainy FMV footage of past Porsche models, which begs the question: why weren't these included as optional or unlockable motors?

Apart from lastability, the game also suffers from quite annoying rubber banding. Each racer has a rival who starts at the back of the pack with you, and as you work your way to the front they stick with you, meaning if you make a mistake just in front of the finish line they can sneak up and cost you a try. This is especially annoying on the snowy Alpine track, as a hillock immediately prior to the end can send you spinning out of control. The one saving grace is your AI nemesis can also similarly lose it, though more often than not they don't. Nevertheless, when the tracks become dynamic (i.e. bits of it open and close at random), sometimes you can waylay your opponent by nipping down a shortcut they missed - something I'm not entirely sure the game is supposed to allow.

The main question is how did we do this time round? Well, it turns out that I'm a better gamer these days. Though neither a simulator nor properly arcadey, you can't jam down the accelerator and tear around the game as you might in Ridge Racer. Brakes have to be applied sharply, and frequently. And once mastered the shame of 20 years fell away and, at long last, the ghost of its challenge was laid to rest. Is it worthwhile having a go? Yes, if you like racing games, but don't expect anything too different or better than any other PS1 driving experience.