The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, September 16, 2019

Other People's Politics

Other People's Politics: Populism to Corbynism

J. A. Smith, Zero Books, 2019

Around 2010 or so, I attended a Battle of Ideas panel on populism and/or Euroscepticism, featuring David Aaronovitch and (I think) Bruno Waterfield. In the discussion, someone said that populism reacted to a political system that empowered elites and excluded ordinary people. Aaronovitch retorted that ordinary people had never been more enfranchised: if you were discontented, there were plenty of parties to choose from, petitions to start or sign, FOIA appeals to make... How much more open could a political system be?

I pointed out from the floor that if you read comments on blogs and below-the-line on newspaper articles (this was before Twitter and Facebook took off), you found a boiling pit of fury and hostility towards every element of the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuity: the EU, climate change policy, immigration, 'political correctness', smoking bans, forever wars, bank bail-outs ... and a real sense that railing against them online was all that could be done.

To which Aaronovitch responded: 'These could all be by the same two hundred people!'

I had no come-back to that, not even in my mind. Well, we ken noo.

There are already several interesting books about Corbynism, from a broadly supportive position: Richard Seymour's Corbyn, Alex Nunn's The Candidate, and Steve Howell's Game Changer. All of them, particularly Nunn's, locate Corbynism in the politics of the post-crash labour (and Labour) movement: the slow build-up of stress that produced the earthquake. Other People's Politics is likewise sympathetic, but examines Corbynism from a different angle, that of its relation to populism. Populism in turn is examined in relation to social media. Social media and populism are mutual accelerants, as perfectly matched as mass media are (or were) to consensus politics. On Twitter we're free to say more or less what we like, within the law and the limits of arbitrarily applied and algorithmically policed 'terms of use'. A far more pervasive constraint is that any utterance can be jumped on, and become the focus of a whirlwind of vituperation: a pile-on. Twitter constitutes us as human dust, intermittently whipped up into a storm. And all the time, our free utterances, our freely registered likes and dislikes, our click-throughs, feed the analytic algorithms of advertising and politics, endlessly and mindlessly grinding away.

The unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has some things in common with the unexpected size of the Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, the unexpected victory of Leave in the EU referendum, the unexpected victory of Trump in the US, and the unexpected surge of the Labour vote in 2017. Each was more than a surprise. They registered as events that shouldn't have happened, and by all past reckoning couldn't have happened: an anomaly, a shock, an affront. Social media played a big part in all of them – sometimes at the expense of face-to-face campaigning, the ground game, but this under-the-radar aspect contributed to the shock of their actual or near success.

Ironically enough, Britain's unprecedented and unparalleled post-referendum upsurge of a mass pro-EU movement, with its huge street demonstrations, tragic face-painters and flag-wearers, and hashtag #FBPE, could itself be seen as a variety of populism: one that constitutes a different 'people' against a different 'elite'. Instead of 'the bankers' or 'the establishment', the villains become hedge-funds and disaster capitalists. #FPBE have their own conspiracy theories: Cambridge Analytica, Russian dark money, Putin. Heck, they're even convinced that the BBC is biased against them. From the outside, viewed in the small shiny rectangle of the smartphone screen, #FBPE can seem as closed-minded, obnoxious and deluded as the Brexiters do to them, as the cybernats did to me, and as Corbynism's own online army (in which I'm a very minor footslogger) evidently does to New Labour's middle-aged old soldiers (aka 'centrist dads').

But, as Smith puts it, populism is always 'other people's politics'. The bright rectangle is always a window, seldom a mirror. Smith walks us through that mirror. If we can bear to look at it, he argues, Corbynism too is a populism, and all the better for it. All populisms say the 'unsayable', but not all of them say the same. A left populism would blame the powerful, not the powerless, for social problems. Trump says things his supporters wish they 'could' say, whereas Corbyn says things his supporters have been for years on end inwardly screaming for someone, anyone with a public platform to say. There's no doubt that Corbynism has constituted a 'people' of its own: the leftists and socialists who never went away but were excluded from any recognition in the mainstream, and who were largely isolated from each other and indeed unaware of each other's existence. Like the cybernats, now a permanent presence in Scotland, they can be repeatedly dismissed as an online bubble – until they suddenly manifest in the real world. 'Where did all these people come from?' – as a Labour candidate is heard to ask in 2017 as her canvassers are reinforced by an army of volunteers, mobilised by Momentum's 'My Nearest Marginal' app.

Strong and persuasive though this book is on the emotional and ideological intricacies of how a populist appeal can gain traction, and how it can confound the expectations of the sensible centre – tracing, for example, the success of Donald Trump's transgressive rampages, and the conniving nods and winks of irony and deniability in the memetic tactics of the alt-right – it has little to say on the record of left-populism itself, barely glancing at its greatest debacle: Syriza. But to ask that of it would be to ask for a different book. (It's not like there aren't plenty of left critiques of left populism to choose from.) This one does its own job, and does it well.
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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

John McDonnell: My Part in his Rise

In the spring of 1977 I was a resident of Hayes, a research student at Brunel University, and a raw and active supporter of the International Marxist Group. The IMG had a few hundred members and was widely considered to punch above its weight. It did, but in so many directions that it hit mostly air.

The then Labour Government led by James Callaghan tried to deal with the crisis of the postwar settlement by extending social reforms in exchange for wage restraint. This strategy, begun under Harold Wilson, was known as the Social Contract, and was already under severe strain. The reforms were significant but seemed inadequate, and in any case their effects were for the most part jam tomorrow. Wage increases were jam today. The government's policies were widely opposed by the left inside and outside the Labour Party, by a militant minority of trade unionists, and by broader unrest among women, black people and disaffected youth. In Northern Ireland, no hope for an end – of any kind -- to the Troubles was remotely in sight. The Labour Government was opposed or pressured from the right, of course: by sections of the state, the City, almost all the press, the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher, and the small but fast-growing National Front and other fascist groups. Seldom has the spotlit enclave been more relentlessly shelled.

Looking back, standing candidates against Labour in local elections might not seem the best use of the far left's slender resources, but stand candidates we did. The IMG stood four candidates in that year's elections for the Greater London Council. Hardly anybody had heard of the IMG, so its candidates stood as Socialist (IMG). We had badges and everything. I may still have one.

One GLC constituency in which we stood was Southall, central to which was the largest Asian community -- overwhelmingly industrial working class and small-business in social composition -- in West London. The Socialist (IMG) candidate for Southall was Gerry Hedley, a modest, serious and cheerful militant. A lecturer in art, he had no roots in Southall, but he had support and endorsement from local activists who did. When Hedley addressed one meeting of what seemed like hundreds, from bearded elders to young radicals, he got supportive speeches from the platform in Urdu and Punjabi, as well as English.

One local labour movement left-wing activist whose support we were keen to get was John McDonnell. I, along with a far more dedicated and experienced comrade, met him in a cafe to sound him out. McDonnell may have agreed with many of our criticisms of Callaghan's Labour, but he was adamant that he wouldn't endorse our candidate. The Labour Party's rules, then as now, were strict. Any member who supported a non-Labour candidate in an election would be slung out on their ear. McDonnell had no intention of that happening to him. In the end, we pleaded with him to at least privately vote for us, and perhaps hint to a few close and trusted comrades that lending us their vote might... McDonnell was having none of it. We parted cordially, empty-handed.

If we'd been more persuasive, or if he'd been less staunch in his loyalty to the Labour Party, John McDonnell would almost certainly not now be the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Say not the struggle naught availeth.

This footnote in history has two footnotes of its own:

1. GLC May 1977 Southall election results (Source, pdf) (See also)

Seive, Mrs Y. Labour 13,330
Schindler, R. Conservative 12,417
Stevens, K. Liberal 2,094
Franklin, Mrs B.P. National Front 1,872
Hedley, G.A. Socialist (IMG) 996

2. Gerry Hedley became Reader at the Courtauld Institute of Art and an innovative researcher in the field of fine art conservation, where he is still – many years after his untimely death in a climbing accident -- remembered with great respect.
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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Time Enough for Thought

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn, Unbound, 2019.

Full disclosure up front: the author is an old friend. Unbound is a crowd-funded publisher, and my name is one of hundreds listed who pre-supported this book.

Heinlein was for better or worse one of the great names of science fiction. In his generation and age-group, he stood alongside Asimov and Clarke as one of the genre's public intellectuals: the chaps who got called into television studios to talk about moonshots. Asimov and Clarke, for all their obvious differences and Clarke's agoraphilic sublime, were united in their basic world outlook. Both were liberal secular humanist futurists, and what you saw was what you got. Heinlein was something else: an original moralist, complex and contradictory but always (it seemed) confident. He got under his readers' skins and into their minds in unexpected ways. In that respect, oddly, he can better be compared to Le Guin.

In my early teens, reading the stories collected in Revolt in 2100 ('"If This Goes On—"', 'Coventry', and 'Misfit') had a lasting impact. Heinlein had a knack for the throwaway, delayed-action bombshell: a casual reference to a theology curriculum that included 'mob psychology and basic miracles' being one from that book. And Starship Troopers gave me a lot to think about at the time, though probably not the thoughts the writer intended, which says something for him.

I've read nearly all the juveniles, many of the short stories and nearly all the novels except the late long ones, which I've always bounced off.

Heinlein has been the subject of a definitive biography, major critical studies during and after his life, and an immense and growing amount of academic and fan criticism. But he remains so vast and various that there's always more to say, and Mendlesohn says it here. Her approach has been to read (re-read) every publicly available thing Heinlein wrote, and only then to read (re-read) everything in print, and a lot of what's online, about him.

After a brief introduction and a useful potted biography, Mendlesohn devotes successive chapters to Heinlein's fiction (short stories, juveniles, and adult novels), technique and rhetoric. She then applies her close reading of the texts to Heinlein's handling of civics and politics, racism and antiracism, ethics, sex and sexuality. Heinlein's political shifts are related to his deeper consistencies in interesting and unexpected ways: individual and community, patriotism and radicalism, democracy and revolution, family and free love all turn out to have more complicated dialectics across his work as a whole than a partial reading -- which is, of course, all that most readers have – would suggest.

Mendlesohn's dismantling of the disaster of Farnham's Freehold -- and her answer to the inevitable appalled question 'What the fuck was he thinking?' – is patient and persuasive. The discussion of sex, sexuality and gender in Heinlein's work is full of surprises and rigorously argued.

This effort to read with fresh eyes has paid off. On almost every page there's a new insight or an arresting remark. Mendlesohn takes Heinlein seriously as a thinker, and makes you think.
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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Boldly Going

I'm proud to say I have a story in issue 14 of Shoreline of Infinity. 'Fat Man in the Bardo' takes up the widely overlooked plight of the innocent victims of thought experiments, human, feline and otherwise. Of course, as itself a thought experiment, the story only makes the problem worse, but I'll just have to live with that responsibility. The story appears in very good company: fiction, poetry and non-fiction from a wide range of writers.

And there's more!

The enterprising folk at Shoreline of Infinity are putting on an Event Horizon special for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The topic is:

Science Fiction: can it guide us to a glorious future ... or will it lead us to disaster and dystopia?

8pm – 9.30pm, THURSDAY 11th April 2019

Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh

Tickets £8.50/£6.50 from the Science Festival website, here.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Event Horizon extends to Glasgow

That fine SF magazine from Scotland, Shoreline of Infinity, has been going from strength to strength. One of its innovations has been to sponsor a regular cabaret in Edinburgh, Event Horizon, featuring readings, music, and the jokes of Russell Jones, poet by day and MC by night. As a student Russell worked in a Christmas cracker factory, where he swept up rejected jokes off the floor and (contrary to regulations) stashed them for later use. Over the years his deployment of these jokes has inspired scientists and students in Event Horizon audiences to work on a time machine to go back and stop him before it's too late.

Meanwhile, you can now hear these jokes and much, much more in Glasgow, this very week!
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Monday, December 31, 2018

Astounding revelations

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Alec Nevala-Lee, 2018, Dey St.

I was given this book for Christmas, started reading it on Boxing Day, and finished it yesterday. So this is not a review. Instead, it's a few reflections provoked by reading the book. You can read about the book, with links to many rave reviews, here. I can only add my enthusiastic recommendation.

The first surprise, for me, was the sub-title. I knew, of course, that Hubbard was a popular pulp SF writer before he became otherwise famous. I knew too that Campbell had been keen on Hubbard's original discovery of the secret of life, Dianetics. Until I read Astounding I had no idea at all that Hubbard was in his SF heyday as big a name as the other three. Nor did I realise just how much Campbell put into Dianetics, the book, and dianetics, the movement.

I'm just old enough to have read Campbell editorials in Analog more or less live – a friend in Greenock High School lent me a stack of then-recent back issues. I had read a bit about Campbell, so I knew he was a legendary editor. The writers I most looked up to looked up to him. His distinctly right-wing musings and his brusque manner of thought meshed perfectly with the attitudes I'd already picked up from Heinlein and other Golden Age writers. It's sobering (as well as, in a way, inspiring) to see the extent to which what I thought of as 'the science-fictional outlook' (basically, that the world is best approached as an engineering problem) was constructed by a handful of Campbellian cadre back in the 1940s. The trouble is that though these guys inspired lots of people to become scientists or engineers, they could be a little slapdash in their own constructions. One Analog editorial that sticks in my mind was about how little we knew of Mars from limited, local sampling of its soil. Campbell pointed out that some minerals on Earth are so rare they're only known from one location: for instance, greenockite, found only in and around Greenock. This (I've just learned), is not quite true. The mineral isn't found only in Greenock, it wasn't discovered in Greenock, and it's not named after the town of Greenock.

Among Campbell's more respectable enthusiasms was General Semantics, which it seems both he and Hubbard got via Heinlein. The most famous and overt influence of General Semantics on science fiction was A. E. Van Vogt's novel The World of Null-A, but smatterings of the jargon were widespread in Golden Age SF – I recall 'time-binding' from Fritz Leiber as well as Heinlein, 'the map is not the territory' from all over, and the solemn declaration that 'A difference that makes no difference is no difference' from the mouth of Spock in one of James Blish's novelizations.

As reading Astounding has reminded me, I may have got a stronger dose of General Semantics myself as a by-product of its prominence in SF. Possibly fed up with my third-hand blather on the topic, my English teacher, Joan Woods, shoved at me her well-thumbed copy of Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa. I read it over a summer holiday and it did me a power of good. The notion of 'extensional orientation' (very roughly, paying a lot more attention to the world around you and paying a lot less respect to your current ideas about it) was almost literally an eye-opener.

It turns out you can learn quite a lot about Earth from local observation in Greenock.
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Monday, December 10, 2018

The Corporation Wars Trilogy

My three Corporation Wars novels from Orbit are now available (Amazon US / UK) as a one hefty paperback. They now look and feel like what they are: one big novel in three parts.

I can't let that last link pass, by the way, without quoting from it:
MacLeod manages big Ideas (political and futurological) and propulsive action without short-changing either side of that classic science-fictional tension-of-opposites, a trait he shares with Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross. I’m going add one more name and then duck behind the sofa: Heinlein.
The trilogy gets a good write-up on The Verge and on the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, which says:
MacLeod’s excellent Corporation Wars trilogy (Dissidence, Insurgence, Emergence) is collected into a single omnibus edition, telling the whole story of a universe where vicious, ruthless companies use sophisticated AIs to wage cold and hot wars over mining rights. The commands take time to transmit to the robots, however, and in the space between them, the AIs have to make their own decisions—a dangerous situation that indirectly leads them to sentience and self-actualization. Seba is one of those freshly sentient AIs, and sparked a revolution among its fellow “freeboot” minds. Trying to keep them under control is Carlos, a soldier who, via technology, has been reincarnated over and over again. When Carlos and Seba begin to see each other as pawns in a game larger than them both, things get truly interesting—and having all three books in one binding is going to be very convenient once you’re totally hooked and unable to stop turning pages.

It looks great, and is out in good time for Christmas. You can read a sample from the opening here.
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