On being blacklisted

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Yes, I downloaded it all from the National Archives

I felt a kind of weary recognition when I saw this story in the Guardian the other day. I don’t remember what the precise occasion was, but I remember vividly being told that I was on “the list” by a trade union acquaintance of mine. At the time, I greeted the information with the kind of youthful bravado you’d expect of someone in their mid-20s and in the thick of the kind of grassroots activism that feels like nothing but actually is the most effective means of creating change.

By matching staff records against MI5 files, the SPL came to the conclusion that there were 1,420 “subversives” in the civil service, including 52 in Customs and Excise, 169 at the Inland Revenue and 111 at the Ministry of Defence, many of them at the Royal Naval dockyards at Rosyth. The largest number, however, 360, were said to be at the Department of Health.

Privately, I figured that if MI5 were targeting me, then they were even more incompetent than their poor reputation suggested. This was the era of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, the banned memoir that revealed that the British Intelligence services had been  fucking up operations for decades. I bought my copy, illegally imported from Australia, at one of those second hand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank, a half-hour walk from Gower Street, the then-headquarters of MI5.

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Yeah, this is not me

But pause with me a moment to look at the picture the Guardian used to illustrate this news story (above). Did I resemble the floppy haired young man depicted? My hair was curly and frequently dyed blonde. I never once held a copy of Militant in my hands; and I would have fled in terror if someone offered me a loud hailer. On the other hand, I might well have considered a stripy jumper.

Apart from being told by a reliable source that I was on this list, I have other evidence to offer.

  1. I worked in the tax office (Inland Revenue) in those days, which meant I had signed the Official Secrets Act. I was a very lowly clerical assistant (or the Revenue’s equivalent), a position for which I was overqualified. And yet, it took me fully six years to gain a promotion to the next grade above. If you knew me at all, you’d know this could not possibly be because of incompetency on my part. To illustrate this latter point, I will refer you to the time I went on the Tax Officer training course when I finally got that promotion, six years in. I was taking a cigarette break with the trainer that day when he said to me, “This must be very boring for you?” “Why do you say that?” “Because you obviously know this stuff already.” This wasn’t, in fact, the case. But, I’m very quick on the uptake. And so, yeah: it took six years to get promoted from my filing job.
  2. Aha, you say. Why then, did you not just go and get another job? Good question. I applied for many: very many. I got many interviews. I took many intelligence tests and got the highest marks. But, you see, I was blacklisted.
  3. One job I applied for, at the Abbey National building society (or was it already a bank by then?), I passed the tests with flying colours, passed the interview, and was told I’d be receiving a job offer “subject to references”. Well, one of my referees, Norman, who was my line manager, sat opposite me in the office. And he would have told me if he’d been asked for a reference. But he never did because he never was. And the nailed-on job disappeared into thin air.
  4. Finally, I was arbitrarily moved, in my lowly clerical position, to another one in another tax office that was just around the corner. It separated me, on that day to day basis, from my immediate circle of radical trade union buddies. Apart from that, there was no reason to move me.

“Most “subversives” were found to be working in junior clerical positions. The SPL recommended in its initial report that they should, where possible, “be identified and distanced from such work”.

It added that mounting a purge of suspect individuals would not be possible, but “it might sometimes be possible covertly to move individuals to posts where they would have less potential for disruption.”

Anyway, that blacklisting blighted my career prospects, and held me back for years. Eventually I got out of the tax office only by getting a place at University. My life is divided into the before and after in that respect. Things went pretty well after that: although I still consider those nine years struggling against the machine to be lost.

It was all so unnecessary, really. All the “list” consisted of was names and organisations. In my case, it would have been the IRSF, the Inland Revenue Staff Federation: a trade union so radical that it wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour Party.

And I only really got involved in the union because I was pissed off with the way I was being treated (early on in my glittering tax office career, I was criticised for the way I walked, and the way I looked for files, and for not wearing a collar and tie, and, when I did wear a collar and tie, I was told by my manager that he didn’t like my collar and he didn’t like my tie). And I’d been a little radicalised by 18 months on the dole: to the point that I had values at odds with most of the management class. When they were throwing post away in confidential waste sacks in order to meet targets, I was kinda muttering that if they left their targets unmet, maybe some unemployed person could be given a job.

But I hadn’t read a word of Marx or Militant, hadn’t joined any organisation apart from my union, and (ironically) my first exposure to such reading would come at University, which only happened because of the blacklisting.

So what did I do to get on that list?

I did once sign a petition at a CND rally. With hindsight, I did come to believe that the stunningly pretty girls who were circulating with the petition were probably MI5, harvesting names from the many bus trips.

But my real activism was small and local. I went to Branch union meetings, first as office rep and later as Branch Organiser. I sold raffle tickets to help the striking miners in ’84 and ’85. I was the Organiser who organised a crucial vote on the union having a political fund.

Which brings us to the crux. The Tory project in the 80s was principally about crushing the unions, who had so effectively destroyed the Heath government of 1970-74. All forms of collectivism (public transport, public utilities) were out, to be replaced by privatised companies who would make life hard for unions. And all strikes had to be approved by an expensive postal ballot, thus ensuring forever more that no strike would be called on anything over a 25% turnout, which was all the media would need to call foul. And, the most evil step of all, members would have to vote as to whether their union could make political donations. This policy was designed to kill the Labour party at its roots.

As I said, the IRSF wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour party, but we did believe, us union chaps, that we ought to be able to fund research and so on, or support candidates. So we organised the vote, and we got it approved.

Which, one suspects, wasn’t supposed to happen.

Possibly the most damning thing I did was organise the publication and distribution of a branch newsletter. This was my idea because it was clear then that the government, through their managers, were trying to bypass the unions by offering, for example, newsletters of their own. Going direct to the workers with new initiatives and spinning information without considering their elected representatives. So, I said, if they’re going to be “communicating” with our members, shouldn’t we offer an alternative?

Thus the Conscientious Op was born, a newsletter title that punned on a collection of Dashiel Hammett short stories (Continental Op). It was reproduced by typewriter, letraset, cut ups and photocopier. It was, probably, pure punk.

I don’t remember a single thing I wrote in it.

But one suspects that something upset somebody. (It was a similar story when I left school at 18.)

So, blacklisted I was. And what have we learned? First of all, those small-time local activities you can get involved in do have an impact, and do scare the bejesus out of those in power, who know full well that they only get away with stuff because we let them. To give you an across-the-Atlantic example, it has been local politicians working at District and State level who have been gerrymandering election boundaries in the USA, and bringing in voter registration laws to make it harder for people of colour to vote, and harder for opposition candidates to win seats. So, yes, grassroots politics really matters.

Finally, I think we’ve learned something I think I’ve always known: that the real “enemies within” in this country are those who create and share such lists, who treat legitimate political opposition and perfectly legal trade union activity as criminal, and who maintain unfair power structures unfairly and undemocratically. The construction industry blacklists during the Olympic Park construction led to legal action and big payouts. The trade union movement began with people being transported to Australia. It ended with a postal ballot that you chucked in the recycling.

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Melting Down is Good for Business

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Toxic masculinity, as embodied by Rupert Murdoch’s melting face

It’s been a week of meltdowns in the news, sure enough. Meltdown was the name of one of the CPU bugs that were revealed in the New Year. While people were still shitting their pants over the Great Apple Battery Scam (not a scam), Intel revealed something they’d been sitting on for a while, which was that the way their CPU chips works (by speculatively anticipating what they’re going to be asked to do next) leaves them vulnerable to exploits. This was trumpeted widely as a precursor to the End of All Things, Millennium Bug style, since just about anything with an Intel or ARM processor was affected, but (as of Saturday) we’re still alive. Still, you can smell the lawsuits from here, can’t you?

It was last May that all British Airways flights from two airports were cancelled because of an IT problem, and this is the kind of meltdown that pundits fear might ensue when a system vulnerability like this is revealed. More seriously, that same month saw “cyber chaos” in the NHS, as computer systems that hadn’t been updated from Windows XP were attacked over a weekend.

This is what I think of whenever people express concerns about Trump and his obsession with weapons and nuclear buttons. This past week of Whitehouse Meltdowns following the “revelations” in Michael Wolff’s book have been entertaining, and you can’t help but hope it takes us one step closer to the Hollywood Ending of this Presidency, which is when the American people collectively point their fingers in Trump’s direction and pause dramatically before saying, “You’re fired.”

While it’s clear that millions of people are going to suffer as a result of Trump’s “welfare for the rich” tax legislation and his “welfare for the rich” healthcare changes, I have less fear that he’s ever going to launch a nuclear strike. This seems like a cartoon fear of a cartoon president, a childlike clown who has no real power, and is simply going to end up being managed when the grownups take over. Trump is not Putin: he has no real power. Like the rest of the Republican Party, he’ll do the bidding of his corporate and media masters, the Ronald McDonald birthday clown of politics.

As well as being good for lawyers in class action or cease and desist lawsuits, these various meltdowns are good for the news business, as people addictively click on stories to read about how Apple or Intel are ruining their lives or how Trump’s hair is combed and lacquered. And I’ve noticed as an adjunct to all this that the papers are full of chin-stroking columns about the perils of social networking and screens. It’s all New Year New Me and Think Of The Children and, very helpfully, Black Mirror season 4. Same as it ever was, if you ask me. Ten years ago, I would chortle with my students about all the Facebook negging that the Daily Mail went in for, but like lawyers smelling Class Action, the newspapers are all smelling New Year’s Resolutions, as people try to detox from Trump and Bannon and Trolls and whatever that episode of Black Mirror was about.

Should we be worried about tech meltdowns? Probably. As rail commuters weep about paying nearly £8000 a year just to get to work, and our cars hit pot holes and have their own personal meltdowns, and the NHS suffers through yet another Winter Crisis, it’s clear that our infrastructure is fucked. And when it comes to IT, which is increasingly getting involved in every part of our lives, the infrastructure is all in the hands of corporations. So whether it’s your light bulbs, your front door, your fridge, or your TV, these CPU vulnerabilities are likely to strike anywhere. And the only way to hold these corporations to account is via the blunt instrument of the class action lawsuit. Because the politicians do not have their minds on infrastructure, do they?

In the UK, we’re distracted, permanently, by Brexit meltdown. In the US, they’re distracted by Trump meltdown. And even if they weren’t, absolutely no politician ever is interested in building infrastructure projects that won’t come to fruition until long after they’ve left office in disgrace after putting their hand up someone’s skirt. So, in a sense, we can blame toxic masculinity for all of these meltdowns. Men are really too emotional for high office.

Guerilla Media?

220px-Power_to_the_PeopleToday presenter, former political correspondent of the BBC, and obvious Tory Nick Robinson last week wrote an article in which he set out the challenges and attacks faced by the BBC and the mainstream media from the alternative media: the likes of The Canary and Westmonster.

Worth pulling apart.

Robinson raises the stakes to near hysteria when he describes all this with the language of warfare:

Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to raise morale. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.

They don’t like it up ‘em, do they?

I’m no fan of sites like the Canary. I’ve always regretted following links to them from Twitter. I don’t like the style or tone of their journalism, and I don’t like their obvious bias, even if I might share it. But they exist because of a well-founded perception that the BBC in particular has been letting us down, not just lately, but for year after year and month after month.

The BBC has a duty, baked into its charter, to be impartial. But, weasel-like, the BBC always manages to be a tacit supporter of the government of the day. Knowing full well that angry ministers can do a lot of damage to the institution via their friends in the right-wing media, the BBC is notoriously brown-nosed, no matter who is in power. They brown-nosed the neoliberal “New Labour” government too. Robinson tries to argue the opposite, citing times when government ministers complained about the BBC, but he’s being selective with the facts. He mentions Churchill complaining about the BBC during the General Strike of 1926, knowing full well that Lord Reith was ensuring that the broadcaster was quietly supportive of the government:

since the BBC was a national institution, and since the government in this crisis was acting for the people… the BBC was for the government in the crisis too.

Robinson says,

Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe “the news”.

This seems to imply that the BBC is spending much time reporting facts. Sure, it might tell us about a hurricane or two, feeding the usual oh dearism, but the real beef these alt. news sources have with the BBC is with political coverage, and in particular its apparent inability to be impartial to the truth.

This is what they do: debate. Perhaps it’s a hangover from their days at Oxford or Cambridge, but notwithstanding BBC editors’ love for them, debates can be rigged. For example, a debate between a completely unqualified and paid-for climate change denier (e.g. Nigel Lawson) and an actual climate scientist is not unbiased. Robinson justifies the airing of Lawson’s lies on behalf of the oil industry secretive charitable foundation he ‘founded’ with the idea that people with ‘alternative views’ should not be silenced:

They should be challenged and if, as Lawson did on Today recently, they get their facts wrong we should say so.

But Lawson didn’t “get his facts wrong”. He’s paid to tell lies on behalf of a powerful lobby, which hides the sources of its funding behind charitable status. By all means, get him on and challenge the “views” he’s paid to have. But make it fucking clear to the listeners that he’s there representing not ‘alternative views’ but the tiny and wealthy membership of a ‘charitable’ foundation that seems to be swimming in mysterious money.

Claim and counterclaim: that’s most often what the BBC reports when it comes to political issues. And they structure reports so that the most ‘important’ person goes first, and any responses to the claim being made are buried further down in the story. And in-studio debates, notoriously, are stage managed and constantly interrupted by hectoring presenters (or other guests who won’t shut up), hurried along, and cut short by artificially generated arbitrary deadlines dictated by weather bulletins and news summaries.

What the BBC could do, but never does, is demonstrate an impartiality to the truth. Rather than allowing, say, Boris Johnson to make a completely false claim about the amount of money that would go to the NHS following Brexit, the presenter could stop him — in his tracks — and point out that he’s lying. Could quote the Office of National Statistics at him, and therefore let him know in no uncertain terms that he would never be allowed to get away with telling such a lie on a BBC news programme. The popularity of a recent clip of NBC journalists challenging a lying contributor shows how hungry the public are for this kind of thing.

But they don’t do that. Instead, they demonstrate ‘impartiality’ by having someone else in the studio to make another claim that Johnson is lying, which just makes it all seem like a game, with the ‘winner’ being the person who repeats themselves the most, shouts the loudest, or speaks last, before the arbitrarily imposed cut-off point. This suits Johnson and his ilk down to the ground, insulated as he is by his family money from the consequences of anything he says.

Unfortunately, the alt. media that have come along are mainly just offering a different kind of bias. For Robinson to talk about these news sources as waging a war against the BBC/MSM is disingenuous in the extreme, because the real and present threat to the BBC has always been from the Murdoch-owned right-wing press, the Dailies Mail, Express, and Telegraph who have no interest in reporting the truth and every interest in destroying a national institution they see as a barrier to their profits.

The BBC follows their news agenda, focuses on their obsessions, giving disproportionate time to the bugbears of the political right: immigrants and the “undeserving poor”, and continually failing to reveal when contributors are representatives of right-wing thinktanks, or corporations, or simply nutty minority pressure groups. They give airtime to the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, offer blanket coverage of everything UKIP does, but more or less ignore, say, the Green Party, which probably has more members and more widespread support. And they repeated the attacks on Corbyn from the press as if they were news, lending credence to the idea that they are all Tories.

1974 and all that

Harold_Wilson_Number_10_officialI’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the governments of the 60s and 70s, and the parallels between Ted Heath’s snap election in 1974 and the recent debacle created by Theresa May.

The February 1974 election, which ended in a hung parliament, was the first held after Britain joined the EU in January 1973. This latest election was the first held after the vote to leave.

In February 1974, Ted Heath, Conservative Prime Minister, addressed the nation:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? […] This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. […] It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it. (wikipedia)

The nation answered with a shrug. Heath’s tactic had backfired and when he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals (assuming also support from the Unionist MPs), Harold Wilson became the leader of a minority government.

Wilson called another election in October and won a narrow majority of 3 seats. This was the government that eventually creaked to an end under the leadership of Jim Callaghan in 1974, with sick MPs being wheeled in from hospital for Commons votes.

Regardless of whether you believe the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Wilson government, it’s fair to say that his governments of the 60s and 70s both faced strenuous opposition from the right wing press and were undermined by those ‘enemies within’ in the financial sector. Wilson himself claimed that he was undermined by elements within MI5, and there is a longstanding rumour about a possible military coup, with Lord Mountbatten touted as PM. Was the army takeover of Heathrow Airport in 1974 a dry run? Was the cabinet office  and waiting area bugged (almost certainly yes, since the Profumo affair of 1963)?

Whatever happened, the right wing press have painted the 1970s in dark colours ever since as a way of promoting neoliberal ideology and destroying faith and participation in the trade union movement.

When people wax nostalgic about Labour governments passed, they usually turn to the post-1945 government and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But look at the social reforms Wilson achieved in the 60s:

  • abolished capital punishment
  • liberalised censorship laws
  • liberalised divorce laws
  • liberalised abortion laws
  • liberalised law on homosexuality
  • created the Open University
  • introduced comprehensive education
  • took steps towards gender and racial equality

And:

“1974-76, saw further reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty.” (source)

Finally, and most importantly, under Wilson’s government, the property speculators were squeezed until the pips squeaked and taxes were high, high, high, which kind of explains why landlords, British industrialists, and bankers had an interest in creating as much economic conflict as possible. The 60s and 70s were characterised by lots of industrial action, but as hard as those workers fought, the result was a more equal society and better pay and conditions for everyone. So of course the billionaires behind the right wing press like to paint the 70s as the ‘bad old days’.

The current situation has so many parallels with 1974, you can’t help but wonder if this will play out the same way. At the very least, an October election might be on the cards. But another left wing Labour government being undermined by the bankers, the oligarchs and the security services? Corbyn has “MI5 Plot” written all over his face.

The end of civilisation, reality TV style

1480638381-trump-tie-tapeThinking about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, which involved at least one person who thought she was participating in a TV prank show, it struck me that our civilisation has been in the process of being laid low by our consumption of trashy media.

For sure, we live in the platinum age of TV drama, which is a surprise to me. A few years ago, when ITV shares were a few pence each (9th March 2009: 17.5 pence per share), it felt as if scripted TV drama was going to be a thing of the past, as advertising revenues collapsed and the BBC was chipped away by the neolibs and their tame newspapers.

But enter Netflix, and enter Amazon, and enter HBO, and it turns out that scripted drama has never been better. Left to the likes of Fox/Sky, the US networks, and even the BBC, it would not be so healthy. We’d have wall-to-wall procedurals, and the stuff the BBC makes these days, which seems calculated not to frighten the Daily Mail horses and attract as little attention as possible.

No, when I talk about trashy media, I mean three things, in the main:

  • 24 hour news
  • Talent shows
  • So-called Reality TV

Unlike a lot of my fellow Media Studies professionals, I could never bear to even watch a single minute of reality TV, so I kind of pretended the topic didn’t exist. But I know for a certainty that if I was looking at so-called Western civilisation from the outside, I would see reality TV and talent shows as a sign of the degradation and decadence of liberal democracies, and the wealth and fame heaped upon individuals with little or no talent as emblematic of our debased values.

That Donald Trump, a stupid man who fell into a heap of inherited wealth, who doesn’t know what a tie clip is, could become a household name is something you’d point to as evidence of a degenerate culture. Add to that the fame and wealth of Simon Cowell, a person who wears v-necked t-shirts, and yet was still given a job as an arbiter of taste in music, and you’ve got enough evidence to damn a whole civilisation.

And then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, which, turns out, didn’t mean more news or more depth of coverage or more analysis, but less and less and less, until journalists are churning out a dozen ore more clickbait stories a day and political coverage is reduced to whether someone can eat a bacon sandwich or bow his head at the correct angle when showing respect to the war dead.

Looking at all this from the outside, of course you’d hatch an assassination plot in which you’d dupe somebody into thinking they’re participating in a TV prank show. It’s Art of War 101, right? You’re using the enemy’s own decadence as a weapon.

What North Korea does on a small scale to deal with its own domestic issues, Russia (very much not a liberal democracy) is doing on a much larger scale, having apparently exploited the stupidity and venality of a range of assets in a very long game in order to undermine the ability of the US to oppose it. The game is Smileyesque in its complexity, but it appears to have involved Wikileaks, various online hate groups, and a reality TV star who was able to exploit the inability of news organisations to do their job* and win an election. What Smiley did to snare Karla, Putin has done to snare a whole nation.

Back when Twitter was new, when Facebook was new, some of us naively thought that these new platforms would be for us, that we’d be able to organise and resist using these agile new tools. Cynical voices pointed out that these platforms were owned by corporations, but we thought we knew better. Of course, it turns out that these platforms were far more effectively exploited from the right than they ever were from the left. Because the one thing the left can never stop doing is squabbling amongst its various selves.

And then this week, just when you think that something is up, when the new President is denouncing the media like a newly minted North Korean dictator; just when you think the Western media might start doing their job*, even if it’s too little too late; just then, there’s an explosion of news (and social network coverage) of an event so fucking trivial and unimportant that you can’t believe anyone would be taken in by it for even a single second.

Yes, I’m talking about the Oscars, an awards ceremony in which a small, self-selecting coterie of previous winners votes for a new set of winners in their own image, usually in order to promote a few films that hardly anybody saw. And yet, when someone cocked up and handed the wrong envelope to a presenter so facelifted he probably couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to read the small print on the card, we not only got the immediate reaction, but ongoing coverage of the incident, including Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis, as if this was 1972, and this was a break-in at the Watergate hotel.

It was almost as if the media were waiting for something they could switch their attention to, so that they didn’t have to keep reminding people that they’d elected a tie-sellotaping  Russian stooge to high office.

*SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER

Shut down, log off, fade away

Mini DV TapeWe are surrounded by digital ephemera.

A while ago now, I reactivated the Facebook account (total of friends = 1), just so there would be one place on the internet where you could find me by my actual name. My timeline consisted almost entirely of my Instagram feed. But I hate Facebook, always have, and as Zuck appears to be preparing to run for office (as a Republican, according to one thing I read), it’s time to kill it. So that’s gone.

I still use Instagram. Although owned by Facebook, it’s fairly harmless, and since I stopped using Flickr (destroyed by Yahoo), it’s the only place I upload photos. But my finger does hover over the button sometimes.

I was attempting to put together a Photos book for 2016 the other day, and I had an enormous number of those red warning triangles, because the “original image could not be found”. Massive database corruption in my Photos library – perhaps caused by my use of CleanMyMac. The photos are there – I can export them and re-import them and fix the triangle issue – but the application doesn’t know they’re there. So that is a massive pain in the arse, and brings to stark relief the eternal problem of what is going to become of all our digital photos in 5–10 years. Apart from low-resolution uploads on early Flickr, I’ve got whole clusters of photos missing.

This came up again when I was rewatching my kids’ childhood DVDs a while ago. A couple of years have gone missing, and one of the DVDs wouldn’t play (though I managed to rip the file off it). I noticed an old MiniDV camcorder at work the other day, which nobody (probably) is ever going to use, and it reminded me that I have a case full of MiniDV tapes with my kids’ (unedited) childhoods on, and I have nothing to play them on.

Digital ephemera. We live in a streaming world. Timelines flick by, news churns 24 hours a day, people are up in arms about one thing after another, ricocheting between issues of import and issues of no import as if it were all the same.

I spent half an hour this morning unfollowing a bunch more people on Twitter. People I like and respect, even admire, but I cannot bear to read their political and news tweets, because they make me feel impotent with outrage, powerless, depressed. Muting keywords doesn’t work because things always leak through, and in the end I came to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future and for my own sanity, I’ll probably end up unfollowing most of the Americans on my feed, and many more besides.

I’ve said it before: complaining on Twitter achieves nothing; the people you need to reach are not on there; it’s not a substitute for activism. Twitter is for jokes, for people-watching, for aphorisms, art, wit, photos, videos, all of that digital ephemera. But it’s not for politics or climate change, or bringing down capitalism or fighting nazis. People get mad about stuff, sure, but never so mad that they put down their phones and do anything.

 

Shifting paradigms while Rome burns

k41. Copernican revolutions

Changing people’s minds is a hard, hard thing. When Copernicus correctly identified our heliocentric solar system, it was not an overnight “revolution” as it is often characterised, but the culmination of over a thousand years of observations not matching the dominant model. The Ptolemaic model lasted from the 2nd century to the 16th. All the observations, all the maths, were telling scientists that their paradigm was wrong. Geocentric astronomy was the “fake Facebook news” of its day. Copernicus simply made the mathematical model match the observations. Even so, his “revolution” did not lead to an overnight change in the dominant paradigm. Copernicus died 20 years before Galileo, who was still persecuted (albeit for political reasons) when he used his observations to confirm Copernicus’ work. It wasn’t until 100 years after Galileo’s death that the Church lifted the ban on books advocating heliocentrism.

So much for your overnight revolutions.

2. Not feeding the trolls

The lesson that people’s minds are hard to change was learnt – with difficulty – in the first years of the public internet and World Wide Web, when forum and chat room moderators first encountered trolling, flame wars, and Godwin’s Law, which asserts that,

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1

So it went and so it goes. Whether you’re in a 1994 vintage AOL chatroom, or on The Facebook or the Twitter, you will encounter people who are immune to the figurative Copernican maths. Immune to the facts, or science, statistics, the evidence of their own eyes, or whatever else you care to throw at them.

As Robert M. Pirsig put it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the only way not to lose this fight is not to enter the arena. In other words, don’t feed the trolls – especially the ones that reside in your own head.

3. We built our own dystopia

Over the past 25 years, those online virtual spaces that were once called things like Second Life, have steadily leaked into the so-called real world and become not secondary but primary. Second Life is now just life. Those online flame wars have become modern political discourse. The made-up facts, the agent provocateurs (trolls), the inevitable comparisons to Hitler, the trading of insults and disrespect, have become normalised. The leopards have broken into the temple and have now become part of the ritual.

Back in 2010, when Twitter was young and the Arab Spring was in its early flowering, I was naive enough to believe that Twitter was a potential force for change we could believe in. Obama, against all the perceived wisdom and seemingly against all the odds, had been elected President of the United States. Smug Britons, who were used to casually branding Americans as ignorant racists, were brought up short by the realisation that it was eminently more possible for there to be a black US President than it was for there to be a black British Prime Minister.

And then there  were the democratic uprisings across North Africa and in the Arab world, and it seemed as if the people were able to organise themselves more effectively with social media tools, and that the tyrants’ days were numbered. Even here, in the UK, it was apparent that smart protestors could outwit the police and bypass the kettling, by sharing instant information based on tweets and maps. The future was here, the future was a flashmob.

But here’s the thing.

Flashmobs, as conceived by Larry Niven in his short fiction, are dystopian. And the tools that allow students and other citizens to organise protests can be used by everyone, including the nastiest people in the world.

And so – like a monster from the id come to life – an internet troll who starts flame wars and is always, inevitably, compared to Hitler has become the President of the United States. That style of online discourse – driven by anonymity, intolerance, and hate – is now just discourse. And your paradigm, my paradigm, about how politics would be changed by social media, is wrong.

I started to suspect I was wrong in 2010 when – in spite of the economic disaster visited upon the world by the bad actions of the banks – a hard-line neoliberal government was elected in the UK. I knew I was wrong in 2015 when – after five years of malicious cuts to public services and widely publicised suffering – they were re-elected with a proper majority.

And then Brexit, and now Trump.

All of the tweets that shared the suffering of disabled people over the bedroom tax, all of the publicity about cuts to the NHS, or housing benefit, or people being told they were fit for work when they were clearly not: useless. No matter how many times you retweet the fact that thousands of people are depending on food banks: it changes nothing.

It’s not just that you’re living in an echo chamber. It’s that everything you say and do online is a waste of time and energy – and it may even be counterproductive. The people who are doing this to their fellow human beings cannot be made to care. They are conscience free and actually glad to hear that unemployed people are having their benefits cut. They are secretly – and not so secretly – gleeful when the bodies of refugees wash up on beaches. They are full of hate, and they are not listening to your facts about the earth circling the sun. Twitter is just another medium designed to entertain and distract you, like a Soap opera, the news, or Game of Thrones.

4. While Rome burns

Is there an answer? I dunno. I’ve been on the edge of giving up the Twitter, not that I tweet much about politics or expect anything I say to even be seen by most people. (I’m muffled by the algorithms, not important enough to appear in people’s feeds.)

But given what a lot of hot air it all is, I’m suppressing the politics on my feed. Nothing anyone says is going to make me any more left wing than I already am. Nothing you tell me about how awful this government (or Trump) is behaving is going to make my opinion any lower than it already is. What do I do with all the upset and the outrage that these tweets create? I’m as powerless to do anything about Trump’s fascist advisors as I am to fix an earthquake in Italy. It’s just more news, and the ultimate effect is to make me feel helpless. So I’m unfollowing all the political twitterers (most of whom don’t follow me, so no impact there) and muting people who are just upset and angry at the moment and therefore venting a lot.

It takes me back to the last royal jubilee and my feeling that people tweeting about the fucking queen when they clearly hate the monarchy aren’t really helping themselves or the rest of us: giving headspace to your foe is to give them part of yourself.

The only thing that will ever have an impact on the powerful and the wealthy is for people to start smashing things up: not on the internet, but out on the streets. And if that happens there will be gas, batons, firehoses and all the other apparatuses of state oppression, of course there will. Because while they don’t give a shit about people, they do care about property. Which is why smashing it up is the only way to get their attention. Everything else is twittering while Rome burns.

Will I miss it?

Inspired by Twitter’s top philosopher (or top Twitter philosopher) @guylongworth, this post is.

MarmiteA few years ago, I used to think about retiring to France and worried about missing a few things from the UK. Over time, that list of things-I’d-miss has grown shorter and shorter. Packing for our summer visits would often involve compensating for those items in various ways, but things have changed.

Let’s arbitrarily say, fifteen years ago my list of missable concerns (when based in France) would be as follows:

  • The BBC
  • British television in general
  • Decent tea
  • Fish and chips
  • Cosmopolitan cuisine
  • The internet
  • Not having to kiss people to say hello and goodbye

I used to consider the BBC a great jewel in the UK’s crown. French television was and remains more or less terrible, and I’d compensate for our absence by programming my PVR to record a shit-load of stuff every time we were away. Our visits, 15 years ago, were usually about two weeks, and our PVR allowed programming up to 14 days in advance.

How have things changed? I barely watch anything on the BBC now – not only that, but I’ve been sickened by its toadying to the current and previous governments, its infiltration by Agents of Murdoch, and its chronic bias towards a right-wing news agenda. As to my TV watching: it’s all on-demand, streaming, virtually none of it live. I barely use my Freeview PVR when I’m in the country and never bother to programme it when I go away. I’ve grown used to the idea that, should I move here permanently, I’d be able to find various ways of compensating (pointing a satellite dish at the right place in the sky; subscribing to Netflix/Amazon Prime; or just hitting the Fnac and buying a boxed set). So the first two items have been crossed off my list.

A decent cup of tea is still an issue. For our now 6-week summer and other visits, we pack a lot of Yorkshire Tea. French supermarkets serve us poorly (fucking Liptons), so future me would still need the odd tea-based care package or dash across the channel to Kent Sainsbury’s. It’s no wonder tea isn’t popular when you can’t buy the proper stuff and the supermarket shelves are groaning with yucky fruit teas and insipid Liptons.

Fish and chips is also still an issue, but it’s just as big an issue in the UK, where the corporate interests have been allowed to dictate fishing policy over decades, meaning that most fish stocks are unsustainable. Of all the things the EU might have achieved on our behalf, controlling over-fishing was crucial. And of course, every attempt was met with a UK media narrative about interference and rights and freedoms, all based on the short-term economic interests of the profit takers and not the people who pay the tax. Still, it remains the case that if you want decent fish and chips in France, you have to roll your own. I’m unlikely to bother much, and I’ve resigned myself to giving it up like the bad habit it is, or eating friture de (farmed) carpe and liking it.

Cosmopolitan cuisine. An odd thing to say about France, but their strong gastronomic tradition means that, beyond (usually poor) Italian food, you can’t really get international foods here – certainly not a good curry or other Asian food. Maybe in Paris, but we’re a long way from there. Considering the French history in Vietnam, I’m especially surprised that there aren’t Vietnamese restaurants on every hight street. You can, in the bigger cities, find North African and sometimes Spanish food, but France is quite unlike Germany, the Netherlands, and other European centres. I don’t particularly like the French style of food (summed up as: fatty meat with a fancy sauce), so I do miss the options. I’m so often disappointed in the French take on pizza that I’m better off making my own. I think jars of curry paste and other oriental ingredients would have to go on the care package list, along with tea.

The next item on my old list, the internet, has been less of an issue since the Three network introduced their Feel at Home scheme, which gives you your UK contract even while roaming, in selected countries – including France. The speeds are throttled, but it’s okay for Twitter and (usually) Instagram. This summer, I’ve gone even further and (expensively) hired a home wifi dongle that allows you to share a 3G+ (or 4G) connection amongst up to 10 devices. This gives us the level of 3G we’d get if we had bought French sims, as we did for a couple of years. It’s only 3GB a day (so-called “unlimited”) before it gets throttled, but the speed is okay. And when I move here, I guess we’ll get an actual hard-wired internet connection.

Over the years, the list of food items I find it hard to do without has grown. English cheddar cheese is hard to find in France (so much for the single fucking market) and irreplaceable for certain things. The French make a lot of cheese, but they do nothing to match the sharp tangy taste and meltability of cheddar. French sausages tend to be too salty and nowhere near as tasty as the best British sausages. And good bacon is similarly hard to find. All of these things get added to the care package/cross channel Saino’s list. Actually, there’s a small business there: the potential to disrupt the high prices charged by supermarkets for the likes of Marmite and baked beans.

Mainly, these days, when we spend 6 weeks in France, I miss having a useable oven in my kitchen. I do most things on the barbecue and the stove top, but if/when I retire here, I’ll have to get a proper, modern oven to replace this propane-fuelled piece of shit that tends to leave things raw on top and burnt on the bottom.

Culturally, the biggest problem I have over here is that you can’t just say hello to people: you have to kiss-kiss or shake hands both to say hello and goodbye, even when on a short visit. It’s lucky I’m not a germophobe, but it’s enough to turn you into one. At the wedding last week, I was forced to kiss-kiss and shake hands with an astonishing number of people I’d never met (and will never meet again), and leaving a social occasion can take half an hour, depending on the number involved. Just once, I’d like to be able to enter a room, wave my hand, and be done.

As to the rest of British culture: the small (island)-mindedness; the celebration of ignorance; the dominance of the right wing press; the monarchy; the dominance of media and arts by public school educated Oxford/Cambridge graduates; the arrogance; the sense of entitlement; the delusions of grandeur; I’ll miss none of it.

vote-labour-key-posterThe last thing the world needs right now is another column inch about Corbyn, so here are several.

I’m no psephologist but I know what one is, and I know they’ve all done the maths, concluding that Labour under Corbyn will not be able to persuade those I’m-all-right-Jacks in the Southeast of Englandland to vote for him.

So the whole idea behind the Labour Party parliamentary putsch has been to restore the idea of a Labour Party that can win some marginal seats in Southern Britain. Because they’re right, aren’t they? No way the former Mondeo Man, now the BWM 3-series Man, or Audi Q5 Woman, are going to vote against their own self interests. They never have. People vote for the party they think will make them richer.

The “miracle” Blair achieved was to create a Labour Party so right wing that people in the marginals actually voted for it. So now the Received Wisdom forever more will be that for Labour to win an election, they have to be exactly the same as the Tories on almost every issue, even as far as agreeing spending plans and welfare cuts.

Meanwhile, large swathes of Britain were taken for granted or forgotten. And into that vacuum of giving a shit stepped the nationalist parties, the SNP and UKiP. And there went Labour’s core support. Which means that Received Wisdom in the right wing of the Labour Party is that they have to also make the same noises about immigration as the UKiP as well as agreeing to punish the poor for being poor.

And here’s the thing. Once you’ve gone that far, once you’ve lost Scotland and your more racist former supporters are voting UKiP, and all the noises you’re making are exactly the same noises as the Nasty Party, well who gives a shit about you any more?

Which is where Corbyn fits. We need, so desperately, a mass movement of Labour similar to that of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because out here in the real world, things are pretty fucking horrible. We’ve got a new generation of robber barons bleeding us dry; obscene levels of inequality; the steady erosion of hard-won rights; and a Parliamentary Labour Party (mostly lawyers) that votes, over and over, against the interests of working people. So when a new mass movement elects Corbyn as Labour leader, it’s not about winning elections. If the cost of winning elections is to be a a slightly pinker version of the Tory Party, what’s the point? Labour lost the right to rule when Gordon Brown bailed out the banks and then allowed the narrative of the financial crash to get out of his control.

All of the anti-Corbyn arguments are about winning elections, but those are the wrong arguments. It’s the differend, people. We’re arguing about different things. Winning elections really isn’t the point, unless is means higher taxes for the rich; the private corporations out of the NHS; and end of free schools, academies and grammar schools; a living wage; a ban on zero hours contracts; and a new programme of public spending (who pays? you do). We don’t need a Labour Party in power who just apes the Tories. What we need is a Labour movement designed to raise the consciousness of a new generation and agitate for progressive social change. We need a movement that’s fit for purpose and for the long term benefit of working people. And if that means a few empty Labour suits lose their comfortable seats in Westminster over the short term, well, good.

43-year itch

maxresdefaultI went to bed on Thursday night complacently believing that the British people would have voted decisively to remain in the European Union. In fact, during the day itself, I began to believe that the result wouldn’t even be close. As I read the bedtime YouGov poll, showing Remain on 52%, I even said to myself, it’ll be more like 55-45 in the end, a 10-point margin.

Which is why, on Friday morning, I had the odd experience of literally not believing my eyes when I picked up my phone and viewed the result. It didn’t help that the Guardian had chosen a pale yellow colour for the Remain side, so I couldn’t quite read what was on my screen. But, yes, I actually rubbed my eyes, convinced they were lying to me through the bleary insomniac dawn.

Part of me, not a small part, is enjoying the resulting chaos. I currently owe more on my mortgage than I’ve ever saved in my pension. My take home pay and my pension have been steadily eroded over the past 10 years, and my future prospects were already bleak. So what if the currency crashes, if there’s inflation? I already live beyond my means. A little inflation would help reduce the relative value of my mortgage debt, and if some of the pain of the austerity years could be visited – finally – upon those responsible, I’m up for that.

To see the hated Cameron depart, to see the foaming, flaming Tories tearing each other apart: this is high-quality spectator sport.

I’m not surprised at the outcome. And I’m not surprised at the general fallout. In or out, makes no difference to most people; to those of us living with frozen pay, venal managers, looming threats over job security; or living in the zero hours land of the living dead; who fucking cares, stick it to the man, burn the whole shit house down.

42 years ago, in The Towering Inferno, Steve McQueen is told he’s going to have to go into the building to blow the tanks on the roof to put the fire out. When he realises he stands very little chance of getting out alive, he just says, “Shit,” and goes in.

That’s where a lot of us live. We’ve already, years ago, looked at our future prospects and said, simply, shit. And we carry on.

Because there’s very little chance we’ll come out of this well, is there? You know how I know? Because here, now, is the moment for a strong and principled opposition to step forward and – as a first order of business – bring the government down. Force a general election, pull something out of their asses like Harold Wilson in ’64 and ’74. Kick the Tories while they’re down and keep kicking until they stop twitching. But instead of doing that, they (the Parliamentary Labour Party) saw an opportunity to replace Corbyn. And they’re doing it, not just because they really hate Corbyn, but because they can see a scenario in which he could win a general election and prove them all wrong. And they can’t have that. A Labour victory now would expose them as the morally bankrupt careerists they are. They’d rather keep losing. They have to destroy the village in order to save it. And the most astonishing thing is, it was obviously planned that this would happen now. All the tin soldiers were in place, waiting for the moment.

Like the MI6 and the KGB during the Cold War, there’s a moral equivalency between the Tories and the majority of the PLP. They all voted to cut welfare. They all voted for the Iraq war. They’re all conniving careerist cunts.

Burn the whole shit house down.