Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Nostalgia: Not What It Used To Be

I doubt retro video game commentators Pat the NES Punk and Luna Ian are household names among readers, but their recent podcast on what defines a retro game raises some interesting questions about nostalgia. So before you switch off, this is going to be more than a video game post.

What does and doesn't constitute a retro game is not something you can pin down with scientific precision, but it doesn't stop Pat and Ian having a go. They suggest the latest retro system was Sega's Dreamcast, that debuted in 1999 and bowed out less than two short years later. Anything before that is retro, everything after that isn't - despite being on the third generational wave of games consoles since. Their argument is a sense of "feel" that attached itself to the Dreamcast and preceding machines, and that it was the last console to have a library partially made up by arcade conversions. While they recognise that for younger gamers growing up on the PlayStation 2 some will want to rediscover the games of their youth when they reach a certain age, but because of the vast size of its library (over 10,000 titles) collecting for the PS2 will not be the same as getting the complete NES game collection.

Allow me a geeky quibble before moving on to the wider point. While their argument may well be the case for the PS2 which, after all, sold over 150 million units, the other main (obsolete) systems from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have much more modest-sized libraries. Last generation's Wii has over 1,200, the PlayStation 3 795, and the Xbox 360 over 1,100. Future completionists won't find tracking those titles down for a complete set a superhuman endeavour. The second point Pat and Ian overlook is that Wii U aside, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are not backwards compatible with any preceding console. Hence those systems and game libraries, when replaced, will be bundled into the loft or flogged off on the cheap creating the potential for rediscovery after a decade or so, just how generations of gamers have always done when the next big thing has hit the streets.

Nevertheless, while you can fault the reasoning their essential point is right: nostalgia can never be the same again. Because of the way our culture has rendered impermanence permanent, nostalgia for what once was is ever present. In a life suffused with uncertainty and change, nostalgia offers the illusion of a point of fixity, as an anchor hooked in a seabed of old toys, old tunes, old clothes, old trends, and (good) old times. It tends to be bound up with our socialisation. It's not youth worship as such, it's less about lost beauty and more the irresponsibility, of learning and grasping how the social world works without being bound by its conventions. Throughout childhood and young adulthood the experiences we have are literally character forming, and the objects bound up with them remind us constantly of a more certain, if not safer, time. And, of course, culture factories are adept at repackaging and selling nostalgia back - think musically, think how Britpop was a conscious retread of 60s guitar rock. Think how that, 20 years on, has been used to flog retrospectives and media lifestyle copy. On and on it goes, nostalgia is as much subject to fashion as anything else.

It's difficult to see how this could ever be otherwise. But this experience has mutated with the coming of the internet and the explosion of social media. At the risk of sounding nostalgic for a disappeared mode of nostalgia, it used to be the case that you would hear a song, watch a programme, partake in some schoolyard craze, dress in a particular way, or whatever and then you would grow out of it. All that remained, apart from perhaps a few holdovers from childhood, was memory. You'd seldom if ever hear that great half-remembered soundtrack to your first holiday again, see the cartoons that structured your TV dinners, or play the very first video games you ever saw. But you could talk about them. How many nostalgic conversations have you had about kids' telly, old films, and so on? Too many to count, I'd wager. They were - and remain - topics of conversation. I am sure the student who lives right now in the halls of residence cell I occupied 18 years ago has exactly the same kind of wistful chats as I did back then, as have the other 16 occupants that stretch in between us. Yet what was different about pre-social media nostalgia was an unavoidable sense of loss. The fashions disappear, the programmes never get repeated, you move on from the scene of your youthful triumphs, people buy different music, and so on. You could not readily access the cultural products and experiences of a particular point in time without being there - and we can never go back.

Now, however, social media has given us something approaching an eternal present. This isn't to say things aren't changing, they always do. But like never before the cultural artefacts that are the stuff of nostalgia are instantly obtainable. In 2014, if I want to live in the 80s I can endlessly watch the cartoons I liked back then, play the games, listen to the music, and binge on the more obscure films of the period. In the mid 90s, to do that would require crate loads tapes and vinyl. Personal, subjective forays into nostalgia then were more or less a trip down memory lane. Now it is but a mouse click away. For people growing up in the age of social media (and whatever comes next) the nostalgic past is compressed and folded up in the present. A song, a show, a machine can remember it for you wholesale. Experiences can be live tweeted, instagrammed, filmed on smart phones, and stored as MP4s forever. The huge apparatus of voluntary self-surveillance can turn your experiences into personal artefacts that can be accessed tomorrow or 50 years from now. They are still facsimiles, the eternal present ceaselessly recedes as well, but the powers of digital recall are instantaneous. It provides an experience that bears a greater semblance to what once was, and it can be relived without end.

Nostalgia. Not what it used to be.

Monday, 21 April 2014

UKIP's Turn to the Workers

I don't love UKIP. I don't love to hate UKIP. I simply loathe them, despise them. UKIP is the Daily Mail in party form, a chamber pot spilling over with effluvia and poison. From climate change denialism to sexism, from 'are-you-thinking-what-we're-thinking' wink-wink racism to stupid-minded selfishness, it is the new home for everything that is vile, everything that is anti-human about our politics. Small wonder they inspire so much disgust. At the moment volunteers are handing out food parcels to the needy on a scale not seen since the 1930s, UKIP appear hell bent on re-staging the foulest politics of the period. Like the demagogues that have come before Farage, be they populist or fascist, theirs is a politics of dividing and ruling, of hatred and fear. The solution to the problems facing Britain is not banding together to face them collectively, but to point fingers, to blame anyone who comes to this country in search of a better life for its ills.

This said, UKIP aren't a fascist party. Nor are they symptomatic of a creeping fascism. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, UKIP are part of an ongoing process of decomposition. Mainstream politics has been through the blender. Throw in the solids (some might say stolids) of the two-party system, switch it on and the end result is something more viscous. That is basically what's happened to politics since the late 1970s, though the social blender works slowly and on a longer timescale. The old solidarities that held up two party dominance have melted. On the one hand the labour movement remains a substantial body of considerable potential social power, but the vast majority of those who pay into it do not, unfortunately, participate beyond their monthly dues. But on the other, the Conservative movement - the web of grass roots organisations, Tory clubs, and back scratching societies - have fared much worse. Under the reign of the blessed Margaret, Tory party membership halved from just over a million to around 500,000. That decline has continued to the point where the party can barely muster 100,000 members - and there's very little chance the direction of travel will change. Voters are also increasingly likely to support third parties at the ballot box. 65% supported the two main parties in 2010. In 1979 it was 81%. The trend is more pronounced in second order elections - look at last quarter's local by-election results, for example. The only thing propping up two party dominance of national politics is the antiquated first-past-the-post system, which discriminates against smaller parties.

UKIP have certainly been helped by a great deal of favourable media coverage, just as the BNP were last decade. Yet the media is the catalyst - UKIP would have come to nought if British politics wasn't in a crisis of decomposition. So UKIP is more than just an obsession about the EU, it speaks to the diffuse anti-establishment, anti-politics sentiment of the right. This feeds off anxiety about immigrants, about modern life, about Britain's place in the world. UKIP is the libertarian party that opposes same sex couples marrying and opposes foreign workers from getting jobs by virtue of their birthplace. They mainly speak and find an echo among white men of a certain age, and promise a splendidly isolated Britain that whistles with arcadian ignorance of the rest of the world. UKIP knows it cannot stop the world, but will try its damnedest to get off.

Here too, the fraying of the Conservative party rends UKIP too. The ingredients for long-term decline are all there. A ragtag and bobtail party organisation stuffed with misfits and misanthropes, a backward-looking set of ideas out of kilter with modern life, and a core constituency that is literally dying. A greater proportion of its support now will not see the general election than any of the other parties. Their rise is a flame that flares brightly just before it eats the remainder of the wick. But nothing in politics is inevitable. A party is not a passive victim of social forces. It can ride them, and UKIP has proven adept at that; and it can change them. A party can affect social relations so it stands to be nourished from them - the Tories have tried doing this on many occasions. And Labour should consciously and actively pursue this too.

It's in this context we should understand UKIP's new poster campaign that recalls the British Jobs for British Workers populism of Gordon Brown and the BNP. Two of the three posters firmly and squarely blame immigration for unemployment, and represent a deliberate attempt to whip up anxiety and hate. But as it's European Union free movement in UKIP's sights, it's definitely not racist. Oh no. For those interested, Channel 4 have checked their claims, which range from wanting to what you call in politics "factually accurate". Yet in the game of Brussels thrones, this is more than standard vote-catching.

UKIP needs to stabilise its base. As the 2009 European elections, the 2010 general election and dozens of local authority elections showed, there is a small but significant level of support in core Labour areas - particularly mainly white and mainly working class inner city areas and suburbs - who are prepared to vote for an outright fascist party in protest. Some of that number have returned to Labour, though I doubt with much enthusiasm, while others still want to send a message to an uncaring, remote establishment. Understandably given the similar rhetoric and imagery, UKIP are keen to swallow up those former BNP voters. This, however, is not the limit of UKIP's ambition. There is a long tradition among certain layers of the working class to vote Conservative. I know, this is the milieu I grew up in. The Tories, notwithstanding their ridiculous (and already forgotten) push to promote themselves the "workers' party" have long-abandoned any pretence of being anything other than a party for the very rich. This is UKIP's chance to grab as large a chunk of Tory workers as possible. And as any psephologist will tell you, the more often you can get someone to vote for you in elections that "don't matter", the greater the chance they will later on in the ones that do.

More interestingly is the second, more cunning aspect of this turn to the workers. Farage will not say it, but you don't need to be gifted with special insight to know he would prefer a Tory general election win in 2015. This is more than political preference, however. UKIP are targeting the Labour heartlands with their message. Despite Labour voters proving more resilient than former Tory supporters, Farage is appearing to throw a bone to the panicking Tory right pressing for some sort of accommodation with UKIP. Their reasoning is if only UKIP focus on Labour the damage UKIP support will do the Tories in 2015 might be mitigated. And from his point of view his anti-Labour posturing will curry favour with some backbenchers whose feet are getting rather itchy. Pity the fools that don't realise he's making a play for the right of centre non Labour-voting working class. Yet in matters of strategy, quite apart from preferences a Tory win in 2015 suits UKIP's interest better. If Dave carries on "betraying" traditional Toryism UKIP will continue to gorge on their cast offs. The general election, in which Farage very well knows is likely to yield few if any seats, need not be the moment marking UKIP's declining purchase.

These posters were designed and conceived to hoover up votes. However, in the grand scheme of political things they represent a direction of travel in UKIP's march to effectively lock down a constituency. Their racist workerism is more than a pose, they want ex-BNP, anti-politics types, and ex-Tory voting members of the working class on their side. It's not about challenging Labour but supplanting the Conservatives. And with the latter effectively abandoning the field to them, UKIP may well have taken its first significant step in doing so.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

All That Is Solid ...

Names matter. Take A Very Public Sociologist, for instance. What does it say? Well, it suggests the author is a self-defined sociology fan. That's pretty unambiguous. What then is a public sociologist? If you're not party to the discipline's debates, chances are you wouldn't know public sociology is a movement that, surprise surprise, seeks engagement with the public. Why is it that criminologists, economists, journalists and even psychologists get a look-in when it comes to opinion pieces and talking-headery. Where's our slice of the action? But there's more to it than courting the dubious celebrity of punditry. Sociology is the study of society, of social organisms from basic one-on-one interactions (sometimes involving humans, sometimes humans and their machines) to our increasingly global civilisation. It is the one discipline capable of assimilating the insights of the aforementioned, and much else besides. Sociology, if it's doing the job properly, should be able to speak to everyone. We're all members of a society, so research and theory about how that society works should avoid being a stranger to the people who populate them.

Okay, so we have public and we have sociologist. But A Very? It's a bit nonsensical, really. It bends grammar and underscores with thick eyeliner the public part of its coupling with sociology. For those who care about such things, it suggests yours truly is desperately trying to make a statement. Of explicitly and unambiguously aligning oneself with a camp. But worst of all, A Very Public Sociologist's biggest crime is not the crude positioning, nor even the faint whiff of pretentiousness. No, what it is is bloody ugly. True enough, if it sits uneasy in the mouth, if you have to repeat the name whenever someone asks what your blog is called then it probably isn't right. And if I'm truthful, after nearly eight years of filing digital copy off and on I'm sick to death and bored with the name. It's time for a change. The moment is here for a re-skin.

And this is it. All That is Solid ... is lifted straight from the Communist Manifesto, but in this context owes more to the late Marshall Berman's classic All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. This work, which I will never forgive my undergrad and postgrad lecturers for not recommending I read it, crams into its 384 pages what it's like to be a 'modern'. It takes you through Marx, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and the streets of Paris, St Petersburg and New York. The book tracks and pins down a shifting, wriggling, contradictory, transforming experience that resist the tacks Berman pushes into it. But what he brilliantly conveys is the dynamism and dialectics of the modern world. Who needs postmodernism and its fripperies when it is Marx - that most despised, maligned and wilfully misunderstood magister of 19th century social thought - who sketched out the processes that blindly throw human development at breakneck speed into the future.

Now I've had time to read substantial pieces again, I've been rediscovering that most modern (and modernist) side of Marx. His was an unfinished work, but it is fundamentally open-ended - just like the fates of human societies themselves. Marx praised capitalist modernisation for the wonders it had accomplished, but condemned it for the potential it systematically throttled. Fundamentally, the task now remains the same as when his famous document was penned. That is to look unflinchingly at the world, to understand it, and to change it. This impulse motivates many hundreds of millions now, even if they don't use the same language to express it. And this is the tradition I remain attached to. Hence why this blog has taken a new name that is an equally explicit and clumsy act of position-taking. But let's not stay lofty and principled - the truth is All That Is Solid ... sounds much better than the old one. And that's despite now sharing a name with a Glaswegian coffee shop's defunct blog.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The fare will continue the political and social commentary. The forays into theory. The sectariana. The Labour hackery. The dance music. There definitely won't be any poetry. The blog's eclecticism, one man's experience of and projection onto a digital canvass of transient whimsies will keep on keeping on in its own merry, dizzy way. The URL remains the same, no need to play with links or - for me - to lose the tiny ledge this blog has hacked out of Google's edifice.

Funnily enough, I didn't time the blog's makeover and rebirth with Easter. But doing so doesn't make it redolent of the holiday's religious significance. Rather think more of your average Easter egg. Crack them open, hold it, let it melt over your fingers before it turns to chocolatey mush in your mouth. It is fleeting - their shells are gone in the blink of an eye, its memory a trace for however long its garish over-packaging lies around. The Easter egg condenses much more than sugar and cocoa. The velvety textures that glide over the taste buds explode with the flavours of modern civilisation itself. They, like every other commodity, are a cell packed with the social DNA that can be decoded and read. Unravel that and you can read how our society works, how it makes things, arranges things, and wastes things. The Easter egg exemplifies the temporary, fleeting character of modern experience. It therefore is appropriate that this blog, which is primarily dedicated to make sense of such things, rebrands itself today.

Image credit

Eurovision 2014 Preview

Nation after nation are lining up to do battle. Natural allies and surprising new ones will come together along a schism that will divide Europe. No, we're not talking about the new Cold War with Russia some silly people appear to be wishing for. We're talking about something more important than that - the Eurovision Song Contest 2014. Saturday 10th May is the grand final from Copenhagen so, as per tradition, here are my picks for this year.

Let's begin with some Latvian hippies:

Readers know I usually have a guitar allergy, so something completely acoustic - ugh. BUT Aarzemnieki's Cake to Bake pulls off the Eurovision trick of being twee and nice. If it gets through the semi-finals I can see it picking up low points from nearly everyone. But a winner? Nah.

Okay, enough of the nice. Let's get nasty.

Yes, she really is wearing a hat with a naughty word. In Eurovisionland presentation is as important as the music, and Italy's Emma Marrone has got it - whatever 'it' is these days. But she has energy and 'tude, which might help explain why her YouTube viewer count is so high. By rights she should blow the average and decidedly dull off the stage (I also can't help thinking all young women who live in London look like her).

And now time for my pick:

Austria's bearded drag queen will surely upset the bigots. The song is, well, Eurovision ballad fare - nothing special. But Conchita Wurst certainly cuts an arresting figure - something the canny Austrian jury no doubt spotted.

But who will win? I got it badly wrong last year with my tip getting nowhere. But this year it's between Conchita and this crew from Armenia:

I defy you to remember Aram MP3's Not Alone 10 minutes from now.

Okay, what about our Molly? I don't like her song, I'm afraid. But the power to the people line is trite enough to intersect with a populist zeitgeist I guess. What's more, the YouTube vid has piled up 416k views - putting her in the top five. Could the UK get a respectable spot this year, despite the dreary ditty?

And, sadly, that's the problem with this year's contest. 2013's was packed with great tunes and outrageous performers. In 2014, Austria and Italy notwithstanding, it's really, really dull. On the night it won't matter - Eurovision watchers will be fired by camp jingoism, but let's hope 2015 will bring us a collection of tunes worth the year's wait.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sexism in the UK

There are a few of quick notes about the UN's Rashida Manjoo's claim that the UK is endemically sexist and that is is worse here than "other places".

Firstly, it's a bit of a shock, if I'm honest. I've written a fair few things about gender and sexism, and of course I'm aware of and appreciate the work feminist comrades have done tackling 'everyday' sexism. That said, while much still needs to be done I didn't for one moment think that the UK's sexism problem was worse than other developed nations. Okay, leaving out Nordic countries, is the UK worse than Italy, France, and the USA? If it is then things are grimmer than I thought.

Secondly, You can see the hordes of - mainly men - loudly proclaiming that the UK hasn't got a problem and that this feminazi can bugger off. As we know, satirising political discourse is a tough job. But there might be others, from the liberal centre and centre right of the spectrum, who might be a bit more moderate in their tone but just as adamant with their scepticism. Of course, they have every right to be. But curiously there is a tendency for these kinds of people to normally fete the word of the UN as if it's gospel. UN says x country has human rights abuses? They'll go with that. UN says y regime has committed war crime? No problemo. And yet when a UN envoy reports on this country, all of a sudden its special status slips and its findings disputed. 'UN says sexism in the UK is a problem' is something they don't want to hear. Well, they can't have it both ways. Either they have a problem they refuse to acknowledge, or that the UN is fallible and might be wrong when it provides fig leaves to Western military adventures overseas.

Thirdly, that the government have blocked Manjoo from accessing Yarlswood Detention Centre to investigate the conditions refugees are being held in is nothing short of a national scandal. The Home Office know they can because treatment of asylum seekers is unlikely to make political waves, unfortunately. But in the words of every apologist for the surveillance state, if you haven't got anything to hide then there is nothing to worry about.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Ukraine: A Thought Experiment

1. You run an authoritarian regime in a vast country beset with economic problems, corruption, and ethnically-based insurgencies.

2. The nation on your doorstep - which formerly used to be an integral part of the multinational state ran from your capital for 70 years - has been intriguing with your long-term opponents in the international arena. Former client states and allies are now under the umbrella of their transnational military alliance and supra-national political project. There is ample evidence they were materially supporting opposition social movements in said neighbouring state.

3. After a mass insurgency, the friendly government of that country conclude an agreement with opposition forces. The very next day the administration is overthrown and replaced by a coalition ranging from the centre right to the fascistic. At least one of these organisations claims historic links to nationalist movements who rose up against your predecessor as it fought for its very right to exist. Furthermore, foreign dignitaries and emissaries flood into the revolutionary capital, get pictured meeting new ministers and touring the barricades.

4. This is a massive foreign policy disaster. But large numbers of your citizens are also resident in the country, particularly in the south and east, closest to your borders. This is part a legacy of forced population transfers in an earlier period, and part internal migration within the departed multinational state.

5. One province, heavily dominated by your citizens and who, in turn, fear that the new regime - particularly the blood-curdling rhetoric of its fascist wing - might bring misfortune down onto their heads unofficially secede and petition for protection from your country. Coincidentally large numbers of troops were in the area and they march in, sparking off an international crisis.

6. Over the next fortnight a great deal of hypocritical cant is spoken at UN meetings. In the international press, your opponents' destabilisation of your neighbour is lauded as democratic, and striking a blow for freedom. There is little to no memory of their pushing their sphere of influence eastward, of threatening to set up missile defence systems all along your borders. You meanwhile have acted out of compassion. You had no choice but to move to protect your people and prevent bloodshed before it began.

7. The population of the break away province vote to join your country. It matters not that the plebiscite had irregularities - the sentiments of all the people appearing in your broadcaster's reports are real enough. Formal annexation takes place.

8. The revolution in the west of the country has stirred up concerns in other provinces where your nationality has an outright majority. Simply stepping with "protection" here would be a step too far.

9. Groupings pledging allegiance to your country take to the streets in a number of eastern towns and cities. Some of these do involve agents provocateurs, but in most cases it's like casting a match into tinder. Mostly the protests have been ineffectual, amateurish and easily put down by the usurpers in the west. But over this weekend a series of loyal militias have taken over key local government buildings in several cities, one proclaiming itself an independent people's republic. The coup government, with their backers, say they're going to mobilise the military and put these uprisings down. While there is little sign of that army yet, events on the ground might force you to send the 40,000 strong protection force you've massed on the borders in to calm the situation down. Your enemies are forcing your hand, so what do you do?

I don't have special insight into the minds of Russia's strategic thinkers, but from Western and Russian media reports this narrative - a mixture of realpolitik and ideological rendering of one's own geopolitical interests - is a model that fits what has been happening on Putin's part so far. I'm sure in the huddled map rooms of NATO, Whitehall and the State Department this sort of thought-building is commonplace. Unfortunately, the media and political coverage falls far short - there's no appreciation of nuance, let alone thought given to how our governments' actions are interpreted.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Desireless - Voyage Voyage

Constituency meeting this evening rules out substantive blogging. So wrap your ears around this, an excellent ditty only connoisseurs of French 80s pop are likely to have encountered.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Defence of the SWP

Another day, another SWP table gets turned over by self-described autonomist avengers. As the SWP are slowly starting to learn, actions have consequences. You can't expect your activists to behave in the most disgusting way possible towards survivors of alleged sexual abuse and shrug it off.

Believe me, I was tempted to frame these actions in terms of the 'SWP had it coming'. As much as anyone else, I followed the SWP's implosion with a mixture of amazement and revulsion. But there are limits, and our trot-troubling "comrades" have trampled over them. Let's time to be blunt. The spate of violent acts by self-appointed vigilantes toward the SWP are ridiculous, stupid and narcissistic.

First things first, violence inside the labour movement is not on. You can dispute whether the SWP are a part of the movement or not, but I think it's quite clear they are. They organise in the trade unions, contribute to a variety of causes, and propagandise their idea of socialism. They are annoying, destructive and fast-becoming even more irrelevant, but part of our movement they remain. The labour movement isn't a sect with a set of principles one must sign up to upon joining - it's a movement of working people who collectively come together to prosecute their shared interests. As it reflects working people in general, it has all kinds in its ranks - including some who are far worse than the SWP. Yes, the SWP have repeatedly crossed a red line, and quite rightly are getting shunned by student organisations and other trade union activists.

So what exactly does attacking the SWP achieve? Are they going to get the message? Or, as is more likely, will it reinforce their siege mentality, compressing the bonds between SWP members even tighter, helping ensure that future abuse allegations are repressed in the name of party unity? And how is this "direct action" perceived by the wider world? How do you think SWP stalls getting set upon at labour movement events will be viewed by "outsiders"? Might it elicit some sympathy?

Ultimately, quite apart from this violence within the labour movement is a no because it depends on collectivism, of pulling together despite our differences. The actions of our vigilante mobs care nothing for this, of the fact that sometimes "normal" trade unionists have to collaborate with SWP activists in workplace activity, branch organisation and collective action. It's a self-indulgent attitude.

One shouldn't be surprised. I've talked about revolutionary identity politics and narcissism before. Because all variants of anarchism fetishise the individual (hence why their organisations break apart when but buffeted by a political breeze), they are especially susceptible to cults of indulgent hyper-activism, radical verbiage, show-boaty risk-taking, and putting performance before efficacy. Just like the SWP at its most ultra-left, in fact. Of course, not all anarchists so sin, but our Liverpudlian class warriors and their Sussex comrades certainly fell out of that mold.

They claim to be kicking against rape apologism, and object to the "trigger" potential the SWP's presence has on their campuses. Two quick things. Firstly, in the real world very few people have heard of the SWP nor their disgraceful behaviour. Secondly, balancing all probabilities out, witnessing violent confrontation is more likely to be a trigger than a few Trots shaking a can. Just stop and think. For someone who's survived abuse of some kind, are a succession of violent assaults on SWP stalls going to make them feel safer on campus? No, of course they bloody won't.

It's that sheer lack of thought that exposes our vigilantes as idiots full of their own indulgence. Yet what does this matter when you set it against the exhilaration of being mildly transgressive, of a simulacrum of the anarchist violence they've read about in Class War's Decade of Disorder. They display their trophies of a successful action on Facebook pages and blogs knowing there will never be any comeback, that the SWP will never call the police on them. It is radical identity work at play, a contrived and limited action in which there are no costs incurred for revolution points gained.

Our anarchist chums might be sincerely motivated by a vision of an alternative society, but attacking the SWP is a substitute for the hard graft of fighting for one.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Peaches Geldof and Celebrity

Like most people, I never knew Peaches Geldof. She was always someone who lurked on the outer edges of my consciousness, bobbing up and down among a pantheon of minor celebrities. I knew her, but paid her little mind. And yet, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, when her death was announced yesterday it threw me a bit. Like millions of others I took to social media to announce it, usurping and filling in for the news media organisations who were tens of seconds behind. But there are a never-ending procession of deaths of young women every single day. Each life ends, potential gone, families and friends bereft. Yet only the very tragic or the properly victim-ised warrant widespread coverage and sympathy. Why is this the case, and what does her death and the weird reaction of hard-as-nails media cynics say about celebrity culture?

We've been here before. In a participatory and heavily mediated culture, we have the collapsing of all kinds of distances and the telescoping of others. As celebrity has become even more ubiquitous, the option is there - and it's readily taken - for people to form simulated relationships with celebrities of their choice. Whether one is a self-described superfan or is moderately interested in the doings/work of a particular star there is a one-way, "inauthentic" relationship. Despite never meeting them, seeing them, or getting a reply on Twitter off them they can become as meaningful to someone as a real, flesh-and-blood friendship can be. Sometimes even more so. Zygmunt Bauman, the diagnostician of what he likes to call 'liquid modernity' nevertheless observes that for all their inauthenticity, relationships of this stripe can reproduce the agonies and ecstasies just as well. The relation one might have with a certain celebrity might be more real than real, more human than human. It's a strange coming together of supplicant and replicant, of a real person "meeting" a simulated person through the intermediaries of multiple media technologies.

The inauthenticity of celebrity can be felt keenly on an individual level. But celebrity is a collective phenomena in its production, execution and reception. The image, the aura is absolutely an effect achieved through marketing a projection. A whole interlinked (some might say indissociable) political economy stands behind them, a veritable culture industry as a couple of Frankfurt profs once put it. Focusing on reception, celebrity addresses itself to individuals but it is always shared too. We may live in a bewildering blurring world where, superficially, each of us are highly individuated without much in common, but celebrity continually bubbles up. It is so in your face that it cannot but force an opinion up your throat. Of the leading lights of the day, they are focal points and battlegrounds from the playground to the workplace to the home to the cafe to the pub. Sport also acts in exactly the same way. Disassociation is incredibly hard to achieve - even to dismiss it and effect uninterest is, nevertheless, a form of engagement with it. Hence what celebrity (and sport) does is contribute to a diffuse, fleeting and constantly remade/rewritten sense of community.

Therefore, as well as a very real trauma for her family, Peaches Geldof's passing is a moment. Those who had some form of personal investment in her, or as someone who grew up watching her occasional forays into television and journalism will have felt it quite keenly. For others who didn't but are nevertheless heavily invested in our culture of screens and networks - and chance is you are by virtue of reading this - it was cause for pause and, in some cases, public lamentation on the social media platform of choice. It simulated the sense of living in a real community (ironically, best typified by another simulation - Coronation Street) and hearing that a neighbour from round the corner or a couple of streets over had died. People like me weren't thrown because we are brainwashed to love celebrities. We were because it was an unanticipated event within the everyday life of mediated folk living mediated, simulated lives. And for those who are more deeply affected by Peaches' death, their pain is no less real.

There is something else that has shown up as well, a convention of more recent providence. The figure of the celebrity may do all these things, but it is a precarious life. The toast of the town one day can be just toast the next. They are built up to be laid low. They fulfil the twin role of aspirational role model and lightning rod of scurrilous gossip and criticism. They are an interpenetrating opposite of reverence and irreverence. Time was when a celebrity died the papers dredged up all kinds of stories, safe in the knowledge that the deceased cannot sue for defamation. Now it seems the terms are reversed. In life Peaches Geldof was vilified as a wannabe, a celebrity aristocrat, a woman famous for being famous - she was a celebrity whose celebrity was a simulacrum of celebrity, much like other famous children of famous people. There was a sense she meant well but was cosseted by her upbringing, and that her brushes with drugs, bad boys and exotic religions were snapshots of a very public pursuit of authenticity. And then, with her sad passing, commentariats who'd have thought nothing of trashing her in their columns and paid-for blogs a few days ago were effusive and gushing with praise. We saw much the same thing with Bob Crow as well. Perhaps it's right and just that this should be the case, that the death of someone in the public eye should be pause for reflection - their lives a cause for appreciation, and perhaps a space for reverence to return.

Maybe so, but then again if we treat our dead better than our living, what does that say about our society?

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Why Spitting Image Won't Be Coming Back

Ah, Spitting Image. It was a reet larf. Norman Tebbit. The Chicken Song. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turds. For large numbers of young(ish) people of a certain vintage, Spitting Image was our first exposure to satire and alternative comedy. And for older folk of whatever political stripe it lampooned our ridiculous ruling clique of politicians and royals. It was irreverent, biting and (occasionally) funny. They certainly don't make them like that any more, nor are they likely to ever again. Yes, as the 30th anniversary of the first transmission has been and gone there are very good reasons why Spitting Image won't be coming back.

There's the practical question of costs. Back in the day it cost £5,000 for every puppet. Adjusting for inflation and the fact they were all handcrafted with dedicated molds, it's reasonable to assume costs have risen. And since then, overall, ITV's audiences have fallen. Would our latex chums reverse that trend? Highly doubtful. Secondly, apart from nostalgic old farts like, um, me, who would watch it? People don't like politics. The Thick Of It only pulled down about two million viewers. Satire in the form of rubbery puppets could well be so much old hat.

But there's something swimming among the flows and hidden currents of the cultural murk. Our society is a strange beast. Whatever label you stick on it - postmodern, liquid modern, late modern, late capitalist - it's a massive, kicking heap of swirling antagonism and contradiction. Marx was the first to note that capitalism tore down the old and constantly made and remade the world in its image. It has thrown untold hundreds of millions off the land and made them dependent on their ability to sell their labour power to an employer. Capital has successively thrown those millions together in massive enterprises and economic sectors, and works to individuate, disaggregate and atomise simultaneously constantly. This churn is replicated in everyday life in a shifting, slippy culture and a diffuse sense of unfixity, anxiety and fear. Unsurprisingly (pl)attitudes that offer some sort of anchor are dredged up and find fresh audiences, particularly among those who came of age under a different political economy. It's why older people are more likely to be scared of immigration. It's why the 50+ find UKIP so alluring.

What has this got to do with our plastic pals and Sunday night television? Stay with me. The post-war period was never a golden age. In many ways it was a less kinder time to live in. But it afforded many millions of people a stable sense of place and station. The idea you could live the school gates on a Friday and walk in to a job on the Monday morning was true enough. But in the 1960s three parallel and intertwined forces gathered momentum - frustrated youth cultures kicking against the status quo, the libertarian impulse of counterculture, and the solidification of consumerism. For different reasons founded on different dynamics these gave rise to a rebirth of the individual, of the self as sovereign. Fired already by the combustive engine-workings of commodified culture, and the turbo-charge given it in the 1980s saw old hierarchies, old values were obliterated. The reverence that prevailing power structures had depended on in a previous time now served the opposite function. Satday morning kids' cartoons hang plot twists on heroes' abilities to reverse the polarity, and so it happened here. Magnets for reverence upended their poles and attracted to them irreverence.

Spitting Image was part of this movement. Starting a few short weeks before the the Miners' Strike - the strike that changed everything - politicians, celebrities, royals, all were sent up mercilessly. The satire worked because it played with reverence/irreverence. On the conventional level there was the standard satirical observations of, in the case of the politicians, showing them up to be self-serving and stupid and, for the royals, clueless but normal. And then there was the caricaturist's pen made latex, of the puppetry that was often sharply observed and utterly devastating. Diminutive David Steel against David Owen. Kenneth Baker the slug. Grey John Major. A rather serpentine Peter Mandelson. Part of the show's undoubted appeal was how grotesque a facsimile could be. It's why I started watching it when I was still in junior school.

But as with all things, the tide ebbed. Spitting Image and the alternative comedy movement of which it was part once broke mighty boulders and washed away coastlines. By the time of its 1996 cancellation, it could barely toss about a few sea-worn pebbles. What was once the cutting edge of alternative comedy became passé. Irreverence stopped being biting because it and its twin, cynicism, was the cultural grammar of our time. And so it has remained. Royalty, bizarrely (sadly) has calcified a new reverent shell to curl up in, but they are very much the exception. Institutions are profaned. Celebrities are here today, gone tomorrow, and politicians, if anything, are even more craven, stupid and out-of-touch than their latex depictions had them. In times when 'aspiration nation' is a political slogan, the Conservative Party tries to place itself as the party for workers by lopping a penny of a pint and reducing tax on bingo, and when a minister manages to keep his job and his seat after "erroneously" claiming taxpayer subsidies for heating his stables, you know satire is dead.

Spitting Image worked because it came along on the cusp of social change. Old hierarchies and deference still had just enough purchase in people's perceptions of social life for them to be excellent comedy fodder. But now, the show would be a fish out of water, a puppet without a string - or a hand up its tradesman's. If it came back it would be a poor replica of what really goes on. Irreverence is dead because it is embedded in the everyday. And with no niche for it, there is no chance and ITV company, Channel 5, Sky, Dave or some other bobbins of a cable channel will bring it back. For those of you with a nostalgic need there's always YouTube. But in some cases, as in this, the past can never be anything but the past.