Book Reviews (16)

Books 16

Earthsea: The First Four Books – Ursula Le Guin

Fantasy set on an archipelago world, with magic rooted in true names and the balance of the natural world. The first trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore – covers the heroic exploits of the mage Ged, who starts out as a gifted, impatient, arrogant goat-herder. There’s action in there, but it’s a chill pleasant read. Would’ve liked more of the school on Roke. Le Guin’s Daoist influence is used well.

Tehanu changes tack in interesting ways. It’s good overall – the turn towards ordinary life and women counterbalances elements of the first books, and a weaker writer would’ve forced a way around The Farthest Shore’s ending. But the pacing is choppy, and sometimes it feels a bit like an essay poking through.

The character and worldbuilding are high-class.

Why You Should Be a Socialist – Nathan Robinson

Robinson’s arguments for democratic socialism emphasise core principles – solidarity, concern about class structures, commitment to democracy in the economy (e.g. the workplace) as well as in the usual political sphere. As with his work in Current Affairs, he draws a sharp divide between his politics – based in libertarian socialist  ideas – and the more gulag-y stuff.

One weakness is a lack of a clear distinction between social democracy and socialism, linked to his excessive reticence to define terms. He veers between arguing for (good) reforms within capitalism along the lines of Bernie Sanders – pointing out the successes of individual socialist mayors, etc – and calling for more radical systemic change. Many liberals could come out of this thinking ‘okay, the Democratic party needs reform and it might be good to have a few socialist voices here and there, but I’m still not convinced about seizing the means of production.’ But hey, that’s not a disaster.

He does, though, make a lot of good points for newcomers, especially hammering the points of real commitment to democracy beyond the limits of liberalism, that public ownership needn’t mean state ownership, and that libertarian socialism is a thing.

It’s very obvious, given that we live on a planet with finite resources, that endless growth is impossible. And yet we have created [corporations] that exist to pursue endless growth[.] This is a recipe for civilizational suicide.[…]

Whether people are free depends not just on whether they own themselves, but whether others have power over them in practice.[…]

We should probably focus less on the question of whether something is in [the public sector or private sector] than on questions about who gets the benefits and who holds decision-making power.[…]

Liberty without socialism means rule by CEOs, socialism without liberty means rule by bureaucrats.[…]

I can never understand why using an iPhone means you cannot object to the conditions under which iPhones are produced and sold and advocate for changing them. […] If a resident of the Soviet Union had gotten a free education in state schools and a job in the state bureaucracy, would they be a hypocrite if they criticized [the] structure of the Soviet economy?

The Toll – Neal Shusterman

At first I was a bit concerned about how this trilogy would be finishing – the initially ambiguous gap in time from Thunderhead was confusing, the Tonist interludes seemed too out-there, some fast perspective hopping, and thoughts of ‘really, this is a super-intelligent AI’s plan?’

But it does all come together! It’s a lot of fun, and works back through questions raised by the first two books to tie up in a story of enormous scale. Greyson and the Thunderhead have a great weird dynamic, all the characters are enjoyable (though Goddard is a little ‘mwah-ha-ha!-y’), the conclusion wraps up in a satisfying way without being too sugary. But I find it weird that people still struggle to understand people like Jeri?

A good ending to a refreshing, fast-paced take on (u/dys)topia and AI, with nice worldbuilding around post-mortality – albeit the themes on that are nothing new – and an interesting cast.

Deportation

deportation protesters
PA

There are many things wrong with the recent mass-deportation to Jamaica.

Recently ex-Chancellor Sajid Javid said: ‘We will always do what we can to protect the public. These are all foreign national offenders – they have all received custodial sentences of 12 months or more. They are responsible for crimes like manslaughter, rape, dealing in class A drugs.’

In a previous deportation to Jamaica last year, he’d also claimed that all deportees were convicted of ‘very serious crimes… like rape and murder, firearms offences and drug-trafficking.’ The article continues: ‘But the Home Office said on Wednesday that of the 29 people deported, just one had been found guilty of murder, while 14 had been convicted [f]or drug offences and one was jailed for dangerous driving.’

Similar patterns with the recent case, as the Morning Star reported leading up to the flight:

[A] man who has lived in Britain since he was 11 is set to be separated from his wife and baby daughter when deported on a charter flight to Jamaica tomorrow.

Reshawn Davis, 30, was detained on Friday and told he would be deported on the second charter flight to the Caribbean island since the Windrush scandal two years ago.

Fifty people are set to be on the flight after serving time for various crimes, the Star reported over the weekend. […]

Mr Davis is being removed from the country on the basis that he was convicted for robbery 10 years ago under the now unlawful “joint enterprise” rule — for which he spent two months in prison — according to the Independent.

He lives with his British wife Tonique Kerr and six-month-old daughter in London and has not committed any crime since his conviction.

The Home Office said that it did not believe his family ties were strong enough to warrant him continuing to live in Britain.

Mr Davis said he is terrified at the possibility of being taken away to Jamaica, where he has not been for nearly 20 years. […]

Shadow immigration secretary Bell Ribiero-Addy had told the Star when the charter flight was announced that people scheduled to be removed are “facing a triple punishment” that “would not be applied to their white peers — sentencing, detention and deportation.” […]

A draft copy of the Windrush Lessons Learned report, leaked to the media on Thursday, said ministers should consider ending the practice of deporting people who arrived in Britain as children.

A fellow blogger quotes Malorie Blackman: ‘As S[h]amima Begum has been stripped of her British citizenship despite being born here, if I refuse to pay my council tax or knock someone over – God forbid – and get done for manslaughter, will I then be deported as my mum was born in Barbados? When exactly did I become ‘temporarily British’?’

That someone like Mr Davis who has done their time, not re-offended, and now has a family here can be ejected elsewhere on a flimsy pretext of public safety should be concerning – exactly the sort of thing most people who complain about  ‘big government’ should but won’t be bothered about.

Members of the cabinet are guilty of drug offences, but their right to remain in the country won’t be in doubt. White British ex-cons – reformed or not, violent crime or not – won’t be separated from their families. You see, people are only such a threat to public safety if they can be made another public’s problem, which in turn justifies doing so. If all murderers and rapists were threats to public safety, not just deportable ones, then we’d have to fund probation services and other things that actually help – and extradite Prince Andrew for questioning!

(By the way, I’m not doing the lame thing of saying Gove, etc, should be punished for doing coke. Decriminalisation is still correct, but we can all see that there’s a hypocrisy around who does/n’t get criminalised, rooted in racial bias and elite power.)

In Rees-Mogg’s time – before he fell through that wormhole – hungry-bread-thieves and other vicious fiends could be shipped off to Australia in a neat imperialist double-whammy. These days all the viable landmasses are claimed by recognised states, which makes implementing systemic racism more complicated.

Of Course We Can Afford It!

Many people are sceptical of the 2019 Labour Manifesto – can we afford it? Where’s the magic money tree?

It’s actually eminently affordable, and would make the economy better for years to come. Here’s how.

It really isn’t that expensive, seriously.

Here’s a graph from The Times (hardly a radical publication!)

Labour manifesto cost graph

Many estimations of the upfront costs are inflated or decontextualised to seem scarier. A few more percent of GDP spent on long-needed investment hardly threatens cataclysm, so stop raving about Venezuela.

We can’t afford to not do this stuff.

Is the economy really working right now? Who for?

Food banks have gone from virtually unknown to a regular feature of life. We have high in-work poverty. Child homelessness has soared by 80%. There are schools asking parents for basic supplies.

I could go on and on. Austerity continues to have a savage toll. It’s not a coincidence that so many things are at a record worst. This didn’t just happen, it was done by the Conservatives (and Lib Dems). It is unnecessary, outrageous, and unforgivable.

Isn’t it curious that when ‘we’ had to tighten our belt, that meant telling an emaciated man to find work but didn’t mean doing anything to slightly inconvenience billionaires?

If we have any pretensions of being a civilised society, we must invest in vital services and support secure work with a living wage. We are supposedly one of the wealthiest nations. We shouldn’t have food banks.

Suppose all this had happened under a Corbyn government. Would you then be talking about ‘socialist bread lines’? Think about that very seriously.

Prof Mariana Mazzucatto says:

[O]verall, the economy is not growing through investment, but private debt-fuelled consumption, putting the ratio of private debt to disposable income back at the level it was before the crisis. And that, not public debt, caused it.

Investment generates returns.

Many sources will compare merely an expected cost (likely an inflated figure) of policies with expected revenue from tax changes. This is tipping the scale – the whole point of investments is to generate some return, whether through savings downstream or growth.

Comparing the economy to household spending – a simple money in, money out – is stupid for many reasons, one of them being that households don’t tend to invest money to gain new income. But this is one of the things public spending should be about (with public welfare being another critical, tragically sidelined priority).

It’s still a flawed analogy, but compare the economy to a business instead. If you run a struggling business, is the only option you have to reduce outgoings? Do you fire all your staff and sell all the chairs? No!

Prof Simon Wren-Lewis concludes:

[A] Labour government implementing all or the major part of this manifesto will mean the economy as a whole will end a decade of low output and wage growth that has stifled UK innovation and productivity growth.

We should ignore the tired old discourse about whether we can pay for it, and focus on the benefits each individual spending increase or investment project might bring, and on the revitalisation of the economy that this manifesto will generate.

And do you realise how wasteful privately owned energy, water, etc is? Nationalising these oligopolies away pays for itself.

Based on intensive empirical research, this paper shows that public ownership of utilities would result in annual savings of just under £8bn – so nationalisation would pay for itself in less than seven years[.]

But the 1970s!’

For heaven’s sake, the 1970s had a specific, complex international context – the fall of Bretton Woods, the OPEC oil embargo… unless you’re prepared to go into the weeds of all this, you simply don’t have an argument. What you have is a tired scare story about the past, when nurses are resorting to food banks today.

A more apt comparison for Labour’s plans would be the modern social democracies – which, far from rerunning the Winter of Discontent, are doing better than us on most meaningful metrics. Many other decent countries have elements of key Labour policies.

Even within the UK, compare Preston’s in-sourcing success to Tory councils almost going bankrupt!

But New Labour ruined the economy!’

1 – This isn’t them any more, thank heavens!

2 – The Tories have had power for a while now – and everything is crumbling.

Ok though, let’s talk about the crash.

Loathe as I am to defend Blair or Brown, let’s acknowledge that the crash was an international crisis that began with US mortgage markets. It would have been difficult to entirely insulate the UK.

Having said that, one of the many big mistakes they made was failing to properly regulate the financial sector. Everybody knows this.

Would the Tories have done it? We know not – if nothing else, they’ve had the reins for a while now and haven’t done so!

As for the ‘no money left’ note: do people not understand what a dark joke is? This is a tradition among leaving ministers.

The only previous example of a similar note being made public came in 1964, when Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling left a message in his Whitehall office after being forced out by election defeat, telling his Labour replacement James Callaghan: “Good luck, old cock…. Sorry to leave it in such a mess.”

The problem wasn’t ‘spending too much’ (see the social democracies again), the problem was unstable finance and asset price inflation led growth – which only Labour will finally get us out of by investing in the real economy. Reforms such as a financial transactions tax (disincentivising speculative high-frequency trading in favour of real investments) will help fight the exact issues that burst in 2008.

But Dianne Abbott!’

One MP flubbing an interview once is relevant to a manifesto how?

Phillip Hammond got the cost of HS2 wrong by £20bn in an interview. That by itself surely isn’t enough to completely disregard Hammond or the Tories, is it?

(Let’s not pretend we don’t all know exactly what the double standard is about.)

I’ll tell you something that is relevant to a manifesto, though. The entire conservative party wants to convince you that 20,000 is a higher number than 21,732. Is this what credibility looks like?

(Any Tory MPs reading: if you’re confused about how numbers work, here’s a tip from Big Shaq.)

If the manifesto really is so unaffordable, make honest arguments.

If there are good arguments to be made, why not make them instead of setting up a fake ‘labour manifesto’ website to mislead people?

Temporarily rebranding their press account as an independent fact checker, doctoring a video of Keir Starmer… if our policy is so bad, why resort to desperate underhand tricks?

All the right seems to have is falsehood, easily debunkable canards, and hysterical comparisons to Stalin at the prospect of making corporation tax what it was in 2010. I’m simply not seeing much of real substance.

It seems like what scares leading Tories and their friends isn’t the prospect of Labour ‘trashing the economy’, but changing who it works for. It’s great for them if landlords charge exorbitant rents, bosses pay a pittance to zero-hour workers subsidised by insufficient benefits, and the profits all stack up in tax havens. And if they’ve conned you into agreeing with them, they’re laughing all the way to the Caymans.

The Limits of ‘OK Boomer’

OK Boomer
Shannon O’Connor’s OK BOOMER hoodie.

I’ve seen two articles going round about the ‘OK boomer’ meme – a phrase younger people are using in response to some condescending and reactionary older people and their ideas.

Taylor Lorenz writes in The New York Times:

Nina Kasman […] said that while older generations have always looked down on younger kids or talked about things “back in their day,” she and other teens believe older people are actively hurting young people. “Everybody in Gen Z is affected by the choices of the boomers, that they made and are still making,” she said. “Those choices are hurting us and our future. Everyone in my generation can relate to that experience and we’re all really frustrated by it.”

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“The reason we make the ‘ok boomer’ merch is because there’s not a lot that I can personally do to reduce the price of college, for example, which was much cheaper for older generations who then made it more expensive,” Ms. Kasman said. “There’s not much I can personally do to restore the environment, which was harmed due to corporate greed of older generations. There’s not much I can personally do to undo political corruption, or fix Congress so it’s not mostly old white men boomers who don’t represent the majority of generations.”

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In the end, boomer is just a state of mind. Mr. Williams said anyone can be a boomer — with the right attitude. “You don’t like change, you don’t understand new things especially related to technology, you don’t understand equality,” he said. “Being a boomer is just having that attitude, it can apply to whoever is bitter toward change.”

“We’re not taking a jab at boomers as a whole — we’re not going for their lives,” said Christopher Mezher, 18. “If it’s a jab at anyone it’s outdated political figures who try to run our lives.”

And Kalhan Rosenblatt in NBC News:

The word also isn’t exclusively lobbed at older people. Young people often use it against one another if they feel another person their age is being closed-minded or says something that sounds like it came from an older generation.

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Brennan said when he was recently critiqued by his father for always being on his phone, he used the phrase “OK boomer,” and then explained that older generations were responsible for things like “climate change, the 2008 financial crisis,” and “several wars we should not have been in.”

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I like the meme. It’s a fun bit of irony, and I can relate to what Nina Kasman said. But – since I’m here to overanalyse things – I find both of its potential uses rest on a limited view of politics.

The purely generational approach is a reactionary one, grouping masses of distinct people together by age to make a simple blame narrative.

Are ‘older generations’ responsible for ‘the 2008 financial crisis’? What, the ones who weren’t in positions of power? The ones who weren’t running the finance sector? The ones who didn’t have any real control over neoliberalism? The ones who opposed it? And didn’t boomers lose out in the crash too?

As Andrew Hart puts it in Jacobin:

“they” are those who have made an idyll of everyone else’s misery; “politics” is the process of seeing who will align to oppose them; “we” are the people who stand together. We have no place in our politics for the bad story of generations.

Nina Kasman refers to the ‘corporate greed of older generations’. But corporations behave like this due to market incentives, not because there aren’t enough zoomers on the board.

There are people of all ages at all parts of the political compass. If you’re angry at boomers, identify the specific thing you’re actually angry about – climate change denial, neoliberalism, etc – and align with all the allies available.

That gives rise to the second form of ‘OK boomer’ – targeting not a generation, but a mindset. And sure, boomer mindset sucks. But then what?

Let’s suppose everyone becomes more open to change, accepts climate science, stops asking to see the manager, becomes more accepting of different groups, etc. That would be good! It would be a great improvement in many areas, particularly for targets of bigotry.

But then what happens to fossil fuel companies, low wages, arms companies, rents, financial imperialism, etc? These issues don’t instantly disappear with zoomer mindset alone.

The roots of major global problems aren’t in people having a boomer mindset. The issues lie in an economy structured for funneling profit to a small class of authoritarian owners instead of for sustainable democratic human flourishing. They arise from economic incentives, the structure of power itself, how classes relate to capital and how interests clash. Mindset does matter, but we have a tendency to fetishise it, to focus on it above material conditions.

The boomer mindset critique suggests that a different way of thinking would produce a different society. There’s certainly some truth to that. But when people are answerable to shareholders, that produces pressure in a certain direction. When someone can get exorbitantly wealthy from environmental recklessness, or by exploiting a workforce, hoping for spontaneous virtue is a weaker response than collectively changing the fundamental incentives and power structures.

OK boomer is just a dank meme I’m overanalysing. But if we don’t want today’s OK boomer to become future decades’ OK zoomer, we need an approach to politics which targets the real roots of the existing order. Casting a whole generation as the enemy is wrong and unhelpful. The critique of boomer mindset is more productive, but still can’t explain the conditions that produced our current state. And thus, cannot by itself show the way out.

Book Reviews (14)

Books (14)

Dracula – Bram Stoker

I’ve seen a few people saying they struggled with Dracula, particularly the slow middle. I enjoyed it overall, but I see where this is coming from.

The key problem is that the main characters – each taking turns writing in various documents – can come off a little, well, dim. When someone is losing blood, has puncture marks on their neck, and seems to do better with garlic plants placed in their bedroom… come on, are you really going to dance around the V-word for a hundred pages? And not immediately realise what’s up when someone else gets lethargic? There’s dramatic irony, and then there’s wondering if the cast has lead poisoning.

But it’s a classic for a reason. There are striking passages, as well as a looming unholy threat deeper than some more modern vampire fiction. The Victorian religious context raises the stakes (lol) higher than the mere threat of dying or becoming a sparkly emo. Undeath is a curse, trapping a soul in a state inimical to the laws of God and man, barred from heaven and casting ruin on the earth.

Renfield’s spider thing is grim as hell, when things get going they do get going, and I liked the dry humour of workmen hinting for a liquid bribe – ‘dusty work’ indeed. If you like Victorian writing or vampires, here’s the obvious place to go.

Also, there’s some interesting stuff in this edition’s (Penguin 2003) appendices. Nobody has ever had less chill than Stoker in his gushing letter to Walt Whitman.

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco

A series of murders in a monastery in 1327, investigated by William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso. William must attempt to solve the case before a papal legation arrives for an important meeting on a matter of doctrine dividing the church and setting the peasantry against the nobility.

This is far from a straight thriller. Eco focuses deeply on the historical and theological context, with long debates on philosophy – heresy, ownership, semiotics. William’s detective work does showcase puzzle-solving talents, while the murders strike tension, but the pace is moderated by an immersion in medieval monastic concerns that, while definitely interesting and insightful, can get a bit obsessive.

At one point Adso, the narrator, spends pages describing the outside of a door. The book itself opens with Eco pretending, in detail, that he didn’t actually write it, but found a French translation of Adso’s original Latin text. So what? And why leave so much Latin untranslated – is Eco showing off his intellect as William does?

Perhaps the book would’ve benefited from some trimming – but not too much. If this was just a fast-paced historical thriller it wouldn’t have its depth of immersion, its portrait of divisions and power struggles on every level, or its grasp on character and psychology.

William and Adso are a brilliant monastic Holmes and Watson, and watching them figure out the way through a labyrinth is fun. I appreciated the rich context and broader concerns behind the sleuthing, but some of it is a bit dense.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

(H/t Michael James)

A fun read, with great examples of how to do things wrong and plenty of jokes.

Take this line from a passage parodying Russian literature: “Come, let us go to another room and slowly reveal to each other our unhappinesses!”, or this warning on shady agencies: ‘If an agent is charging you a fee to read your book, you would probably do just as well responding to that intriguing e-mail from Nigeria.’

All the key bases are covered: plot, character, dialogue, setting, aspects of style; as well as a range of more specific issues, like ways to prevent characters having access to a phone.

Some points felt a bit old fashioned – implying younger readers ‘may be under the vague impression that cell phones were invented by Galileo’, stating that self-publishing is only a success story if you end up offered a book deal.

Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation – Grace Blakeley

A rigorous but fairly accessible analysis of the financial sector. Blakeley explains why it took its current extractive and speculation-laden form, how it led to the crash, and the failings of austerity, providing bold, detailed suggestions for where to go from here.

I learned a lot from Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, but thought it shied away from the radical implications of its own content. This is rather the opposite.

Financialised capitalism may be a uniquely extractive way of organising the economy, but this is not to say that it represents the perversion of an otherwise sound model. Rather, it is a process that has been driven by the logic of capitalism itself.

Stolen keeps class at the centre of analysis, explaining how policies and models follow on from power structures, reacting to the struggle between labour and capital.

The outline of the 1970s discontents and Thatcher’s rise provides a compelling narrative of the contradictions of social democracy – a system aiming to maintain a stalemate between classes – falling apart, paving the way for neoliberalism. Thatcher locked in a new regime for decades through detailed strategy, including promoting home ownership with rising asset prices to secure a ‘mini-capitalist’ base in the middle class.

The financialisation of the firm provided an immediate fix to the profitability crisis of the 1970s – a fix built on the repression of wages and productive investment. [States] deregulated their banking sectors in order to give households greater access to credit and expand asset ownership [to] disguise the chronic shortfall in demand finance-led growth threatened to create, and to make the system politically sustainable.

But that housing bubble eventually had to burst, didn’t it? Meaning that the reality of stagnation is no longer hidden by the bubble, and old ideas are new again.

Blakeley wants to conduct an inverse Thatcher. With wide-ranging financial reforms (counter-cyclical capital requirements for private banks to support balanced investment, a National Investment Bank supporting a Green New Deal, debt refinancing, etc) taking place alongside the development of a People’s Asset Manager and Citizen’s Wealth Fund, she hopes to rein in the sector’s excesses, improve most people’s living standards, and secure long-term support for an expanding system of collective, democratic ownership.

Very illuminating, though some typos tripped me up, and some of the points on capitalism vs. socialism could use more expanding to fully answer the concerns and questions a newcomer to this way of thinking would have.

Here’s a good interview on the book.

The Will of the People

ballot box

Vimes had spent his life on the streets, and had met decent men and fools and people who’d steal a penny from a blind beggar and people who performed silent miracles or desperate crimes every day behind the grubby windows of little houses, but he’d never met The People.

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Sometimes we need a strong and stable leader to do whatever they think is best (so long as it matches what we think is best, of course…) with as little oversight as possible.

Me (sorry), Democracy When Convenient

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We’re hearing a lot of talk about ‘the will of the people’ these days. I think it’s very important to be critical about who gets to interpret what that is.

Societies are big, complex things. One binary vote may give a mandate not for a single specific thing, but for the wide range of potential policies under that umbrella.

It’s in the interest of the Tory-right/Farageists to conflate the 52% leave result with their specific vision of Brexit, and whatever else they wish to package along with that. It’s a useful narrative for them to unilaterally dismiss options as not Brexity enough, and hence against the will of the people.

Remember that before the referendum, Farage said a 52% win for remain ‘would have been unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.’ He’s not a good-faith democrat.

A reasonable argument could be made that the overall will averages out as some form of soft Brexit. In any case, I see little evidence that the majority of the populace want to scrap the Working Time Directive, or to have many of the other things the right will seek to exploit Brexit for.

Various commentators warn of the adverse consequences for workers’ health and well-being if the directive is axed. Doing so would remove legal rights to paid holidays, maximum working hours and rest breaks – potentially opening the door to further employer exploitation of workers who have weak bargaining power and/or no collective trade union representation. […]

It seems doubtful that many who voted for Brexit voted to remove legal rights to paid holidays, rest breaks, and maximum hours, hence the spinning of facts by right-wing politicians and media. Many workers may be unaware that these rights originated from EU employment legislation, and what they will lose if they are removed.

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Proroguing parliament for an extended period to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny represents an attack on principles of representative democracy, as Ash Sarkar says. If this happened in another country, we’d be calling it corrupt and find the excuses for it patently absurd.

People saying that this isn’t weird or undemocratic, but actually an assertion of the voice of The People over slimy politicians, are, implicitly or explicitly, stating a support for direct over representative democracy.

I quite like the idea of having more direct democracy in some form, actually. Millions of people feel distant from the levers of power, out of control of their lives, and they’re not wrong to do so. But any meaningful vision of direct democracy would involve The People being the ones actually holding sovereignty, no?

Giving Boris Johnson – a slimy politician! – a blank check to pursue a particular, highly debatable version of what he argues the will of the people is, is merely a less representative form of representative democracy – particularly as he was chosen by only 0.13% of the population.

Besides, the question of how to interpret the will of the people doesn’t disappear in direct democracy. When does a simple majority win outright, and when is compromise called for? How are the questions framed? I’ve yet to see a good argument that No Deal would genuinely represent the will of the people.

Even if channeling sovereignty to a forceful executive happens to lead to the public getting some of what they want, it’s a risky strategy and a dangerous precedent. It doesn’t actually invest people with more control over their lives or communities. Reducing the role of elected representatives doesn’t necessarily increase the voice of the people: it might just empower someone to pursue their agenda in your name.

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There are issues where it’s obvious the public doesn’t have what it wants. For example, there’s strong support for rail nationalisation. Would a well-oiled British democracy still let companies like Virgin or Deutsche Bahn rip off an irritated public that’s already subsidised them with taxes?

First Past the Post has various problems as an electoral system:

Even if millions of voters support the same party, if they are thinly spread out they may only get the largest number of votes in a couple of these contests. Tens of thousands of voters supporting the same party and living in the same area will end up with more MPs.

This means the number of MPs a party has in parliament rarely matches their popularity with the public. […]

With a geographical base, parties that are small UK-wide can still do very well. This tends to mean that Westminster’s electoral system benefits nationalist parties. For instance, half of Scottish voters voted for the SNP in 2015, but the SNP won 95 percent of Scotland’s seats. […]

In 2015 a candidate won the Belfast South election with only 9,560 votes, or 24.5% of the total, a record low.

And people like Prof. Richard Wolff argue for expanding democracy into the workplace. Co-ops (or to a lesser extent, reviving unionisation; or Mariana Mazzucato’s ideas about employee representation on boards and ‘stakeholders>shareholders’) would genuinely give the masses more control in their lives, and shift the balance of economic power.

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I think some liberals are wrong to glibly dismiss ‘the will of the people’ as ‘populist’ rhetoric. That strikes an authoritarian tone to me. But I agree with them that it’s not a great idea to outsource thinking on democracy or how nations should be run to inane tabloid slogans. This stuff is complicated!

The will of the people matters. It’s a legitimate subject. But I don’t trust Boris Johnson or tabloid slogans to tell me what it is.

Diversity is Necessary But Not Sufficient

Johnson Cabinet
Photo by Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images

In my thoughts on Theresa May’s resignation announcement speech, I said in response to her comment on being ‘the second female prime minister’ that ‘The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.’

Now new PM Boris Johnson (yikes!) describes his cabinet as a cabinet ‘for modern Britain’: ‘Mr Johnson has appointed four full cabinet members from BAME backgrounds (17%) as well as two ministers who will attend cabinet – a record for any government.’

To be clear, that representation is a good thing. It’s not as though it would be better somehow to not have it. It is better to have proper diversity than not.

But nor am I a trained seal, clapping mindlessly at these sorts of gestures. Diversity is necessary but not sufficient.

If a cabinet perfectly reflects every demographic but still maintains regressive policy, by what measure is it ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’, aside from in a shallow symbolic – even tokenistic – sense? ‘But there’s PoC in it’ can be an institutional version of the classic ‘I’m not racist, I have a black friend’.

For me, the prime example of the importance of representation vs. the importance of a firm critique of material conditions is the Obama presidency.

I don’t deny the symbolic power of the first black presidency for race relations. It made a lot of racists very mad, which is definitely a sign something good is happening. Many people found it profoundly significant to see themselves represented in the highest office of the land for the first time.

But as Matt Breunig and Ryan Cooper point out, Obama’s neoliberal policy made black Americans materially worse off:

Between 2007 and 2016, the average wealth of the bottom 99 percent dropped by $4,500. Over the same period, the average wealth of the top 1 percent rose by $4.9 million.

This drop hit the housing wealth of African Americans particularly hard.[…]

Because African Americans were disproportionately victimized at all levels of the housing and foreclosure crises, they stood to gain the most from better policy. But because Obama’s approach failed cataclysmically, the first black president in American history turned out to be a disaster for black wealth.

Because of its unwillingness or inability to take a good look at class, liberalism loses sight of the material issues impacting the very demographics it is so vocal about in the cultural sphere. Similarly, white Clintonite winemoms will insist that (cringy quote) ‘black twitter ain’t havin’ no Bernie’ despite many of the PoC they’re patronising actually supporting Sanders because his policy would help their lives.

To a lesser degree, the same principles apply over here with the Johnson cabinet. In our case, it’s conservatism deciding to like ‘identity politics’ as and when it can be used to score cheap points.

Two high-profile examples of Johnson’s cabinet ‘for modern Britain’ are Priti Patel (Home Secretary) and Sajid Javid (Chancellor).

Not that long ago, Priti Patel was led to resign as International Development Secretary after holding secretive meetings with Israeli political and business figures while on holiday. Her voting record is pretty dire by any progressive standard.

As for Sajid Javid, his recent past is, uh, a little concerning:

The man whose company produced the insulation panels on Grenfell Tower has a second job advising the Government on building regulations.

Mark Allen, a technical director for the UK arm of Saint-Gobain, is also a member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee.

The body makes recommendations about building regulations to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.

Saint-Gobain is an owner of Celotex, which produced the RS5000 insulation panels used on Grenfell Tower.

His voting record is a bit better, but still pretty bad.

It’s a good thing, not a bad thing, to have diversity in government. But that by itself doesn’t make a government woke, and to say otherwise would be immensely patronising tokenism.

We’ll see commentators crowing about the racial diversity of Johnson’s cabinet one minute then decrying ‘identity politics’ the next; ignoring that cabinet’s corruption and malicious impacts on ordinary Britons while claiming to love the ‘modern Britain’ it ‘represents’.

Beyond electoral politics, diversity is necessary but not sufficient in other areas. There’s a common leftist quip of ‘more trans CEOs!’ and ‘more lesbian drone pilots!’ – the point being that while transphobia, misogyny, etc, etc, are bad and worth addressing in their own right, making corrupt systems and institutions more diverse should never be the end goal.

Yes, end the misogyny behind the glass ceiling. Yes, diversity in boardrooms is a sign of progress. But let’s not end at that low bar – what is the company doing, how is it structured, what sort of economy is it situated within? How are its janitors? Is a company with a trans CEO woke if it sells arms to regressive regimes, or hires death squads to assassinate union leaders?

Shouldn’t nobody be an ICE agent? Shouldn’t nobody help bomb civilians? Shouldn’t companies not be structured like authoritarian governments?

There’s an interesting tendency sometimes to talk as though reality is a turn-based game. ‘You want to do thing! But we need to do other thing!’ Fortunately, it’s possible for a global population of billions to do more than one thing at a time.

In the case of diversity-related cultural issues and of class-based material issues, it’s completely plausible to address both of them together. And if we don’t, we won’t do either of them justice, because they are two sides of the same coin.

Links Post 2

Some things I found interesting.

Lyta Gold discussing class – as an element often left out of intersectionality, or just given lip-service without really being considered. E.g., when it gives upper-middle class white liberals an opportunity to get mad at Bernie Sanders for supposedly dismissing identity. While class-reductionism is of course dumb and bad, on the whole it seems class is under-addressed.

Jonas Fossli Gjersø on Corbyn not being a terrifying tankie:

Another moniker Mr Corbyn’s detractors often apply to his policies are that they derive from some so-called extreme of the political spectrum, that they are ‘hard left’ and ergo hopelessly idealistic and unworkable. To a Norwegian observer such as myself I find this characterisation puzzling. Mr Corbyn’s policy-platform, particularly in regard to his domestic policies are largely identical with the Norwegian Labour Party manifesto. Railway nationalisation, partial or full state ownership of key companies or sectors, universal healthcare provisions, state-funded house-building, no tuition fee education, education grants and loans to name but a few, enjoy near universal support among the Norwegian electorate, in fact, they are so mainstream that not even the most right-wing of Norwegian political parties would challenge them.

And this is not only the case in Norway, but has been integral to the social-democratic post-war consensus in all the Nordic countries. Judging by almost any measure of social indicators these policies have been a success, the Nordic region enjoys some of the world’s highest living standards and presumably should be a model to be emulated rather than avoided. Obviously the Nordic region is no earthly paradise and there are cultural, economic and historical differences between the UK and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, but if there is such a thing as a ‘best practice approach’ in public policy the Nordic model would probably be it and, at any measure, a useful benchmark for Britain to move towards.

(Sidenote: within the UK, compare ‘Corbynomic’ Preston‘s success to Tory councils going bankrupt.)

Nathan Robinson, on when conservatives accidentally admit that the free market can restrict freedom:

From every other PragerU video, I would get the impression that corporations cannot be “Big Brother,” because we choose whether to interact with them or not. It’s a free market, and if you don’t like the product on offer, you can go and find another product. […] Say a context where an employee had been fired for handing out a pro-union pamphlet, or a customer had been asked to leave a Walmart for refusing to stop waving a Palestinian flag. I doubt many capitalists would argue that the right to free speech trumps the right of an owner to decide which speech to allow on their property.

When conservatives like Bozell criticize YouTube and Facebook as abridging freedom of speech, then, they implicitly concede that private companies can have the power of governments, that “Big Brother” can be in either the public sector or the private sector. They accept Elizabeth Anderson’s point that corporations are private governments structured as dictatorships. If the gateway to the “public square” is policed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s policed by the state police or the security firm hired by the asset management company that owns the gate. […]

My instinctive reaction here is to roll my eyes and say “Oh, so you’re saying that concentrated power in the hands of unaccountable self-interested private actors can abridge people’s freedom?”

Conservative journalist Peter Oborne – Corbyn’s right on Iran:

Corbyn is right to challenge claims emanating from the White House about Iran. His call for Britain to “act to ease tensions in the Gulf, not fuel a military escalation,” is common sense.

This is not the first time that the Labour leader has been the voice of caution when the British political class have rushed towards war. He took a brave and lonely stand when the British political establishment followed George W Bush into the Iraq disaster.

He was vindicated by events when he warned against the invasion of Afghanistan. He was one of only a dozen MPs who voted against David Cameron’s terribly misjudged intervention in Libya. […]

It’s only in the UK that expressing alarm about the bellicose Iranian policy of Donald Trump is regarded as unpatriotic. Germany and Japan have both made it clear that they don’t regard the evidence of Iranian involvement produced so far as conclusive.

 

Book Reviews (12)

Books (12)

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Akala tells the story of race and class in his life – featuring interactions with police, violence growing up, racist experiences throughout his education – and places it in a wider social and historical context.

His deeply informed and nuanced analysis picks apart narratives of ‘black-on-black crime’ (were the Troubles or Glasgow’s gangs ‘white-on-white crime’?); exposes our shallow self-serving vision of the end of the slave trade (which omits the role of slave rebellions); reveals Cuba’s significance in fighting apartheid; and much more.

Akala uses history and data to place his own experiences in the context of a class-stratified society forged in racialised imperialism, and unable to face up to the reality of its past or present. All more clear and readable than I’m making it sound.

Here he is talking about this stuff.

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy – Mariana Mazzucato

In mainstream neoclassical economics, things are seen as valuable to the extent they fetch a price on the market – reflected through supply, demand, and marginal utility. Mazzucato contrasts this ‘marginalism’ with earlier theories of what value is, how it’s generated, and how it may be extracted – arguing that as economics largely stopped debating the meaning of value, it has become easier for value extraction to masquerade as value creation.

The financial sector fetches a price on the market, but much of it is hardly ‘productive’. Often profits are ‘justified’ by risk-taking, but most of the real risk is taken in prior public investment and not rewarded. Inflated medicine prices are unjustified by research costs, and the argument their prices are high in proportion to benefit to society is false and has unacceptable implications (how expensive should water be?).

The public sector is undervalued, making it more vulnerable to capture by supposed ‘wealth creators’. Short-termism is incentivised, with firms spending astronomical sums on share buy-backs to please shareholders (instead of wages and investment). GDP has bizarre holes – if a company cleans up its own pollution that’s a cost which reduces GDP, if someone else is paid to clean up then GDP rises because paying workers adds value!

Marginalism is riddled with problems. Mazzucato doesn’t present a new alternative theory of value – the book’s long enough, to be fair – but calls for renewed debate about it to give rise to better policy. She does have a range of reasonable prescriptions, like using a financial transaction tax to incentivise long-term investment, nationalising natural monopolies such as energy, and upholding ‘stakeholders’ rather than shareholders.

I’m no economist, but I couldn’t help feeling she kept dodging the implications for capitalism itself. If landlords extract value, while there are more empty homes than homeless people, should housing even be a market commodity you can earn money just by owning and renting out? Isn’t the logical endpoint of ‘stakeholders>shareholders’ (at very least) Jeff Bezos losing a great deal of ownership and influence to all those employees he’s got pissing in bottles? If value doesn’t really track price, might markets and the profit-motive be inherently problematic means of arranging production and exchange? Important questions, but the answers are taken for granted here.

Even the Dogs – Jon McGregor

A man’s body is found lying in his dilapidated flat. Those who knew him watch from the sidelines as he is investigated, their stories of homelessness and heroin addiction unfurling in a close, intense portrayal of troubled lives.

This can be difficult to read, not just because of the subject matter, but also because the chronology is stretched and shuffled, speech merging into narration, sentences occasionally fragmented and paragraphs tumbling out of control. But if you can stick with it, you come to find the rhythm of the prose and the story, with each crisply depicted moment and detail adding to something deeply compelling, informed, and empathic.

There are some fantastically beautiful evocative passages, and the darkness is tempered by the humanity of the characters and moments of humour – ‘I don’t think I’d even have mental health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?’

From Hell – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

A  t h i c c  graphic novel exploring the case of Jack the Ripper. More than a theory of occult conspiracy and a story of legendary violence, it’s also an inspired depiction of the Victorian world and the birth of the modern age, reflecting on power and our fascination with evil.

Campbell’s simple but expressive black-and-white imagery fits the time period, portraying vistas of London as well as graphic brutality. The style complements the mood of Moore’s writing, rendered in suitably rough font – though I sometimes wanted it a little clearer or bigger.

The story is fascinating and multi-layered, going beyond the murders themselves to delve into the police drama and to highlight the victims; who are treated as meaningful in themselves, and to whom the work is dedicated. All the characters are convincing, their interactions showing different perspectives and places in society, backed by research, understanding, and wit.

May’s Departure and the ‘Human Level’

May resignation speech

Theresa May has announced her upcoming departure, in a speech (transcript) closing with tearful ‘enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’

I found her speech really frustrating, and the ‘oh you’ve got to feel sorry for her, on a human level’ responses troubling.

If you feel for May in that moment, I can understand why – but bear with me here. I’m not asking you to harden your heart, but quite the opposite.

First, let’s look a bit at how she ‘served’ the country.

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For many years the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton — who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport — was my constituent in Maidenhead.

At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice.

He said: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.”

It’s too easy to harp on May’s pathological stubbornness in the face of that advice, so I’ll focus on the irony of her using this man in particular as anecdote fodder.

The Windrush scandal isn’t something a government rooted in the humanitarian ideals that motivated Kindertransport could be responsible for. British citizens were denied access to healthcare, made redundant, homeless, or deported – thanks in large part to May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which sought to actively make the country unwelcoming, such as by sending vans round telling people to ‘go home’. Lovely!

Politico’s Jack Blanchard puts it plainly: ‘May has been badly exposed by the Windrush affair, which is difficult to see as anything other than the responsibility of whomever was home secretary between 2010 and 2016.’

What’s more, a report this year found that the Home Office was doing ‘as little, rather than as much, as possible to find and help people affected by its actions’. People are still suffering because of this – effectively because they’re the wrong colour.

That this scandal alone didn’t bring May’s career to an immediate and shameful end says something dark about us a nation. We think so little of people who came here, faced enormous prejudice, and spent their lives contributing to society.

I have striven to make the United Kingdom a country that works not just for a privileged few, but for everyone. […] I put proper funding for mental health at the heart of our NHS long-term plan.

Well then, she’s failed utterly, hasn’t she? By pretty much any standard inequality has ballooned. I mean, the DWP made someone starve to death. Even ‘I, Daniel Blake’ didn’t go quite that far.

UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK makes for stark reading, with ‘2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child.’

Alston was right to say that ‘The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial [but] many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations[.]’ Routinely, May and her ministers shook their heads, laughed, or resorted to misleading stock phrases and massaged stats in response to the opposition et al raising these issues.

With Universal Credit linked to suicide risks, how can May claim to advocate for mental health?

I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower

And the Fire Brigade Union’s response:

‘Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.’

72 deaths, no prosecutions.

the second female prime minister but certainly not the last.

This is a very ‘trickle down’ version of feminism, in which a woman leading is woke regardless of what she does.

The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.

Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.

This is another purely performative statement. This solidarity applies unless you’re from Windrush, or poor, or disabled, or…

Oh, did you know the government deports LGBT asylum seekers to countries where their lives are at risk and tells them to ‘pretend to be straight’?

Aside from that, Theresa May is on your side.

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Journalist Owen Jones pointed out on Sky News that we should be feeling sympathy for the victims of May’s policies. To which the interviewer said, ‘You can’t just respond on a human level?’ But as Jones said – ‘I have’.

I’ve commented on my issues with civility-centered discourse before, and here it is again.

A political opponent isn’t a member of an opposing sports team, with the codes of sportsmanship and noblesse oblige which that implies. They have different values, and implement policy accordingly. It’s one thing to suggest a role for compromise and mutual understanding in the world, that we recognise the humanity of opponents and work together where appropriate. But if their policy leads to death and misery, we’re supposed to shake their blood-soaked hand at the end of the match as though it didn’t happen?

What is the appropriate way to respond on ‘a human level’ to someone responsible for mass misery and hardship weeping in their resignation speech? What could be appropriate but to center their victims?

YouTuber Mexie has discussed the distinction between the sort of flashy fast violence that’s easy to appreciate as such, and the more systemic, genteel type of violence that happens in offices distant from the scene.

It’s hard to grasp quite what May’s career has involved. This kind of violence can be abstract, passing through the rapid news cycle. Even reading the reports and checking the stats doesn’t do it justice.

Imagine May, during her speech, throwing a grenade into a crowd (selling weapons to Saudia Arabia, despite Yemen). Or imagine she took you from your house in the middle of the night in winter, and locked you in a cage outdoors to die of exposure (soaring homelessness). Or imagine she bundled you in a van and abandoned you in another country (unjust deportations).

Really think about it. See what I mean?

The only differences between the direct violence I’m asking you to imagine, and her government’s ruinous policies, are scale and ‘legitimacy’. It would have been better if May committed direct violence rather than stamping documents, since one person can’t inflict anywhere near as much harm as a state apparatus. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all.

How is lobbing a grenade in a crowd different from arming Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen? The latter kills more people. Would you ‘feel for’ the bomber being arrested? No? So why feel for an arms dealer resigning?

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The thing is, after all that, I still think Theresa May is a human. Of course she is, and due universal inalienable rights as such. Recognising that, though, doesn’t have to imply throwing all perspective out the window, to the point of ignoring the reality of her actions.

It’s hard to genuinely wrestle with the humanity of people you profoundly disagree with, who are responsible for terrible things. It’s much harder than pretending political opponents are just like players on a different sports team, so you can take the real challenge out of ‘love thy enemy’ and still feel magnanimous.

The fault isn’t simply hers, but endemic in a Conservative party which measures human life by market value, despite the performative rhetoric and crumbs from the table. When May sobbed I think she genuinely believed she’d done good, really saw herself as trying to ‘serve the country I love’. That’s tragic and frightening. It shows just how little of an impression reality has on the spin, how little some people count.

Here’s a human level: it’s heartbreaking for all involved that Theresa May never served the country in the way she claims to have wanted to.