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No Need for New Labour

14 Jan

 

There’s a popular misconception that the political repositioning of the Labour Party was what won the 1997 election and kicked the Tories out of power for the first time since 1979. This misconception – this historical lie – is what underpins the claims of self-proclaimed ‘centrists’ within the Labour Party to be the only ones capable of winning elections.

In fact, it was the Tories that lost the 1997 election – and they would have lost against any Labour leader, no matter how red, pink, ‘Old or ‘New’ they were. For those who have forgotten, or never got told, here’s some of the relevant highlights of British politics in the years 1992-1997:

From a narrow win in 1992 onwards and for the rest of that parliament, their sheer viciousness – and economic incompetence – become inescapable.

1992 “Black Wednesday”, the forced British withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the stock market crash in its immediate aftermath, comprehensively destroys the reputation of the Conservative Party for economic competence. The narrow poll lead they had immediately following the election is transformed immediately. From this point onwards Labour’s poll dominance never slips.

1993 The Welsh Secretary visits a Welsh housing estate with a high proportion of single-parent families – and uses the visit to vilify the single parents who are there to meet him and who are being photographed with him.

The act that enables rail privatisation – once labelled a ‘privatisation too far’ by Margaret Thatcher – is passed. Despite it being controversial and threatening to alienate commuters in their south-east English heartland, the Tories make sure that British Rail is fully privatised before the 1997 election.

1994 Stephen Milligan’s grotesque death show some of the hypocrisy at the heart of John Major’s “Back to Basics” moral crusade. Perhaps not as graphically as Edwina Currie’s later revelation that she and the Tory leader had a four-year affair would have done. Then again,  Tim Yeo MP has already resigned after revelations about how he helped to contribute to the numbers of single parent families. Oh, and Tory MP Neil Hamilton and former Tory parliamentary election agent and lobbyist Ian Greer are named in what becomes known as the ‘cash-for-questions’ affair,. This runs on and on – right up until the 1997 election. It’s this episode that popularised the term ‘sleaze’. For the next three years that word is everywhere.

1994-1997 Rail privatisation. Have I mentioned that this was a policy calculated to lose votes in Tory heartland areas?

1995 John Major resigns as Tory leader, without resigning as Prime Minister, in order to have a leadership election within his party. His eventual opponent, incidentally, is the same man who visited Wales two years earlier to slag off single parents.

Earlier in 1995 the dramatic collapse of Barings Bank at the hands of a single ‘rogue trader’ demonstrates beyond doubt that banks are not being regulated properly. Sound familiar?

A month before that The State We’re In jumps staight into the bestseller lists. Subtleties aside, the key message of the book is that the Tories’ economic model is plain wrong and Britain needs its political institutions radically democratised. Almost anyone with a smidgeon of education is forced to read it – or argue with somebody who has – over the two years running up to the next election. Remember, if you can, that at this point in history the internet is so primitive that it does not influence political opinion.

Also during this year two Tory MPs leave to join other parties, and the Tories lose control of their last councils in Scotland and Wales.

1996 The publication of the Scott Report shows complicity between Tory ministers and companies illegally exporting arms to Iraq – and demonstrates that the Tories were willing to let others go to jail for their misbehaviour.  Just as some other Tories had been in 1995, when they sought to silence vital defence evidence in the very similar ‘Supergun affair’.

The Scott report ran to over a million words. Opposition politicians scrutinising it were given less than two hours to read it. Nevertheless one Labour politician, a habitual left-wing rebel called Robin Cook, managed to read, remember and use enough of it to utterly crucify the government in the debate that followed. Here’s his killer conclusion, direct from Hansard:

Tonight Parliament has the opportunity to insist that Ministers must accept responsibility for their conduct in office and to assert that the health of our democracy depends on the honesty of Government to Parliament. That is what we shall vote for tonight. Of course Conservative Members have enough votes to defeat us. If they vote to reject those principles, however, they will demonstrate not only that the two Ministers who have been most criticised in the Scott report should leave office, they will convince the public that this is an arrogant Government who have been in power too long to remember that they are accountable to the people, and that the time has come when the people must turn them all out of office.

The Tory leader instructs his MPs to treat the debate as a motion of confidence in the government. They obey. The Tories win the vote by one MP – exactly the size of their majority in Westminster.

There is less than a year to go before the 1997 election.

Now tell me New Labour was necessary.

 

 

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Markets Again – Meaning and Simplicity

7 Nov

There is rarely a need to use the word ‘market’ when referring to economic arrangements.  My early posts (and the name of this blog) argue that there’s really no such thing as ‘the market’ and that what we call ‘market’ mechanisms are usually inaccurate abstractions of real situations.  It’s therefore better, if you’re trying to understand something, to look at the thing you wish to understand – rather than the stories you have been sold about it.

That’s all very well.

But I didn’t go quite far enough.

I failed to point out the layers of unnecessary complexity (and inconsistency and out-and-out bullshit) that come from the myth that you can usefully place the word ‘market’ anywhere you like.  It’s everywhere, but today I’ll sample a bit of the British media.

Consider this article by the economics correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.  It is written by, about and for people who believe themselves to be economically literate.  I’ll italic unnecessary uses of the term ‘market’:

Dramatic shifts in the financial landscape mean that a return to normal market conditions “could be bumpy”, Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s Governor has said.

There’s no need for any word there at all, is there?  It would be a surprise if he was making high-profile predictions on anything except economics, given his job.  And in that instance the rightful focus might be on his truant from Threadneedle Street.

Speaking at the International Symposium of the Banque de France in Paris, he discussed a shift in the form of corporate financing, away from traditional bank lending and towards instruments such as corporate bonds.

The Governor said that an increased reliance on these market-based forms of financing…

Oops.  This is a different meaning of ‘market’ than the headline led us to expect. The headline implied the total systemic stability of the global economy as it was prior to the collapses of 2008 onwards. But things that are ‘market-based’ are only a part of that – a part subject to greater speculation and inherent unreliability.  Even ‘traditional bank lending’ is suddenly not market-based.  To be fair, however, he’s only repeating Carney’s communicative awkwardness.

… has put a premium on increasing the resilience of markets.

And we are into the territory of meaningless nonsense after only three sentences. Now the plural ‘markets’ has the same function as the singular ‘market’ of the headline, for no reason the journalist feels like explaining.  My guess is that ‘cos it’s only six years since that singular global ‘market’ went into drunken sky-dive no-parachute freefall and had to be rescued by the Telegraph’s arch-enemy, the State.  That’s about as far from resilience as a lemming in a Disney movie. So the market has been made multiple – surely some of them must be resilient?

This being the Telegraph, it gets worse.  To whit:

The present “low volatility environment” – reflecting a lack of uncertainty in markets – will change as central banks begin to unwind unconventional policy and raise rates, the Governor suggested.

A ‘lack of uncertainty in markets’ is a bit of an odd idea.  Probably because it’s a bit like a stupidly pretentious version of ‘economic stability’, which is a lot simpler.  And is also exactly the same as the pretentious, but genuinely meaningful “low volatility environment” quoted at the start of the sentence.  In fact, you could put the sentence, and the meaningful bit of the article, like this:

“Mark Carney says economic stability depends on central banks retaining serious spending power and keeping interest rates down – or at least comes as close as he can whilst keeping his job in a nation where everybody’s obsessed with using the word ‘market’ every six seconds.”

While increases in interest rates will be gradual in nature, Mr Carney stressed, a bumpy ride may be inevitable – which in turn would affect the pace of those rate hikes.

Separately, Janet Yellen, chair of the US Federal Reserve, warned that as central bank policy moves back to its pre-crisis state, this “could lead to some heightened financial volatility”.

“As employment, economic activity and inflation rates return to normal, monetary policy will eventually need to normalise too”, Ms Yellen said.

The US Federal Reserve ended its quantitative easing scheme last month, unlike the Bank of England, which maintains a £375bn asset purchase programme. Neither have hiked their interest rates since the financial crisis.

nb.  I’ve never heard any European use the work ‘hike’ in this sense in real life. Not even people who read the Telegraph because they like to read about ‘markets’. This is because the correct word is ‘raise’. Use of the term ‘hike’ in economic discussion indicates that the speaker is sceptical about the meaningful existence of countries outside the USA and considers the price increase in question to be both evil and vast.

You can’t, for example, “hike” petroleum prices just a tiny bit for perfectly good reasons. It’s just not grammatically possible. Even if it would save the planet.

When rate rises do come, they will be a sign that the US economy is “finally emerging from the shadow of the Great Recession”, the Fed chair said.

The Bank’s Governor said that the shift from bank lending to more market-based finance had not been accidental, and was in fact a structural and “positive thing”.

Finally.  After five sentences without that word.  And here it actually means something…  It means, on one hand, that bigger banks are being more tightly regulated and need (lots) more money in reserve to be permitted to act independently, along with much more careful risk assessment.  And, on the other hand, the central banks are going to act as guarantors for another bunch of cowboy financial whizzkids pretending not to need proper State regulation until all their loans go tits up, there’s a crisis, and they have to come running to the Nanny State they despise so much when it feeds the poor.

Obviously, that’s not quite what Carney said.  But in the next sentence he gets even closer:

As a result, the Bank has moved to work as a backstop not just for traditional banks, but also with others – broker-dealers and central counterparties – as it is “prepared to be a market maker of last resort in extremis to support smooth market functioning at all times”.

Let me translate.

“Market maker of last resort” = Lender of last resort.  This is the traditional function of the Central Bank (or State) in capitalism, especially for governments that recognise Keynes’ insight into the necessity for direct State intervention in economics…  Except next time it’s going to be worse and governments will still be pretending they can’t interfere with ‘the market’, so Central Banks will have to remake the global financial system from scratch.

“Smooth market functioning” = stopping the plebs from revolting because there’s no bread at the market. The actual market, that is.

Naturally, it’s not in all governments’ interests that economists explain things this simply.  But it is in the interest of their citizens. And it’s even in the interest of Telegraph readers if their economics correspondents are capable of actually interpreting a keynote speech by the Governor of the Bank of England.  Instead of cutting, pasting, adding some more meaningless repetitions of ‘market’, and sending.

nnb.  We don’t have ‘backstops’ in British sports, except rounders.  This is like a shite version of baseball that no-one plays after they leave school.  If America must appoint England’s central banker, couldn’t they get someone who at least speaks the language?

David Chase doesn’t have all the answers. Stop asking him.

31 Aug

The Sopranos is a legendary tv series. David Chase created it. And therefore he alone knows the deep meaning of the unusual, cut-to-black ending.

At least this seems to be the message we should draw from Vox‘s excited coverage of an off-the-cuff comment he made to one of their journalists. [1]  Or their abjectly precise republication of a slapdown reply from David Chase’s publicist. Instead of quoting the man in question about the Sopranos, we should apparently be busily thinking about whatever spiritual issues he – or his publicist – would like us to think about:

To simply quote David as saying, “Tony Soprano is not dead,” is inaccurate. There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true. As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, “Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.” To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of the Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer. [2]

The ‘publicist’ has clearly not absorbed the long-fashionable critical idea of the ‘death of the author’. Stripped of pretension, bullshit, and exaggeration, this is pretty simple.  A writer, once they’ve written something, has no more authority over its meaning than anybody else.  What they ‘intended’ is irrelevant.

You might argue with this in many circumstances.  The author of a primary maths book, or of a tv channel guide, should perhaps be taken as a prime authority.  Then again, if we are able to misunderstand them, that demonstrates a severe lack of skill on their part.  In the case of awkward philosophical explorations, we can be more forgiving, but we still end up seeking for what the author meant and whether it makes sense.

In the case of serious fiction, however, the very ambiguity of the form means that a great deal of the pleasure or meaning we find in it derives directly from the death of the author. That person who put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) has enabled us to create a world for ourselves. The writer’s craft is to engineer profound reactions in the reader. But those reactions do not have to obey – or even relate to – the author’s intent. In great fiction, whether they like it or not, the author is already dead.

The case of The Sopranos is unfortunate for David. He appears unable to accept having a key role in a work of great fiction – one that ended in a very deliberate puzzle.  Perhaps for him it’s “not the point” whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead. For me – and clearly for many thousands of others – it is precisely the point.  And it is the point whatever the writer thinks about it.  Because The Sopranos is fiction, an invented world that now exists, within a piece of art, entirely independently of David Chase, he has no privileged role in dictating how we interpret it.  That is down to those who watch and think about it, and who seek the fussy clarity of the living analyst rather than the statuesque beauty of the dead author.

‘Master of Sopranos’ [3] has sought that clarity.  He deserves congratulations for his time and effort, and his attempt to relate his opinions to evidence from the series.  Matt Zoller Seitz [4] misrepresents him and avoids any accurate evidence associated with the piece of fiction he’s talking about – whilst still maintaining his right to any provocatively silly opinion he likes.  He’s also, quite oddly, employed the idea of the ‘death of the author’ in condescending tones alongside positive quotes about what Chase really ‘meant’.  Tut-tut.

But I don’t need to know what Chase meant.

I don’t need a scriptwriter to tell me what spiritual questions I should look at in my own life, or what to think whilst watching television.  These are issues for dedicated moral philosophers, mystics, critics and bloggers.  Chase has no status in these areas. He wrote (with many collaborators) a work of tv fiction that has attained – for now – the aura of great literature.  He is, if he’s lucky, a dead author.  If two-dimensional moving picture stories continue to exert their spell over human beings for more centuries to come, The Sopranos may be part of the canon.  Tony Soprano will join Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes and God amongst the immortals humans have created to ask questions about.  And nobody will care what David Chase said once filming finished.

Wu and the art of ghetto revolution, pt. 2.2

20 Jul

I told you last time around that this post would look at Georges Sorel’s idea of faith, and its connection with some of the ideas expressed or implicit in the Tao of Wu.  I lied, at least in part.

This entry is all about Georges.

The central idea that Sorel fixes upon in Reflections on Violence is that of the General Strike (yes, the capital letters are deliberate).  Old lefties, the over-educated, and people who have been on a protest with either, will know exactly what this means.  Or at least they will believe that they do.

The conventional idea of a general strike is something like the episode which occurred in early May 1926 in Britain.  This was a nine-day long work stoppage by the biggest three of the trades unions, and most other trades unions too, with the aim of preventing cuts in mineworkers’ pay.  If the entire working-class downed tools, the miners would win.  But the Railwaymen’s union leader, J.H.Thomas, cut a deal with the government to bring the stoppage to an end.  And thus betrayed the miners, who were starved back to work several months later.

[We’ll leave the iniquity of J.H.Thomas to a blog entry in the far future, save to say that for years after, every working-class room that he entered started to fill with whispers saying “Jimmy’s selling you, Jimmy’s selling you”].

But even if the betrayal hadn’t come from Jimmy, it would have come from somewhere.  Because the trade unionists and the left of the time were simply aiming to win the miners’ aims within the debate as it existed.  At the point of winning within that debate, they would have agreed to return power to the enemies of the miners, meaning that the betrayal would simply have been postponed.

Sorel’s vision of the General Strike, by contrast, is not something designed to win an argument within the terms of capitalism – it is in the overcoming of both capitalism and of the leaders who define themselves by their opposition to it.  And, as you might gather from Sorel’s text being called ‘Reflections on Violence’, the General Strike understood in this way means a lot more than simply not going to work.  Although Sorel, frustratingly, isn’t about to tell us how much more.  As far as he is concerned, that is for the working-class, inspired by the myth of the ‘General Strike’, to work out for themselves in the act of striking. And presumably, in the acts of violence that will inevitably flow from it.  This violence is likely to be extreme, and offensive, rather than mild and defensive.  Especially given that he sees this radical working-class as remaking their world upon the basis of faith just as the Jesuits and the Reformation did – through faith as opposed to reason.  Conviction and lived experience will supply the details in time.  Or:

the general strike must be taken as a whole and undivided, and the passage from capitalism to Socialism conceived as a catastrophe, the development of which baffles description.

Unfortunately, it is precisely those things that ‘baffle description’ which need describing in order to encourage people to have faith.  This is the trick which has enabled religion, and religion-like systems, to trump reason on a regular basis throughout history – not least during the alleged ‘age of reason’.  And it’s this faith in ‘faith’ – without a willingness to spell out what there is to have faith in, that fatally weakens the Sorelian idea of the General Strike.

Next time I’ll join the dots back to the Wu-Tang.

 

 

Wu and the Art of Ghetto Revolution, Pt. 1

10 Oct

Last time I was here I mentioned my friend Shady, who responded by asking me to mention him again.

It seems like it was fated to happen regardless, as it was him who provided me with a copy of The Wu-Tang Manual by the Rza.  And when I completed my last entry I had already decided that a (qualified) defence of one of the Rza’s more contentious scientific claims was in order.  Albeit one from his later book The Tao of Wu.

That claim was that sufficient faith could enable somebody to become invisible, and that faith had on one occasion enabled Rza himself to achieve that feat whilst being pursued by a rival gang.  It would be fair enough, at least on the surface, to perceive such a statement as ridiculous at best: and at worst as a straight-up lie.  One of my favourite literary bloggers sees it in precisely that way:

 http://readingpushkin.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/the-world-according-to-rza/

But if we peer just an atom’s depth further,  it reads a little differently.

Let me tell you a rationalist story; a rationalist story of faith.  A story of the New York projects, or maybe an everyday story of Manchester.

Or maybe – please indulge me – a short story for each.

Let’s go in reverse order, and start with Manchester.  If it’s good enough for Engels and Morrissey, it’s good enough for me.

Although during a thunderous downpour  in 1989, it wasn’t so great.  I was an eighteen year old two hundred miles from home  with only pennies in my pocket, a guitar I couldn’t play or sell, and no map or hope of getting a hitch until it stopped raining.  Every doorway seemed to be flooded and every underpass to have turned into a river.  Every house was lit up like it was Christmas, which it nearly was, and it seemed I had landed in the only city in England with no bus shelters.  And no-one on the street who I could ask for directions.   When I followed road signs I found on detours that car drivers would hardly notice, but that took lifetimes on foot.  And when I stopped moving I got Arctic cold.

So I simply walked in the direction that felt closest to South-East.  After five hours of stomping through the rain crying with wet and cold I hit a motorway slip road next to open fields and hedges.  I nipped under a hedge, dumped the soaking clothes I was wearing, put on the only other clothes in my rucksack, nipped back under the hedge and stuck my thumb out.  Maybe I’ve been colder or more desperate in my life – but I don’t remember when.  The smile on my face though, was like a toothpaste advert.  And that smile got me a lift in minutes out of Manchester, even though I knew perfectly well that drivers never pick up hitchers in the rain, or young male hitchers alone, or in the middle of the night, or hitchers who are long-haired and dirty and smelly.  But that was one of two drivers in a lifetime of hitching who insisted on taking me to my door.  Him and his partner, so they said, had only gone out for a drive because they were bored sitting in the house.

Once in a while I think about how my life would have been if I’d lacked the faith to just walk out of the city.  But not that often.  Just when I see somebody being ‘sensible’ or ‘rational’ and denying that faith can overcome impossible odds.

Note that I’m not talking about faith in some transcendent God, or the shallow faith that says that everything will turn out alright in the end.  But the faith that enables the person holding it to do what is necessary to survive in whatever situation they are presented with.

Obviously, all of us run out of that kind of faith in the end, hence the universal fact of death.  But it’s still possible for it to make some difference in even the most unlikely situations.

Such as this:

Everybody knows your face in this project, because you’re one of the beautiful ones.  You’re one of the ones who’s already had the clothes, the cars, the jewellery, the women that everybody wants.  Everybody knows you and there’s even rappers making songs about you, saying that they’re just like you, that one day they’re going to be on a level with you, on a stage with you, on a stage in place of you, saying that they’re better than you, saying that you took every lyric you ever stole from them, saying that you better watch your back and protect your neck.  Saying that all your talk about doing what you do for everybody together is bullshit and that you’re a thief like everybody else, that you’re just out for self.  Saying that you’ve got no magic and they’re going to put you down.

And when you realise that they meant it all along there’s a gang only yards away from you and you’re running like fuck and it doesn’t matter how fast you run because there’s one of them on your heels with pace like Usain Bolt before his first fag of the day and there’s no hope left and all you have left is faith and you pray to whatever is or is not there and to the ghosts of all the chances you did not take and the spirits of the dead red men haunting the ground where you’re about to spill your blood.

Then the sprinter behind you loses his footing just for a second and you round the corner of the block.  You’ve got six seconds, at the outside, to save your life.

You take off your $500 necklace, give it to a little kid and tell him to take it home to his mum.

Tick.

You take off your new jacket, rip out the lining so you’ve got a ribbon to use as a tourniquet.

Tock.

Then you hunker down, pick up dogshit off the ground and wipe it on your jeans (tick) as you fall back into a beggar-style hunch against the wall.

Tock.

You tighten up the tourniquet and start to pull all the faces you’ve seen smack addicts pull.

Tick.  You ask yourself how do they feel when they do that, and you answer that question with every muscle of your body.

Tock.

Your enemies turn the corner.  Nobody’s going to trip up this time.  But they’re too late.  As you mumble into the drool across your face one of them steps right over you.

Tick.

You’re invisible.

——————————

Next time on nosuchthingasthemarket:

                                    Wu and the art of ghetto revolution, Pt.2

                                    … on faith and collective political organisation.