Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Stupidity of Jeremy Hunt






















Do you know what I can't stand about Jeremy Hunt? That NHS pin. Everywhere he goes it's there, pretending he cares when we know he'd like nothing better than to see the back end of the NHS. Do you know what else I can't stand about him? The egregious stupidity, which he also wears like that blasted badge. And it just so happens he's been showing it off today.

You may have seen him get into a Twitter altercation with Stephen Hawking. Naturally. you don't need to be the best known name in cosmology to get a handle on what Hunt is doing to the NHS, but the intellectual celebrity surrounding Hawking's critique of the cuts, the short staffing, the privatisation ensures it has more heft than your common or garden lefty celebrity or shadow minister. What makes the criticism damning is Hawking draws attention to the fact Hunt and his boss routinely ignore the weight of evidence in their decision making. For example, the weekend deaths line Hunt has peddled for the last 18 months to prosecute his attack on the working conditions of junior doctors is demonstrably untrue - Hawking duly points to the relevant studies. How then does Hunt respond to this charge? By doubling down. In two tweets Hunt argued the 2015 research he has appropriated to bludgeon the doctors was the most comprehensive ever and therefore Hawking was wrong. No attempt to rebut the criticism, no acknowledgement of subsequent evidence challenging the report, nothing. All else may as well not exist.

It goes without saying that Jeremy Hunt has form for stupidity, but his and his party's behaviour doesn't do stupid things because they're thick (though plenty of Tory MPs are), but because life as a politician, the servicing of certain interests, and the structurally dysfunctional character of their party links arms and cancans their stupidity to the world. Take the political life as the starting point. As a minister, your day-to-day is entirely filled with meetings, hanging out in the Commons, more meetings, going on visits, reading executive summaries of reports, occasional media and yes, not forgetting more meetings. It's a job set up to make decisions, but doesn't actually allow space for thinking about decisions. All the options are laid out by the ideological kin you promoted to special advisor jobs to do that for you, and are framed in terms of the line of march decided by the Prime Minister. It means evidence is only ever selected and cited as long as it can support your position, and if none can be found there's always the tried and trusted method of bashing the experts. In Hunt's case we're seeing this most cynical empiricism in action. Because some evidence appeared that offered convenient cover for an attack on medical staff, Hunt now clings to it forever and all time. The rest is just noise as far as he's concerned. And this is not a property unique to him, all ministers - especially those in contentious briefs - operate this way, regardless of party. The truth does not matter, only the politics does.

What amplifies the stupidity of the health secretary is the Tory approach to the NHS as a whole. Instead of a service to be invested in and improved, they see it as an opportunity to make money for the interests they represent. Why go to the trouble of spending extra cash and leveraging the state to drive innovation and new markets when you can take existing public spending and restructure the institutions in receipt of the cash so the Tories' business friends can have a slice of the pie. As the Tories claim, in the cynical tradition of factual accuracy, the NHS isn't privatised. Instead services are contracted out slice-by-slice, and successful private bidders drive down costs so they can profit from the margins. It's a model long seen in local authority care and is now standard across the NHS. The most egregious examples being those where contract winners then subcontract the work back to public institutions, a truly parasitical and disgusting affair. Hunt's attempt to hold down pay in the NHS, and to rip up junior doctors' working conditions, is to make more of the NHS amenable to profit taking of this kind. And if it all fails? Then blame rising demand, spending beyond our means, and make the case for the introduction of more charges.

Lastly, the pursuit of short term interests on behalf of big business is a further manifestation of Conservative Party decadence. In other words, the Tories have become partially dislocated from the kinds of interests they represent and as a rule pursue policies that benefit certain business sectors (or businesses) and/or the perceived short-term interests of the Tory party at the expense of the general interests of their class. We saw it on Brexit, we see it in the knowledge economy, we see it in the NHS. The decadent approach retards Britain's economic performance and therefore the business opportunities available to their class, all the while creating social blockages and social problems for the rest of us. Within their own terms the Tories are not fit to govern.

It doesn't have to be like this, but the means of securing change is not a matter of polite persuasion, of getting Hunt and others like him to look at the evidence. Hunt will not pay any attention to the critiques of his and the government's position until they are forced to back down. This is where an increasingly assertive Labour Party at Westminster, pressure from a public growing more aware of the dangers the Tories pose the health service, and by protest and workplace action by NHS staff themselves comes in. Hunt and his kind get away with ruinous incompetence because they can. Hopefully we're not too far from the time when this will be possible no longer.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Fascism and Economic Anxiety






















What's the liberal hot take on last weekend's white supremacist march in Charlottesville, North Virginia? According to Twitter, and never missing an opportunity to be smug, it definitely, definitely was not about "economic anxiety". Here are some typical examples. They think they're being clever funny ironic, of burnishing woke creds while caricaturing and mocking those annoying people who insist there is a relationship between what goes on in someone's life and their outlook on the world. This liberal heroism merely advertises their inability to think, and broadcasts their unwillingness to do so.

And what is more, they are entirely wrong. They are even wrong on their assumptions about what economic anxiety is. Here I want to look at economic anxiety in a narrow and an expanded sense, that is how economics 'stands alone' (which as a proposition is only possible in an analytical exercise like this, in the real world it cannot be separated from wider social processes and inequalities) and how it combines, in this case, with race/ethnicity and, crucially, gender as a way into explaining how white supremacists become the hate mongering shits they are.

What is less than useless is the position of liberal heroism. Here racists are racist because they're racist. People voted for Donald Trump because they're racist. Studies prove it. Racists marched in Charlottesville because they're racists. Racists hate on blacks and Jews because they're racist, and so on. There is no attempt at a social explanation here, rather they're reducing racism to a matter of choice, to personal morality. In so doing they manage to avoid facing up to the sorts of social conditions that manufacture fascists. Or to put it another way, while all fascists are awful human beings, they are congenitally uninterested in why not every awful human being is a fascist.

Let's begin with economic anxiety, narrowly conceived. Traditionally fascism has been regarded as a movement powered primarily by petit bourgeois and declassed elements (the unemployed, precariously employed, etc.). That isn't to say working class people never get involved, but in the "classical" cases as per Germany and Italy the other classes and class fragments were present in disproportionate numbers. It all makes a certain sense when you look at these as positions and relationships: these are de facto unstable and precarious. Effectively, they are individuals versus the weight of the economic world. If you are a business person, even a successful (small/medium) business person, your position is caught in a vice. The employee class, the proletarians, are the pains you can't do without and they so pester you with unreasonable demands like health and safety at work, time off and decent wages. And at any time big business threatens to squash you with the competitive advantages they can bring to bear. If you are not a business owner and are declassed thanks to unemployment or sporadic work, you are still thrown onto your own devices. Unemployment and precarious employment are social failings, but experiencing it and the social security institutions policing it put your situation on you. Some thrive on this, but others are filled with existential dread. Among this layer then, we tend to find a concern for order, a tendency toward nostalgia, a hankering for authoritarianism and hostility toward scapegoats deemed to threaten and/or undermine their received position and perceived privileges.

As we have seen before, there is an assumption that economic anxiety just equals working class people, which is demonstrably false. While plenty of (white) working class people voted for Trump, it was the wealthier layers who turned out in disproportionate numbers to back him. The persistence of this understanding, or rather misunderstanding of economic anxiety starts looking deliberate the more it is repeated. It's almost as if layers of official opinion formation cannot cope with the idea of fascists as their local plumber, hot dog man, or restaurant manager. It's easier to dehumanise fascists if you conceive them as poor and working class. The more social distance you can put between them and you, the better.

So much for the narrow economics, what about a more expansive approach to anxiety? As per recent arguments, we live in a society which has been totally subsumed by capital. Market relationships and market logics have penetrated all aspects of social life, and increasingly the business of capitalism is about taking from the common store of social knowledge (or 'the common'), repackaging it and selling it back to us. Here, labour in advanced capitalist societies is increasingly immaterial. At the behest of our employers, we are much more likely to produce knowledge, information, services, relationships and types of people (subjectivities). We also tend to do this in our own time as well. This blog post as an example of knowledge/information-sharing and (hopefully!) subjectivity formation, for instance. Capitalism is now in the business of producing people, which means the contradictions and conflicts between capital and labour have rippled beyond the workplace and fused with the politics of identity formation. Class and gender and race and other locations of so-called identity politics can only ever be separated analytically: in real life they combine and condition each.

What has this got to do with our Charlottesville sad sacks? Quite a bit. One thing that strikes about last weekend, far right mobilisations and fascism generally is, well, where are the women? The alt-right and white nationalism are manly affairs. Very manly affairs. It glorifies fighting, militarism, weaponry, misogyny and the rest. It rails against anything that presents a danger to a mythologised, idealised and brittle hyper-masculinity, and here it conjoins with the racialism. The "threats" arrayed against whiteness can only be seen off by militant manliness, of white men protecting theirs and their bloodlines by having lots of children and aggressively seeing off competitors and deviants. Hence its fragility vis a vis male homosexuality (in particular). Its promise is a society in which everyone knows their place. All men are (white) men for whom there are enough jobs and enough women. It is an order that institutionalises white power and male privilege under some benevolent fascist administration that represses the deviants. It's a heaven for a few built on the hell of the many, of women, of "undesirable" races and ethnicities to be enslaved and wiped out, of sexual difference kept in the closet under pain of lethal force.

What kind of person is going to find views of this kind attractive? Presumably white men would in disproportionate numbers. And why might some of them (after all, not all white men ...)? Because of the lot young white men are facing, of a progressive dissolution of a privileged gender and racial locations. Let's bring it narrowly back to economics for a moment. Many scholars have written about the feminisation of labour markets. This doesn't just mean the progressive integration of more women into work, but also the spread of conditions one would previously associate with "traditional" women's employment (part time, low pay, short term) as well as the content of work. The immaterial labour that has always coexisted alongside the development of capitalism in the home, the affective caring work overwhelmingly undertaken by wives and mothers helped produce human beings with certain sets of capacities that left their children work ready, to a degree. Immaterial labour as an increasingly dominant arena of capital accumulation sees larger numbers of men drawn into affective, service-oriented cognitive labour, the sorts of labour that also produces social relations, networks, and human beings of certain types. Therefore, not only are younger men having to compete with women for jobs more regularly than their dads and grandads did, but they do so for jobs that fall short of the traditionally masculine manly man. There is a mismatch between this received masculinity, which finds itself expressed in whole and in part through a bewildering array of cultural artefacts, and the reality. Matthew Heimbach, the well known white supremacist interviewed in Vice's acclaimed Charlottesville documentary is a testament to this. Prior to his politics getting him the sack, he worked in child protection.

If that wasn't bad enough, women have expectations of being treated like human beings. The feminist movement has asserted women's autonomy. Millions no longer want to be the arm candy or the mothers gender ideology throws at women and men, and millions refuse the gender apartheid that underpins traditional male privilege and power. With greater freedoms, they might not only out-compete men at work but may also choose to be intimate with men who are not white. Therefore in the white patriarchal imaginary the liberated woman is a double threat - a threat to their economic well being and masculinist conceptions of work, and a sexual threat in her potential exodus from and abandonment of white men who feel entitled to her body. Hence, particularly in America, how the racist anxieties towards black men is bound up with a sexual anxiety, of their being hypersexual, better endowed, more manly than white men. A triptych of of gender, sexuality, and race on which the anxieties of alt-right, fascist America are represented.

Fascism is a promise to do away with these tensions. Instead of leaving white male privilege in contention, it reinforces it. Turning the clock back, rewinding the film, of repeating history is about stamping on uncertainty and, yes, anxiety (be it economic or otherwise). Women and minority ethnicities are to be put back in the box, the complex processes of struggle underpinning the feminisation of work substituted for conspiracy fairy tales of Jewish/communist/Jewish and communist manipulations, the fevered reification of masculinity with its celebration of militarism and war, and society locked into a rigid patterning of authority (overseen by a dictatorial patriarch) not only is a simple vision, but one that can only be achieved through the blood and fire of redemptive violence. Fascism is more than a dystopia attractive to a would-be elite, it's a weak apologia for criminality and wanton murder, of promising empowerment via the infliction of pain and suffering on one's enemies.

All this ineluctably leads to the conclusion that fascism has a great deal to do with economic anxiety refracted through class, gender, race and ethnicity. Understanding what fascism is, where it comes from, what it appeals to and crucially, who the fascists are and how they are made is not an idle exercise. It's the very basics of militant anti-fascism. Knowing what generates fascism allows for it to be pulled up by its roots, and that is inseparable from a wider programme of political change - a programme that addresses the antagonisms and conflicts pregnant with fascist possibilities by abolishing them altogether, and that brings us back to capital and its apparatus of command. Liberals fly from even trying to understand how their system works, and that might have something to do with why their anti-fascism considers racism and white supremacy matters of individual moral failure.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Faces of Fascism





















Look at the state of these. Young white American men. Young white American men with burners on a fascist march in Charlottesville. You might have heard a wee bit about it. This led to clashes, the murder of a comrade protesting against these pricks, and a huge political fall out thanks to Trump's trouble condemning the violence of white supremacists and Theresa May's inability to criticise him. I have another post brewing about what happened at the weekend, but I'd just like to make a side contribution about fascist faces. That is we don't normally see them, do we? What are the Ku Klux Klan best known for, apart from appalling racism and violence towards black people? Their hoods. Hoods that were donned by otherwise respectable southern men to put a distance between their banal, upstanding everyday selves and the commission of racist intimidation. A number of people have picked up on this to suggest a couple of interrelated points. That the election of Donald Trump has emboldened the far right to come out of the shadows and mobilise publicly, and open fascism now when their forebears concealed their identities under the hood suggests things are worse now than they were then.

Racism is as American as mom and apple pie. But so is anti-racism and anti-fascism. The latter is where the bulk of Americans are, particularly the young, and the left can easily out-mobilise the pathetic forces of the KKK, the so-called alt-right and the heavily armed bands of self-styled race warriors, survivalists, and end-of-the-world psychotics. The America of racist cops who murder young black men with impunity is opposed by the America of Black Lives Matter and increasing numbers of appalled people. Because of past struggles and important victories the weight of history is against the hipster Nazis and their dreams of race war and genocide in the United States. It's therefore a real stretch to suggest we're on the threshold of a fash revival, despite the boosters provided by Trump and Breitbart and those magazine articles dripping superlatives over Richard Spencer's wardrobe. Still, if American fascism and racism is in long term decline that doesn't explain why so many would-be Nazis happily posed for pictures and had their mugs plastered all over the internet. In addition to the emboldening thesis (yes, a movement can simultaneously be in decline and be emboldened) there are two additional explanations for this behaviour.

The anonymity afforded by the internet and what that means for popular culture is so 1990s. Read any scholarship on presentations of self and online communities from 20 years ago and it truly is a foreign country. Today, thanks to social media, it's all about the attention economy. Just as celebrities vie for attention on social networks and traditional media outlets, many millions of us willingly play the same game in our own personal friendship universes. Content creation inculcates a certain level of narcissism, of widely projecting oneself onto your networks regardless of whether you're a YouTube star, throw out podcasts, tweet, prattle away on Facebook or, um, blog. The attraction of attention is incentivised by the very structure of the platforms, and people have an interest in wearing a big arrow over their head pointing at them. This attention economy valorises novelty and finds itself often expressed by being in or at events and/or hanging around with others, which in turn can (and does) spark off interest from the network (such as celebrity selfies - crucially, only one selfie of me and Jeremy Corbyn exists). This applies to political people who want to be seen at some sort of political event, having a night out on the lash, and ... fascists. Our far right frat boys and gamergating basement dwellers with their burners and idiot insecurities are entirely habituated to this culture of visibility and being seen. It would have occurred to few of them to cover their face and protect their identity because they'd want to pore over the photographs after the event and share them among their networks to show they were at Charlottesville, how hardcore and authentic they were, and what have you.

And then there is naivete. These kids are used to frictionless political activity. Hanging out online with like-minded volk, the hairiest it gets is anonymously trolling lefties or watching other fascists, like Spencer, getting punched. But despite being aware of the social costs of being an open racist and white nationalist, it isn't real until you have experienced it yourself. In their arrogance and narcissism the most these fash were expecting was a few placard wavers and that's it. They weren't expecting to be met by militant and sometimes violent opposition, or have their faces plastered all over international news, or have themselves doxxed and exposed, or get fired from their jobs or, in one case, disowned by their parents. If a few cuts and bruises is all a Charlottesville marcher has to cry about, they got off lightly. Some of these inadequates returned home to ostracisation and ruin. They are learning that being an out and proud Hitler fanboy does have consequences, that the social world cleaves not to a so-called master race but spits at them.

Monday, 14 August 2017

On Labour's "Sexist" Industrial Strategy






















When Jess Phillips speaks it rarely ends well. On this occasion, seemingly determined to ruffle as many feathers as possible, she is reported as saying that "left-wing men are the absolute worst" when it comes to sexism, and that Labour's industrial strategy is sexist. Challenged on this by Caroline Molloy, she said she really meant lefty men are merely the more annoying than the sexists of the right who parade their misogyny alongside their stupidity. Ah yes, she didn't mean to say left men are the worst, just like the time she bathed in the media attention after telling Diane Abbott to "fuck off". Or when she threatened to stab Jeremy Corbyn "in the front", or of accusing the Labour leader of "hating women". Now, I'm not about to dismiss Jess's experiences of sexism and mansplaining in the party. It happens and if you're a bloke who doubts it or doesn't see it, why not ask some women comrades? Sadly sexism is alive and well because Labour is not hermetically sealed off from the rest of society and is bound to reflect what happens in the social world. The point is not to let it lie. Here all men in the party have a duty to support women and challenge sexist attitudes. Remember sexism, like racism, is scabbing.

Where I am going to say Jess is wrong is on the "sexism" of Labour's economic programme. Of the industrial strategy, women are "entirely missing" as it's all about "men with shovels", she says. Let us examine the evidence. The documentation that has gone to the National Policy Forum says its key task is the creation of highly skilled, high waged, and high productivity jobs. This means focusing on skills via the introduction of a National Education Service for lifelong retraining and learning, more money in infrastructure investment, a more industrially active state that identifies and makes up for gaps created by market failure, better procurement practices, capping energy costs and investing, getting a good trade deal with Europe, and investing heavily in research. Looking at the economy section of our 2017 manifesto, the same sort of stuff is repeated. True enough, combing through both we don't see any mention of women and gender inequality and superficially it looks like a poor show versus, say, the Women's Equality Party. However, to suggest this is indicative of sexism in Labour's programme is a real failure of political imagination. Or cynical reasoning, depending on your view of Jess.

Take, for instance, the national education service. A lot of the Labour right don't like this idea because they would prefer to cling to tuition fees and, for some, too much education is a bad thing. Yet who would benefit most from this? Women would. If the job-destroying predictions of the coming wave of automation are realised, it is women who are going to be disproportionately affected. Clerical work, and particularly the low-paid and most repetitive sectors vulnerable to automation and obsolescence is going to hit them more than men. Therefore a new education service can help them retrain and relearn, just as it would for mums who take extended career breaks to look after their kids. It would be there to help them acquire new skills and knowledge or just to provide a refresh. In short, it gives more opportunities to women to lead the kinds of lives they want.

On procurement, Labour would expect companies vying for public sector contracts meet certain social criteria around wages, paying taxes, equal opportunities, workers' rights and trade unions. Think about the burgeoning care industry, which in local authority areas is largely outsourced after decades of privatisation. Care workers are expected to meet a client's care needs in a strictly allotted time frame before moving on to the next, pay is poor, and workers are often demotivated and cannot do a proper job. As you tend to find women in these roles, again, tell me who is going to benefit from changing the rules?

It goes on. Making life easier for small businesses would benefit women surging into self-employment. Tougher regulation of finance and more state intervention makes the economy less vulnerable to shocks, which benefits women who are more likely to be in casual work, and "insourcing" utilities and price controls means household budgets stretch further.

As we live in the 21st century and our society is increasingly characterised by immaterial labour - the production of knowledge, information, services, social relations, people - what is work and what is the economy is increasingly fuzzy. I don't expect Jess to be up on the leading edge of debates in radical and social theory, but I would have thought her experience working for domestic violence and sexual abuse services might have alerted her to the role women by and large play as 'affective labourers' doing emotional work for partners and children, and how important this work is for the reproduction of social life. Therefore, Labour's pledge to tackle violence in the home, to ensure women's refuges and rape crisis are properly funded (and cannot simply be turned off by central government, as has happened under the Tories), outlaw maternity discrimination at work and look at ways of making work more pregnancy-friendly, and lastly gender pay auditing are as much industrial strategy issues as rolling out superfast broadband and investing in renewable energy. The same applies for raising the minimum wage, protecting pensions, reworking social security and the NHS and introducing an integrated NHS/social services National Care Service. All are entirely central to an industrial strategy, and all are entirely central to improving the lot of women.

Could more be done? Yes. Labour needs to be more explicit about the intertwining of economic and social relationships, and that the former is only possible because of the social infrastructure that women, generally, have a greater role in providing and reproducing than men. Here the Women's Equality Party manifesto does a good job, even if some of its policies don't go far enough in my view. Though it is something worth looking at and learning from. That however does not mean Labour's industrial strategy is sexist considering the substantial contribution it would make to the material lot and provision of opportunities for women.

Sadly, this truth about Labour's economics does not matter for Jess Phillips. As someone with a talent for attracting the spotlight, Jess has constructed a media personality solely around a snide remark here or a "brave" intervention there against the party and its leadership. For all I know she might attack the Tories more venomously and vociferously, but there you have your problem - we just don't know. How she carries on is entirely up to her, of course. Just as it will be up to her constituency organisation whether they give Jess another four or five years come reselection time.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

UKIP's Fascist Future?




















What is going to happen to the United Kingdom Independence Party? Not many people care any more. Since they were broken at the Stoke-on-Trent by-election its fortunes have gone from bad to worse. Members have fallen away faster than Paul Nuttall's hair follicles, UKIP has tanked in the polls and they scored their worst general election result since 2001. What do you do when Brexit - your raison d'etre - is now owned by the Conservative Party, when Nigel Farage is more interested in presenting radio shows and having selfies with Donald Trump, politics has shifted appreciably to the left and not many people give a fig about what you have to say? Under such circumstances folding is an option, but there is a modest local authority gravy train to protect.

The biggest problem for UKIP is its social base has entirely evaporated, and when political parties are expressions of classes and class fractions that is something of a deal. Without an alignment to a constituency, which in UKIP's case was always quite volatile, it is loose from the rest of society and is buffeted by the turbulence even further to the margins. And once there, empty of social content, it becomes the battleground of (effectively) de-socialised, detached individuals. This shows up especially in leadership contests. As big parties are coalitions of interests, different political figures and currents represent certain constituencies. When there are large numbers of candidates, chances are the relationship between the party and the wider world is somewhat tenuous. That UKIP has 11 people standing for the role says all you need to know.

There are two front runners in the race to replace Nuttall and, interestingly, there is a smidgen of a political difference between them. The "moderate" appears to be David Kurten, who sits on the London Assembly. In his corner you will find Arron Banks, Raheem Kassam of Breitbart, and that no mark conspiracy fool from Infowars. I know it's old, but a more accurate picture of the dud, the mad, and the smugly is seldom found. Incredibly, there is worse political effluvia floating in the hard right toilet bowl and our second candidate found them. Anne Marie Waters, self-styled anti-Islam activist has had her person endorsed by Geert Wilders and Tommy Robinson (or whatever his name is these days). The Charybdis of homophobic batshittery versus the Scylla of a BNP turn. It couldn't happen to a nicer party.

Waters has the higher profile by a country mile thanks to her being a regular on far right scene. As "director" of the Sharia Watch blog and founder member of the still-born Pegida UK, I first came across her thanks to the efforts of Andy Newman, who outed Waters as an anti-Islam bigot trying to get on the Parliamentary gravy train via the Labour Party. Among her political positions are the enforced closures of mosques and mass deportations, which marks her out as a right charmer. She also probably stands a good chance of getting the leadership thanks to 1,000 people signing up to the party to vote for her. Having Waters as leader is too much for Farage, who has said UKIP would be "finished" in the event of her victory. It's difficult to see what passes for UKIP's faces - Suzanne Evans, Patrick O'Flynn, perhaps even Neil Hamilton - hanging around either. Still, no matter how putrid they become UKIP's safe seat on BBC Question Time is unlikely to be affected.

Here is the problem. There is a political market for anti-Islam bigotry, unfortunately. It's not a massive one - after all, the BNP at its height only mustered 50-odd councillors, a couple of MEPs and a London Assembly member. The Waters strategy does hold the possibility of connecting with and catering for a very small, very backward section of the electorate. She offers something, even it means changing the party colours from putrid purple to fascist brown - and for some members staring oblivion in the face, that will do. It comes with a hefty cost though. UKIP would be finished as a party with a hope of future mainstream success. See, there is a slight possibility of a future UKIP revival. If Brexit is "betrayed" and the Tories are seen to be either delivering an insufficient exit from the EU (whatever that means) or bending the knee to Brussels as we negotiate from a position of obvious weakness, the volatile ex-kipper vote now with Theresa May could be off on its travels again. While such voters have no love for Muslims, UKIP as the BNP mk II carries the pall political stigma. They will likely go where Farage leads. That could be UKIP if Kurten wins, or curtains entirely if Waters gets the job.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Rallies Work



















I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. Rallies in politics matter, and you needn't take my word for it any more as Alia Middleton at the LSE has crunched the numbers. She found that where Theresa May set down during the election campaign, her visits had little appreciable effect on the outcome in those seats. When Jeremy Corbyn rolled into town for one of his rallies, the party vote share change went up almost double versus constituencies he didn't visit. Amaze.

If you cast your mind back to any point before this year's general election campaign, some wise old wise old could be found lecturing the world about how rallies do not win elections. Indeed, some might have said they're a complete waste of time. Why bother listening to someone tell you things you already know when you could be posting leaflets and knocking on doors? And, of course, in Jez's case it was just another case of him being in his comfort zone talking to folks who agree with him. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Rallies are important for several reasons. They bring large numbers of people together, just like demonstrations. When big numbers of like mind turn out for something, it not only builds up a collective feeling of solidarity, it enables people to meet, talk, get involved. Why do you think Momentum, Labour and sundry Trot groups have stalls at these sorts of events? Because they know new people will be drawn there out of curiosity and interest, a fair chunk of whom would be looking to get involved further. Second, rallies - especially Jez rallies - are a spectacle. They're something we haven't seen with any degree of regularity since the mid-1980s, particularly outside London, and for large numbers of younger people it is entirely novel. If you happen to just be passing by and a thousand or so people are gathered, chances are you're going to hang around and see what the fuss is about. And think of what the spads and wonks call the optics. During the election people saw Theresa May shuttled from one staged event to another, whereas Jez was meeting and addressing real people. When the media barrage is this man is weak/dangerous/unpopular and yet the same is showing him in front of crowds, that message ain't going to wash.

Lastly, don't underestimate the impact this has on the Labour Party's enemies. Rallies are supposed to show your opposition the kind of strength you can muster. When Jeremy Corbyn can pop up in any part of the country and draw a crowd, that's going to make the Tories nervous. They are finally waking up to we saw in Derby North. A rally also ensured coverage in the local rags (every local newspaper reader is very likely to be a voter), which would have percolated out into the nearby marginals. Their geographic spread is therefore unlikely to have made much of a difference. Meanwhile, May's strategy didn't help her - the more the public saw, the more stilted, awkward, robotic she and "her team" appeared.

This week Jez embarked on his summer tour of marginal constituencies. There will still be grumblers and naysayers grumbling and naysaying, but now the electoral impact of this strategy cannot be denied.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Five Reasons Why a New Centre Party is a Stupid Idea



















It's truly silly season if talk of a new centre party is abroad yet again. James Chapman, ex-Daily Mail and former office boss in David Davis's Department for Exiting the European Union sparked off the latest chittery-chattery in a series of pointed posts on yours and mine's favourite social media outlet. He said Boris Johnson should be banged up for his moronic £350m/week pledge to fund the NHS, and took several gormless ministers to task about how Brexit is affecting their briefs. Of more interest is his desire for a new 'Democratic Party' that would seek to overturn the result of last year's referendum. No cheap shots on the incongruence between the name and the reluctance to accept a democratic decision, please.

Unfortunately for "Chappers" his new party fantasy is just that. It might be a dream he shares with Tony Blair, the Jolyon scene and "very interesting people", but it's the pantomime gesturing of a political elite left out of sorts by the post-referendum, post-election landscape. It appears superficially similar to what went before, but try as they may it rebels against them. Nothing underlines this confusion more than their stubborn, centre party meme. Here then, for the umpteenth time are five reasons why it won't work and cannot work.

Show me the money, show me the money, show me the mon-ey
There was talk before the election, at least according to gossip relayed by The Mail of Tony Blair lining up donors to fund a new centre outfit should Labour losing badly but Jeremy Corbyn stay on. Since then, nothing. Lord Sainsbury, the normal "secretive billionaire" go-to for political money has decided that charidee alone will now benefit from his financial largesse. And there are no other takers. According to Private Eye, Blair even tried touching Brexit-supporting ex-Labour donor John Mills for moolah. You can imagine the conversation didn't go well. The problem with rich donors is they expect a return as they would with any other investment. That His Blairness, now worth a reputed £60m give or take, isn't stumping up the readies says everything you need to know.

Absent friends
What MP is going to be tempted by a new centrist party? Apparently Chuka Umunna had one on the launch pad and ready to go, and then the electorate spoiled everything and awarded Labour its largest vote for 20 years. How thoughtless of them. Now, while Chuka might needle Corbyn over Brexit and sundry others cause mischief about Venezuela and the like, no one is about to tender their resignations for an unproven force. The same applies to annoyed Cameroons such as Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry. The one thing most MPs want is ... to remain MPs. Would anyone currently out of step with their respective parties want to go to the electorate with 'Democrats', 'Spring' or some other meaningless appellation and have someone else stand under the Tory or Labour banner? No. Simon "800 votes" Danczuk helpfully rendered his former colleagues a service by offering a vision of their potential futures to honourable members tempted to jump ship.

Generals without an army
Party members can be very annoying. They badger parliamentarians in their constituency/association meetings, bang on about issues no one cares about and sometimes have the temerity to want a degree of collective control over their party. Yet party members are a necessity too. You must have people to fill candidate vacancies in local elections, folks who'll speak to punters on the doors, on stalls, at work and in all the social settings they inhabit. Someone has to deliver the leaflets. Who then are going to do this for a new centre party? Though they're not going anywhere, let's have a brief look at the standard bearer of the self-described centre politics in Labour. That would be our friends Progress, and they're bust. The sugar daddy has left them high and dry, and an attempts to infuse new blood to keep them attractive has failed. Turnout in their recent round of strategy board elections finds just 50 young members, and 2,500 members in total. In short, a body not much larger than Britain's principal Trotskyist outfits and, I would wager, with considerably fewer activists. If Progress is the most likely feeder for a new party from Labour, what about the Tories? They're hardly overflowing with members and, if anything, their base is getting more right wing as all the kippers come back. The Cameroons did not have a numerous grassroots cadre to fall back on either. Might a new party attract people presently uninterested in politics? Unlikely, because ...

Dissolve the people and elect another
The electorate aren't in the market for a new centre party. The election result squeezed the smaller parties severely - even the SNP weren't immune and are likely to be less resilient in future. On the one side the Tories have stacked up a coalition of classes and class fractions in long-term decline, which means they are too. Labour on the other hand are presently benefiting from changes to the class composition of British capitalism, which accounts for how it is managing to win over middle class strata and the most exploited and marginalised. The election result was polarised because politics is now in line with the real polarisation taking place beneath the froth of official society. Our self-described centrists, our Blairists and Cameroons do not and cannot understand this because their privilege inoculates them against conceiving of the world as anything other than the shilly-shallying of fellow elites. Sadly for them, the realities of the new class politics is no respecter of ideological illusions. The real asserts itself whether you recognise it or not.

The only centre party in the (Westminster) village
All talk of a new centre party has an element of unreality about it, because there already is a centre party. The Liberal Democrats are hardly in the rudest health, but they're not doing too badly considering how the tectonics of politics are shifting. They now have in excess of 100,000 members, they made a modest advance in the election, and while their polling is rubbish local council by-elections are returning okay results. Not on the scale of their surge in the 12 months leading up to this year's council elections but respectable enough. What can a new party offer what the LibDems can't already, especially as they're now doubling down on a second referendum on the Brexit deal? Tony Blair and "celebrity" newspaper columnists? Please.

A new centre party is a stupid idea in defiance of political realities. But the people touting it are so disoriented by British politics that seeing through this absurdity cannot be ruled out.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Donald Trump vs North Korea























It's 9th August 2017, 72 years to the day since a nuclear weapon was last used in anger. How might the leadership of the nation who launched that attack commemorate the event. I suppose the United States could have taken a leaf out of Barack Obama's book and at least utter a few pious words. Then again, you can't expect anything of the sort from Donald Trump who responded to another outburst of North Korean tough talk - this time an empty boast of their intention to launch a pre-emptive attack on the US airbase on Guam - with the threat of nuclear war. An impeccable sense of timing, that man.

I'm forever hopeful we won't see war on the Korean peninsular, because anyone with half an understanding of the situation knows a conflict would exact a huge cost, even though the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. The South would pay a horrendous blood price, and the huge cost of rebuilding an entire country and dealing with millions traumatised by dictatorship, war and occupation would be on them. The Federal Republic had a hard time absorbing the former East Germany, and that was one of the world's richest countries doing so under more benign economic circumstances. A Republic of Korea doing the same with the north after a war, and after its economic and cultural centres around Seoul have been reduced to rubble by artillery is a nightmare that doesn't bear thinking about. Korean politicians know this, Korea-watchers know this and, crucially, Kim Jong-un knows this too.

Part of the recurrent difficulties the United States and the West have with North Korea is their inability (some might say refusal) to apply realpolitik motivations to its actions. For instance, speaking for the Trump White House Jim Mattis says the North must "stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons" and "stop isolating itself". And yet, from the point of view of the regime, acquiring nukes and possessing the means to deliver them to targets half a world away are entirely rational. You just have to look at the fates of others not a million miles away in awfulness from the Kim monarchy. Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime in Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction, hence taken out. Colonel Gaddafi's dictatorship - the best part of a decade spent cosying up to the West, particularly Britain, and removed when the WMD programme was safely a thing of the past. Bashar al-Assad and Syria, again, no WMD to ward off Western intervention. If you are a despot who prefers palaces to the hangman's noose, recent history shows it pays develop deterrents.

The nuclear and the missile programme goes much deeper than just defence considerations in North Korea. It is bound up with the grotesquerie of the Kim cult, its position in the pecking order of the Cold War and the economic strategy the regime is trying to pursue. These are the conditions for understanding why the North behaves as it does. The short version is this: because of a dispute with the Soviet Union and its subsequent withdrawal of military aid in the 1970s, the country was forced to depend more on its own resources for economic development and to maintain its side of the demilitarised zone. It's worth remembering then, as now, the North faced the South Koreans and the American military, among whose arsenal there was (and is) deployed nuclear arms. As the North restructured itself around a military-first autarchy, it marked the moment when the "celebrated" Juche ideology - or self-reliance - emerged and the personality cult around the Kim family assumed gargantuan proportions. However, it became apparent to Kim Jong-il before his death and to the Brilliant Comrade now running the show that an economy this unbalanced eventually makes for a situation with some imbalances of its own. Maintaining the stand off with the Americans may become sustainable if the ridiculously overblown army is scaled back. The weapons programme therefore is primarily about making it prohibitively expensive to undertake regime change from the outside by military means, while in the long-term cutting spending on the army and directed investment to elsewhere.

This has become a priority under Kim the younger. Having seen China's economy take off, you can understand how market Stalinism might appeal. There have been some market reforms, and it appears the Kim purge of a few years ago was a bloody bureaucratic falling out over who gets the spoils and directs the process. There is a political necessity here too. The smuggling of standard consumer goods from China poses a risk to the regime's monopoly on information, and presents a legitimation crisis in the making. The pressure is on Kim to develop a China-style consumer society with stable food supplies and the luxury goods increasingly enjoyed over the border, but do this on the basis of his poor, sluggish economy weighed down by unsustainable military commitments. The blood curdling squeals Pyongyang lets rip every time there is a new round of sanctions pressures the precarious economy further, but perversely provides incentive to carry on with the weapons programme. If the North can project power the international community have no choice but to treat with it on a more equal basis.

None of these are radical insights. This is more or less the standard understanding and explanation of North Korea among foreign policy and international relations specialists. The game the North is in is one shared with its brethren elsewhere: as Trotsky observed from his analysis of the Soviet Union under Stalin, what they want is a permanent accommodation. The Kim dynasty's long-term foreign policy goal is less the reunification of Korea under its aegis but a non-aggression treaty with the US, which would include the withdrawal of its forces from the South. Again, not because it plans to invade but because they want to get on with the business of holding down their own people thank you very much and make like the Chinese bureaucrats and the Russian oligarchs.

The danger we have now is Donald Trump. Despite his portrayal, Kim Jong-un is entirely predictable and entirely knowable. His objectives are easy to discern, and the linkage of WMD, economic development and the sustainability of the regime can be readily understood. The problem is Donald Trump is entirely incapable of understanding this, and is uninterested. When he matches Pyongyang's rhetoric with boasts about "fire and fury ... the likes of which the world has never seen", it's impossible to tell if he's enjoying the bants of the occasion and playing to his audience, or whether he means it. Unfortunately, we are probably going to find out. Trump has stated the North's possession of a nuclear warhead capable ICBM is unacceptable to the United States. Kim is not going to scrap his programme because of harsh words, especially when the offer is all stick and no carrot, and that puts Trump back on the spot. Does he lose face and follow the conciliatory approach favoured by the new government of Moon Jae-in, or will he choose the catastrophic course of action? I think we all know, and fear, the most likely answer.

Beyond Class and Identity Politics


In their Commonwealth, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri address the increasing importance of the common both to capitalism and our futures beyond it. In this vein they discuss the barriers to the realisation of its potenza, or potential power, presented by capital and the contradictory relations that form the common themselves and discuss in particular identity politics and its simultaneous expression and frustration. Before we go there, we need to wind the discussion back a touch.

In a number of posts looking at the emergent mass appeal of Jeremy Corbyn and Corbynism, their Empire trilogy of books were drawn on to make sense of what is happening to British politics. It is an interpretation that accounts for how old certainties were stirred up, and why it puts the Tories at an inescapable disadvantage. In sum, it's the economy, stupid. To be more precise, it's the class politics underpinning the economy.

To recap, for mature, industrial capitalism the secret of capital accumulation and profit lies in the value creation process, of surplus labour and surplus value. That doesn't mean other opportunities for profit didn't exist. Marx, for example, was particularly interested in rent. The model beloved of establishment economics ultimately roots profits in buying cheap and selling dear. The point, however, is that neither were sufficient to explain the dynamics and tendencies of capitalism as Marx wrote about it. Hardt and Negri suggest there has been a movement away from the production of material commodities as the primary means by which capital grows, and increasingly finds itself in invested in a new relationship of exploitation. The tradition of Italian autonomism, of which Negri is part, argued that increasing numbers of people need to be employed to attend to the social fabric that makes the possible exploitation and capital accumulation. Western Europe in the post-war period with its expanded welfare states clearly demonstrates this. It meant public sector workers were also productive, but productive of relationships. The autonomists extended this argument beyond workplace into wider social relationships. Women stuck at home were as productive as the assembly line worker because of the affective and socialising labour they performed in the context of the family, which led some feminists to agitate for wages for housework in recognition of the benefits the reproduction of living labour provides capital.

Hardt and Negri take this a step further with their argument about the spread of immaterial labour. Welfare states may have fallen back, but socially productive work has spread. In the advanced countries, workers increasingly perform a service, generate knowledge, and create social relations as the object of their work. Immaterial commodities and commodified relationships is the emerging way of the world. This doesn't mean material production isn't important, but is gradually being displaced as the primary arena of accumulation and hegemonic way of working. Yann Moulier-Boutang in his Cognitive Capitalism suggests the Silicon Valley worker shows us our future in the same way the industrial waged labourer in Marx's day was the coming wave against an ocean of agricultural work. Nevertheless, this presents capitalism with three challenges. The first is the move to intangible goods, and in the case of capital intensive information commodities, their infinite capacity to be copied poses the circuit of capital a severe difficulty. Secondly, whereas "classical" capitalism pulled workers into places of work and furnished them with the tools and knowledge needed for production, workers now bring their own skills, knowledge and aptitudes to the table that were acquired outside of the employer/employee relations. Capital therefore is dependent on the store of living social knowledge, sometimes referred to as the general intellect, and in Commonwealth referred to as the common, to keep on keeping on. This represents a major tilt in the class balance between capital and increasingly socialised workers. Thirdly, and in a nice twist of irony, as the materiality of commodities evaporate the class relationship underpinning capital condenses and becomes visible.

If these weren't bad enough, engaging socialised workers produces a surplus of information that cannot be consumed by the commodity in the production process. The programmer retains the knowledge of their contribution to a video game. The Uber driver has their car at the end of the journey. The sales assistant takes their personality home with them. Their knowledge and experience adds to the social store, the common, enhancing its capacity to produce relationships, experiment, and generate new identities and new ways of being. Capital is always exceeded, its attempts at capturing and monetising the social value of aspects of the common can never be total. The more it tries to take a scoop out of the common, the more that is left behind.

Lastly, socialised workers are simultaneously networked workers. Under capitalism work has always required cooperation in the workplace, and over the course of its development has arranged a highly complex division of labour mediated at all levels by bureaucracy and machinery. Immaterial labour is cooperative too, but with a difference. "Classical" capitalism enforced cooperation in the workplace, the performance of service provision or knowledge production draws on cooperative relations outside of work, of competencies forged by communication and interaction. When I teach dozens of scholars are effectively co-present on my side of the lecture hall, for instance. The development of the internet and the coming of social media has multiplied this cooperative sociality. As we move through life now many millions of us are embedded in dense networks. There is no longer an online and an offline, the digital and the real are fused in an immediately accessible common.

For Hardt and Negri, the socialised and networked worker is the hegemonic worker of the 21st century. As the processes driving its numbers roll on, something else interesting happens: all workers are transformed into socialised workers. The machinist, the assembly line worker, the brickie, new technologies and immaterial labour might inform the production process without meaningfully changing how they do their work (assuming the jobs aren't automated out of existence), but out of work they are plugged into and networked up with the common as much as any socialised worker. Additionally, while access to the most rewarding, both financially and personally, immaterial occupations is restrictive generations of young people are being socialised in the expectation of getting a career that ticks those boxes. That they don't is piling up frustration, and is helping drive radical politics. It is also alienating them from work and encouraging them to find themselves in the common. That suits capitalism as it leeches off collective social knowledge, but doesn't as capital starts appearing increasingly superfluous and unnecessary to the constitution of social life.

Hardt and Negri refer to the social collective as the multitude. This is, effectively, their shorthand for the classes and categorisations who, throughout history, are not the ruling classes. The popular classes in the 20th century were proletarians, the peasantry, and small business people. You might add to that fractions of classes and transitory locations, such as the unemployed (temporary and long-term), students, professions, the retired, and what have you. They were multitudinous, but they were discrete classes and fractions with their own interests, propensities, and potential for friction with other popular classes. These still exist, but the coming of the socialised worker has inserted a new quality into the multitude: the more socialised and networked all become, the more their common interests are brought out. It's not a case of a borg-like proletarian mass bearing down on capital as per mechanical renderings of Marx's approach to revolution, but more like a swarm in which the differentiated nature of the multitude nevertheless swarms in a particular direction: and that is against the homogenising exploitative character of capital.

What has any of this got to do with identity politics? In Hardt and Negri, the multitude and the common are blurred. Both are irreducible and interdependent properties of each other. When you add to the general intellect, when you engage in social production you modify too the composition of the multitude. As the multitude comprises of more socialised workers, the spread and potenza of the common increases. They argue the coming of the networked, socialised worker has an equalising effect. No one class position is "better" or more politically "potent" than another, as per the industrial worker in old imaginings of proletarian revolution, instead the spread of social production via the reach of the common, and capital's attempt to exploit the common via the immaterial labour of others multiplies the points of antagonism across the body of the multitude. It's not the case of finding the weak links in capital's chain anymore because all points are brittle, all points offer opportunities to condense the constituent order-making power of the common and all can act as moments of rupture for swift, exhilarating change.

The multitude then is comprised of the mass of humanity. It is the living, breathing medium and constituent of the common, and it is increasingly capable of collective thought and collective action because all points of it are engaged in social, or  'biopolitical' production. However, the multitude also comprises of what Hardt and Negri term singularities. These are the locus of the identity politics/new social movements that emerged toward the end of the 1960s, and they typically comprise of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual, disabled and culturally-based identities. These are axes along which oppression has been exercised and continues to be exercised, as well as offering rallying locations against social injustice and points at which the social world can be challenged. The term 'singularity' for identity does not mean essentialism for all identity locations are socially constituted and determined, all are internally variegated, and all derive meaning from relationships with other singularities and a history of oppression. They nevertheless have a tangibly irreducible character to them, a refusal to read them off as the epiphenomenon of some other relationship of exploitation. Hardt and Negri also suggest that singularities are not fixed, they're always in a process of becoming or tendency, of being on the road from somewhere to a future destination.

Singularities are necessarily the immediate subjectivities because this is the way we are addressed by the state and its institutions. Its recognition of identity categories and efforts made to at least manage structural oppression are a consequence of past struggles, but are have also been recuperated into the structures of management. Therefore the first task, which is repeated over and over again by identity politics is to make visible the hierarchies of violence that underpin them. The danger lies in losing sight of this violence, of treating identity as less a matter of inequality and more a problem of difference. Which leads into the second potential difficulty. The state recognises us as individuals with certain rights and responsibilities, but most crucially as individual owners of property. Liberal democracies only recognise the sovereignty of individuals, and therefore take the identity locations to be individual properties. Here lies the first problem that can arise out of identity politics. Because sovereign powers treat identities as a property, some themselves might also so treat it. Rather than a political location, or a possible route to freedom it is deployed, sometimes cynically, to make the individual. It becomes a resource for career advancement. Unsurprisingly those sections of identity movements that are closest to and seek accommodation with established power are the ones most likely to treat identity this way, and also possess a stake in maintaining it as such. The third issue is identity politics in the revolutionary mode go beyond accommodation and seek to abolish themselves. This has nothing to do with sameness and everything to do with obliterating structural violence - proletarians are interested in the abolition of class, women the abolition of gender, non-white ethnicities the abolition of race, sexual minorities the abolition of sexuality, and so on. A revolutionary approach pushes each of these along because any can cause a rupture with the increasing order and throw capital on to the defensive. Despite the gains made, capital still requires gender and sexual systems, it needs racial hierarchies just as much as it requires the common and the people it provides to generate surplus value in the first place. Therefore, a biopolitical identity politics recognises the violence done and the oppression and disadvantage suffered, it affirms, contests, and repositions identities away from victimhood, and these are then resources for strengthening the constituent power of the common and throwing capital onto the defensive. In effect, working with identity politics means going beyond identity politics because it is intersectional. It is simultaneously a singular politics that mobilises a multiple (or multitude) of singularities.

Hardt and Negri therefore offer a novel way of going beyond the dull, reductive and unproductive debates/theory wars that have taken place when it comes to intersectional politics. By situating social (biopolitical) production of the common as the increasingly important pole of accumulation, the multiplication of the reproductive circuits of capitalism, the diffusion of the socialised worker and the spread of antagonisms establish a fundamental equality between singularities, of placing class and gender and race and sexuality on equal footing while placing them in the context of a crisis-ridden political economy. Pitting them against one another when they all mutually constitute the social and capital stymies the potential of the multitude to make and remake the world. It winds down the possibility of building alternatives, of producing the modes of living and the human beings for whom sharing life with capital is unbearable. To emphasise the point and use the trusted rhetoric of class conscious politics, sexism, racism, homophobia and so on are little more than scabbing. Multitudinous politics are necessarily co-present at each possibility of rupture, which means we should always be alive to deepening solidarity amongst ourselves in the face of exploitation and oppression wherever it is taken on.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Shining Force for the MegaDrive/Genesis




























It's about time we got round to Shining Force. And by that, I mean actually playing the bugger. My game playing habitus is stuck at a point where three dimensional gaming never became a thing and role playing games were simple grinding affairs. Shining Force, however, is different. It represents an evolutionary leap into a genre of RPGing I didn't know existed until coming back to gaming. Shining Force was seen as ground zero for the emergence of the tactical RPG, at least in the West. What does this mean?

In the 1970s, TSR's Dungeons and Dragons started life as an offshoot and development of tabletop wargaming. It was a logical extension. If complicated rules could be used to govern the movement of units on a board or bespoke miniature battlefield, then why not adapt those rules for a more cooperative, imaginative, and less restrictive gaming experience? By the time computers and consoles came around, the concept was variously adapted for solo adventures. Typically RPGs revolved around a party going through the motions and becoming powerful as experience and money was acquired from killing monsters and the like. How game mechanics, progress, and success in combat were based on numerical attributes and improving on them via an accumulation of experience points lend these games to a cultural critique looking at the inculcation of neoliberal subjectivity. Shining Force certainly sits in this frame, but how it went about its business significantly differed from the standard model. Just as (non-digital) RPGs evolved from wargames, so Shining Force borrowed significantly from console war simulations.

As plots go, it's fairly standard Japanese RPG fare and wasn't a million miles away in inspiration from Sega's Phantasy Star series. It too marries the themes of swords and sorcery to a weird and sometimes jarring science fiction subtext, and it resurrects the bad 'un from its immediate predecessor, the conventional (and, unfortunately, very dull) Shining in the Darkness. Here, the realm of Guardiana is threatened by Dark Sol and the rampaging military of Runefaust and it's up to you and your mates to stop him. As you travel throughout the lands it becomes apparent that your antagonist is looking to collect the bits and bobs necessary to unleash the banished Dark Dragon on the land. That doesn't sound like good news.

Half of the game is typical RPG. Enter into towns to talk to the residents, wander about castles, buying stuff and raising characters who've had their hit points depleted to zero, picking up new characters. So far, so familiar. The icon/menu system used here is very similar to the predecessor game and is entirely user friendly. Which is just as well because the battle system is something of a departure. Taking its cue from the likes of Famicom Wars, combat presents as a battlefield grid around which your party and the enemies take turns to move. At first you don't have too many but you can build your party up to field a maximum of 12 per battle, and each of these are from different classes and races: warriors, mages, monks, knights, archers, and later all manner of beasties. All have different strengths and weaknesses and so do the enemies you face. Warriors are fine bruisers, for instance, but at the lower levels particularly they're slow and nimble-footed enemies can escape their blows - hence you counter them with speedy folks of your own, or magic users. Hence the term tactical RPG. The emphasis is on combat formation, protecting vulnerable party members but giving weaker characters a chance to level themselves up, and deploying the character most appropriate to the combat situation. Thankfully, when it comes to the tactical side of things the computer is pretty rubbish. In almost every situation mortal danger would present if their units swarmed you from the off. Instead they tend to hang back until you enter a particular zone of the battlefield. Also, because the demise of your lead character means game over and a respawn back in the nearest town (minus approximately half your gold) they have a tendency to go after him if he's any way exposed.

The other problem here is despite battles not being random, it is very easy to level up certain characters at the expense of others. You can have almost any of them elevated to super hard standards to the point boss baddies present hardly a challenge. If that happens, the tactical battle system becomes a chore because winning each easily merely means sending forward your beefy minions. The availability of meaty ranged attacks can also make combat a tedious affair, even as the monsters start getting tougher. The true tactical side only really comes out at the lower levels when you have to think and not simply plough through. Welcome, however, is the absence of grinding. Each battle yields enough experience and treasure to theoretically allow for a measured levelling up, but the option is there to go into battles and retreat, rinsing and repeating if you want to toughen everyone. Alas, life's too short these days for that kind of thing.

The accumulation logic remains. Each combat compares attacking and defence scores with an element of random number generation, as per the die throws of paper and pen RPGs. On that basis your character/monster inflicts/receives damage and hit points fall accordingly. As it only takes 100 experience points to move up a level with a (usual) boost to your stats, it pays to feed everyone into the meat grinder. The difference here is you have to be a little bit entrepreneurial and think through your actions whereas stand eight and sixteen-bit RPGs are usually mindless affairs - tactics only really come into play when thinking about deploying magic or healing up.

Shining Force is much better than what came before, and tell has it that Shining Force II is one of the best RPGs ever made. We'll see in due course. Shining Force is certainly an interesting game and is very enjoyable to begin with, though ultimately the accumulation logic of the gameplay - of striving to be powerful and invulnerable - does later rob the game of the joys of tactical combat. A nice illustration in JRPG form of a dynamic destroying the very thing that made it possible. Where have we encountered such a thing before?