Sunday, April 27, 2008

Iain M. Banks - Sci-Fi and Socialism

"Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces. The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual [immaturity and] - through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others - a kind of synthetic evil.

Intelligence, which is capable of looking farther ahead than the next aggressive mutation, can set up long-term aims and work towards them; the same amount of raw invention that bursts in all directions from the market can be - to some degree - channelled and directed, so that while the market merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases, reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on goals. What is vital for such a scheme, however, and what was always missing in the planned economies of our world's experience, is the continual, intimate and decisive participation of the mass of the citizenry in determining these goals, and designing as well as implementing the plans which should lead towards them.

Of course, there is a place for serendipity and chance in any sensibly envisaged plan, and the degree to which this would affect the higher functions of a democratically designed economy would be one of the most important parameters to be set... but just as the information we have stored in our libraries and institutions has undeniably outgrown (if not outweighed) that resident in our genes, and just as we may, within a century of the invention of electronics, duplicate - through machine sentience - a process which evolution took billions of years to achieve, so we shall one day abandon the grossly targeted vagaries of the market for the precision creation of the planned economy.

The Culture, of course, has gone beyond even that, to an economy so much a part of society it is hardly worthy of a separate definition, and which is limited only by imagination, philosophy (and manners), and the idea of minimally wasteful elegance; a kind of galactic ecological awareness allied to a desire to create beauty and goodness."

From 'A Few Notes on the Culture' by Iain M. Banks.

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A space traveller is briefed by his ship's sentient 'Mind' about the barbarous social conditions on the planet he is to visit:

"The thing to remember, Gurgeh," the ship interrupted quickly, "is that their society is based on ownership. Everything that you see and touch, everything you come into contact with, will belong to somebody or to an institution; it will be theirs, they will own it. In the same way, everyone you meet will be conscious of both their position in society and their relationship to others around them.

"It is especially important to remember that the ownership of humans is possible too; not in terms of actual slavery, which they are proud to have abolished, but in the sense that, according to which sex and class one belongs to, one may be partially owned by another or others by having to sell one's labour or talents to somebody with the means to buy them. In the case of males, they give themselves most totally when they become soldiers; the personnel in their armed forces are like slaves, with little personal freedom.... Females sell their bodies, usually, entering into the legal contract of 'marriage'...."

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unfortunate and Regrettable

Gordon Brown has described the NUT strike as 'unfortunate and regrettable'. Funny that, because I've always thought that almost the entire history of the Labour Party is best described as unfortunate and regrettable. Things have been especially unfortunate and regrettable since 2003 when NuLabor made the unfortunate and regrettable decision to invade Iraq. Unfortunately and regrettably at least 100,000 people died as a direct result of that invasion. It is unfortunate and regrettable that NuLabor has been aiding and abetting kidnapping and torture for several years. It is unfortunate and regrettable that the gap between the richest and the poorest in the UK today, under a Labour government, is the widest it has been since the Second World War. It is unfortunate and regrettable that while NuLabor can somehow manage to find billions of pounds to spend on war and another £50bn to bail out the banking sector, it can't find enough money to pay public sector workers enough to keep up with the rate of inflation. It is unfortunate and regrettable that the party of Aneurin Bevan has become the party of Digby Jones and, worse, that oily, hairsprayed, right wing neo-liberal git, Ed Balls.

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NUT Strike is an Opening Shot

Went to the NUT organised rally in Southampton City centre today. It certainly beats teaching Year 9s. Might do it more often. I would say there were around 200 people at the rally - not massive, but not bad either. In addition to NUT strikers, several representatives from PCS, UCU, UNISON and two workers from UNITE were there too. Some coastguards reps were also there - coastguard staff on the south coast are on strike today and have organised two previous strikes in the past few weeks. The man from NUT central office was clear that this was likely to be the first strike in a long term campaign, not a one-off. NUT leaders seem pretty serious about this. He said something about one of the right wing papers (might have been the Telegraph - but I can't see anything on their website) comparing the NUT to the NUM in the 1980s and warning that it must be smashed. This is, of course, a totally absurd comparison - for one thing teachers aren't being beaten up in the streets and neither are they facing unemployment and utter ruin - but it does suggest that the ruling class is quite worried about the example the NUT is setting for other public sector unions at a time when the economic climate looks to be pretty bad and steadily worsening. I picked up a rather hopeful leaflet from the Socialist Party calling for a 24 hour public sector general strike - well, things aren't exactly at that stage, but they are, nevertheless, getting quite interesting. Currently, 1.5 million civil servants are consulting on a below inflation pay offer and their unions are recommending that they reject it. Another million workers in the NHS are consulting over a similar pay offer.

The TV news reports, predictably, contain much gnashing of teeth in relation to the 'disruption' the strike has caused children and their poor, long-suffering parents. Strange how single mothers in particular have suddenly become so popular - interviewed about the difficulties the strike is causing them. The media doesn't usually simper over them so much. Strange, too, that for some reason the media doesn't seem interested in the intolerable disruption caused to parents by the closure of many schools on election days. Will the news reports on the 1st of May feature the plight of young mothers as they try to organise child care for the day, or wail about the disruption to children's education as their schools are turned into polling stations for the day? Probably not.

I've decided not to vote in the forthcoming council elections. The Labour Party candidate is a teacher and was not there at the rally. In fact I don't think she was on strike. Another reason not to vote Lib Dem surfaced today, too. BBC News report that Lib Dem smoothy (and Education Spokesman) David Laws, wants teachers' unions to be bound to a no strike agreement. Well done Lib Dems - anything else you could adopt from Mussolini's politics while you're at it?

Just watched the local news' coverage of the strike and Southampton rally - it was generally positive, even sympathetic. Good to see that most of the parents interviewed supported the strike. There was a priceless moment, however, when a parent who didn't support the strike told the interviewers how worried she was about the negative impact the strike might have on her daughter's performance in the upcoming 'STATS exams' - not quite worried enough about these exams, it seems though, to have bothered to find out what they're actually called or what they actually are.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Pathologies of Defection

There's a wonderful article by David Edgar in the Guardian Book Review today. Edgar surveys the current crop of 'defection literature' (Cohen, Hitchens, Arnove et al) produced by ex-leftists moving right (Decents) and is decidedly unimpressed. Employing the discourse of Enlightenment and Human Rights and so on, the defectors are in fact, Edgar argues "seeking to provide a vocabulary for the progressive intelligentsia to abandon the poor" - just as previous generations found high sounding reasons to provide cover for a headlong dash into reactionary blimpishness.

In relation to the 'unholy alliances' Hitchens and others point to (usually fabricated, exaggerated or otherwise distorted), Edgar has this to say:

"All of the great progressive movements of the 20th century in the west - solidarity with republican Spain, the building of welfare states, the civil rights movement in the southern United States, the war against apartheid in South Africa - were led by an alliance between progressive intellectuals and the victims of oppression. The civil rights movement in particular allied secular Jews (often with communist backgrounds) from the north with black Christians in the south. The difficulties of that relationship were demonstrated when - after victory was largely won - blacks asserted the need for an all-black leadership of one of the main civil rights groups. Later, feminists properly criticised the leaders of the Black Panthers for the sexism of both their political practice and personal behaviour. Despite all that, does anyone think the creation of the alliance which successfully desegregated the American south was a mistake?"

The one annoying thing in Edgar's bit is that, along with many other Guardian writers, he will keep referring to the Left as 'progressive liberalism'. Progressive liberals are on the left, of course, and I've got nothing in particular against them, but the term doesn't really fit the Left as a whole - most of the more radical sections of which do not think of themselves as liberals at all.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Public Sector Workers on Strike - Although Mostly Teachers to be Honest

Details of rallies across the country on the 24th to coincide with a national strike by the NUT and others can be found here on the NUT website (I joined). Looks like us humble teachers will be joined by the UCU, the PCS and UNISON. We really want the FBU to join us though, because everyone loves firemen. Nurses would be good, too. And vets.

Still, it's not bad as it is as far as a first round of public sector strikes go - and there are likely to be more given the fact that NuLabor is busily attempting to make public sector workers pay for inflationary pressures. The snivelling, unprincipled, union bashing, Thatcherite, CBI loving, Investment Banker pleasuring, Pigby Jones employing bastards. Those inflationary pressures, and economic difficulties more generally, furthermore, don't look likely to go away any time soon, what with spiralling food prices on world markets, that there credit crunch thing, the US economy going down the shitter and the neo-liberal hegemonic consensus rapidly coming apart at the seams. Interesting times. It may well be a little bit like the 1970s only without the bad hair or glam rock.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

What a Choice

In the upcoming local council elections I can either vote for a Labour Party candidate, a Lib Dem or a Tory. So the choice, then, is between a centre-right party, a centre-right party or a centre-right party. Now, obviously I would rather drink a gallon of sick than vote Conservative. That leaves me with not much of a choice. Should I bother to vote? I don't think I want to vote Lib Dem. They're just so... naff. I suppose the local Labour party isn't necessarily the same as NuLabor is it? In fact I think I might know the Labour candidate (I know someone of the same name) - and if it is her then she's very nice and probably a bit Old Labour (you can kind of tell can't you? If someone seems fairly kind, thoughtful, generally decent and works in the public sector then it's a fairly safe bet they're not NuLab). But still, the thought of voting Labour at the moment makes me feel like crying.

It's at times like this that I realise just how desperate I am to move back to a city - any city (except Birmingham, obviously). At least there they tend to have a token Lefty of some kind on the ballot paper. Mind you, it doesn't really matter does it? Sorry... had a bit of an ultra-left moment there.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Olympics and Politics

Like most relatively well adjusted people I am not in the slightest bit interested in athletics. The thought of spending several days watching people trying to jump slightly higher than each other, run slightly faster than each other, or throw something slightly further than anyone else is not exactly my idea of thrilling entertainment. I can't understand why anyone would take it seriously. I mean, fine, if it's just done as a bit of a laugh, involvement in pointless competitive activity can pass the time quite nicely (late night Mario Kart- now that was fun)- but why on earth would anyone want to spend their time watching these fools gurning, and grimacing, heaving and weeping as they try to beat one another at running quite fast, as if it's something really important?

Nevertheless, I have been quite interested in all this torch running business (it's quite reminiscent of the primitive football they used to play in English villages isn't it?). I've been heartened to see the mass protests in London and Paris against Chinese repression in Tibet. There has been some debate on other Left blogs about the rights and wrongs of the Free Tibet campaign - some of it enlightening and some of it downright bizarre. I'm quite aware that Tibet before the Chinese invasion was never the mystical, 'spiritual' utopia of the Hollywood liberal imagination, where wise, enlightened monks lived in some Idyllic pre-Industrial harmony with contented peasant folk and easy-going mountain yaks. It was, apparently, a backwards feudal nightmare in which a small, parasitical religious elite lived off a fat surplus extracted from peasant labour. Nevertheless, it should go without saying that Chinese Imperialism is just as unpleasant as any other kind, and that if the people of Tibet want to be free of Chinese oppression they have every right to demand it without being shot down in the street by the trained thugs of the grotesquely misnamed 'People's Liberation Army'.

I've been irritated by the reactions to the protests of those athletes and celebrities taking part in the torch carrying. Amongst the various banalities you would expect to hear from someone who has devoted their life to running round and round really really fast, (almost always introduced with the words 'Well, as an athelete...' - as if being an athlete provides them with a clearer perspective) you will usually hear them say that they think that sport and politics should be kept apart. The other thing they say (including, I'm afraid, Konnie Huq, of whom, shall we say, I'm quite a fan) is that they decided to do it because they're big believers in the 'Olympic ideals' and simply hadda. None of this washes.

What are these Olympic ideals anyway? Presumably they include the ideal of being a psychotically competitive bastard and the ideal of having an obsessive fixation on grinding one's opponents' faces into the dirt. For some reason, though, lots of people seem to think that the Olympic ideals are humanistic, internationalist and aim to promote harmony and understanding between nations. Even if this is true, however - if the Olympics do actually help Americans to grasp the fact of their common humanity with Ethiopians, over-riding and dispelling all residual national chauvinism, even while they punch the air chanting USA! USA! - aren't these ideals inherently political? The idea that sport has nothing to do with politics rests on the charmingly quaint notion that politics is what goes on inside parliamentary chambers and government buildings and not much else, as if politics can be compartmentalised and kept neatly separate from those other boxes labelled 'economics', 'education', 'the private sphere' and 'shopping' (this is, of course, a characteristically bourgeois idea).

Politics, however, suffuses everything - wherever human beings enter into social relationships directly and indirectly there is politics. You cannot keep politics out of anything - it's always already there. In any case, what could be more political than a world competition into which national governments plough millions and millions of dollars to prepare their athletes for victory - in which the whole point seems to be the tallying of medals and the ranking of nations by the number of golds, silvers and bronzes their representatives have won? Isn't politics immediately, overwhelmingly, visible in sports stadiums filled to the brim with people frantically waving national flags at each other? What people really mean when they say that politics and sport should be kept separate is that they don't want the wrong sort of politics to weedle its way into sport. They don't want the sort of smelly, unsanitised, unsettling politics that concerns itself with oppression, poverty or exploitation to enter into the arena. They don't want people making Black Panther salutes on the medals podium for example - it's very hard to find corporate sponsors for that sort of thing. It's hard to package. It doesn't sell commodities.

The Indie has a couple of interesting articles today, by the way. On the matter of the Olympic torch they inform us that:

"There is a two-word answer to those who think the Olympic torch is a symbol of harmony between nations that should be kept apart from politics – Adolf Hitler.

The ceremony played out on the streets of Paris yesterday did not originate in ancient Greece, nor even in the 19th century, when the Olympic movement was revived. The entire ritual, with its pagan overtones, was devised by a German named Dr Carl Diem, who ran the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "

In the second, the paper raises a question that has been bothering me for a couple of days - just who are those blokes in the blue and white tracksuits? The TV reports hardly mentioned them. Are they Chinese secret service or what? Isn't it a bit odd that the British police have allowed the Chinese to police the Olympic circus on UK soil? Why is the BBC saying nothing about them?

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

An Unseasonal Visitor

You don't often stumble across snowmen of this quality by the seashore on the south coast of England at this time of year.

I snuck up on him this morning while he was out scavenging for carrots (luckily, I happened to be downwind of him). I managed to get this shot just as he spotted me - you can see how surprised and alarmed he is to see me. Unfortunately he scurried off into the long grass before I could get another picture.

Snowmen have been known to stop off here during their long annual migration to the Arctic, but I've never heard of a sighting as late as April.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Strike Advice

I've been employed as a teacher in a secondary school for the last few months on a temporary contract. I left a couple of weeks ago to give myself time to do my PhD corrections (don't fucking ask). I've accepted the offer of more work next term.

As you may have heard the National Union of Teachers are, rightly, organising a national strike on 24 April over below inflation pay rises (i.e. pay cuts in real terms). The NASUWT and other teaching unions, however, will not be striking with them. Unfortunately I'm in the NASUWT which may leave me in an awkward position. I should think that it is most likely that the school at which I work, along with most other schools across the country, will simply close for the day. However, there is a chance that some schools will expect non-NUT members amongst their staff to come in that day and teach their classes (and perhaps provide cover for absent NUT teachers).

Clearly, I don't want be involved in any strike breaking.

Just thought I'd ask this blog's knowledgeable leftie readership what I should do. Obviously, I'll refuse to cover lessons for NUT strikers. I assume that, even though I'm not in the NUT, coming into work that day to teach my classes (not covering others) is still, effectively, helping to break a strike (??). As far as I'm aware the NUT will not be picketing at school gates and there is nothing on their website about what they're asking members of other unions to do. The NASUWT don't offer any information about this either.

What do you suggest? What is the relevant trade unionist ettiquette here?

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