Politics, Reviews

Book Review: Ann Pettifor – The Production of Money (Verso 2017)

Going out on a limb, I’d guess that most people who don’t work in the banking sector (and maybe even some that do!) don’t actually understand what “monetary policy” actually is. I certainly didn’t.

In The Production of Money, Ann Pettifor painstakingly spells out the need for the layperson to have a basic working knowledge of monetary policy, especially if we are to save our democracy from the despotism of global finance. She observes that the financial elite – and many of the academic economists who enable them – deliberately propagate a distorted view of the money system, as if it’s behaviour was an immutable law of nature, rather than a carefully rigged arrangement designed to maintain the dominant position of finance over governments, industry and workers.

She dispels the myth that credit is the loaning out of existing, hoarded wealth as if we still lived in the age of robber barons sitting on piles of gold. Money is debt, and credit is the production of debt from thin air. A calculated gamble that it will generate enough new value in order to pay itself back and more.

In a healthy economy, each unit of money conjured up goes towards generating value – by creating employment and enabling productive activity. Thus, the invented credit money has truly become real value.

In an unhealthy economy, dominated by the desire of financial speculators to generate profits at maximum speed with minimum risk, this credit will be used to inflate the value of assets and the ability to extract the highest rent or interest from them. After a given point, if enough of the money in the system hasn’t generated any value in the real economy via productive enterprise, then a simple default at the bottom of the chain of rent generating assets causes the entire scheme to collapse.

You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that Ann Pettifor is one of the few economists who predicted the great financial crash of 2007/8.

Monetary policy relates to the rules set by governments, implemented through a central bank, that control the creation of new money via the issuing of credit by private banks, as well as the rate of interest offered on government debt or loans.

Pettifor argues that the best way of directing monetary policy for the greatest social good is by making credit relatively hard to get, but very cheap (i.e. at low rates of interest). This “tight but cheap” money will mainly be dished out as loans to people with a believable plan to invest it in a productive fashion, and its cheapness will enable that productivity to more easily become profitable.

She argues that we live in an age were the opposite is true – in which we have access to “easy but costly” credit. This means it is easy to become indebted by using accessible credit for consumption or to purchase assets (mortgages and credit cards for example). Credit issued in this way directs people to invest in property instead of business or industry, so they can begin to charge rent immediately in order to pay off the interest, which is in itself a form of rent (you pay rent to the owner of your house, who pays rent to the owner of his debt, and so on). The growth generated by the extension of this easy but expensive credit enriches those with large asset portfolios, but does nothing to improve the economic situation of workers, entrenching inequality.

She also argues that the free movement of capital, which bankers have so very carefully branded as a progressive development for humankind, is nothing of the sort. It has in fact simply made it easier for financiers to invest their money anywhere in the world where rent seeking is most profitable. This means draining potentially productive capital from developed economies to exploit poor – or “sub-prime” – borrowers who can be charged inflated interest as security against their lack of collateral. This sub-prime borrower might be a poor homeowner in Detroit, or an entire nation without a sound financial and industrial infrastructure of its own. Alongside “tight, cheap credit”, dis-incentivising the free movement of capital by taxing it when it moves across borders (“capital controls”) will promote the reinvestment of a greater share of the wealth generated in a particular country into its own real economy, giving greater power to democracies to direct their own development for the greater good.

The Production of Money is a fantastic, informative guide for anyone on the left looking to boost their understanding of money, interest and credit – especially if they already have a fair grasp of more tangible economic activity such as taxation and public spending. However, it doesn’t go much in for visual metaphors or allegory. Although it breaks down complicated financial concepts to an extent, it assumes a fair bit of prior knowledge from the reader.

Pettifor does not hide that she is attempting rehabilitate the the theories of legendary British economist John Maynard Keynes and demonstrate their particular applicability in the post 2008 world. Neither does she shy away from attacks on “orthodox” or “classical” economics, which she regards as a great sham perpetrated by a combination of ruthless vested interests and academic useful idiots. This book is therefore quite a difficult read if you’re not already comfortable enough with the premises behind Keynesianism or Classical Economics to know why they need scrutiny! Although the book is concise, it could possibly use a few primer chapters at the beginning to get the reader up to speed on what it is they are learning to oppose.

If you’ve come to enjoy the good humoured, fatherly patience of economics heart-throb Yanis Varoufakis, Ann Pettifor’s no-fucking-around hardcore intellectualism is going to feel like a slap to the face. However, The Production of Money is no dry economics text book; it’s a furiously argued, passionate polemic, full of burning rage at the criminality of the financial class and a desperate desire to empower regular people with the knowledge to take back control of a society subjugated by the tyranny of global finance.

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Cassette Archive, Politics

Heavy Leather Mixtape: Darker With The Day

 

LISTEN AND DOWNLOAD HERE

From Elvis’s swinging hips to white America’s fear of the black man’s sexuality, an atmosphere of sexual menace has hung over rock and roll since its inception. From the mid 1950s onwards, the offer of promiscuity, intoxication, homosexuality and who-knows-what other forbidden pleasures have enticed generations of young people away from the dour, protestant values of their parents. The apparently anti-sex attitudes of the last generation to be born before the invention of the teenager (which occurred shortly after world two) were considered synonymous with all manner of other reactionary, outdated beliefs – and rock and roll was here to usher in the new world.

Flash forward to 2018 and the position of rock and roll is entirely more suspect. Not only did punk prove it to be very much the running dog of consumerism in the Keynesian age, but throughout the Thatcher years the individualist ideology of rock fitted seamlessly with the prevailing economic wisdom  (to the great irritation of many of the actual proponents of the art form). Perhaps more importantly, its legacy as a sexual liberator has been called into question. In a world where men hold so much power – which they constantly demonstrate willingness to abuse – is sexual menace such a good look after all? Did all those women that charged gladly into the sexual revolution get what they paid for, or did they just fall into a trap of being ever more atomised subordinates in a new version of the same old male fantasy?

Rejecting the racism of their parents was key in the beat generation’s attraction to jazz. As the more visceral loathing of black culture faded away and jazz entered its maturity, the genre faded away from the night clubs and drug dens and settled down to a happy existence in the hands of enthusiasts*, specialists and specialists. Maybe rock and roll, having done its job, should content itself with a long, fruitful retirement and cease trying to claim the centre stage in our culture. Is there anything left of value in its original offer of titillation and trepidation or does clinging onto the cock swinging machismo of rock’s halcyon days make you a reactionary old goat? I’m looking at you Bono.

The future is female. Not just morally but also from an economic standpoint (the old industries and old ways of waging war which provided the basis of male power are all but dead in the western world), and so women will decide what will be carried forward into that future, and what will be left behind. Will rock’s inherent dark side be successfully amputated, or will the baby have to be thrown out with the bathwater? I suspect the latter.

The internet makes it ever easier to shine a light on the moral failings of our compatriots. Our ability to expose the venal, vain and violent for the dogs that they are – and challenge their right to positions of authority and influence – is unparalleled. It also allows us to flaunt our own personal virtues and achievements, actively placing us in a marketplace for self esteem. However, characteristics like loyalty, discretion, discipline and integrity are harder to prove in a soundbite or viral video. Even though these are far more desirable than a good PR image, they’re also the least rewarded by the ultra-fast-broadband, trial by media age in which we live. Just ask Gordon Brown I guess.

One of the great tropes of story telling is tale of redemption, in which man slowly sees his evil nature for what it is, painfully transforming himself through humility and self sacrifice. The media age allows us to cast the unworthy down from their pedestals, it remains to be seen if it can offer them redemption afterwards.

1. Badfinger – Baby Blue
2. Clarence Cater – Patches
3. Sly & The Family Stone – Underdog
4. Tina Turner – Nutbush City Limits
5. Amy Stewart – Knock On Wood
6. Lionel Ritchie – Hello
7. Morrissey – You Have Killed Me
8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow
9. Leonard Cohen –  Hallelujah (Live 1988)
10. Simon & Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence
11. Nina Simone – Sinnerman
12. Laibach – Life is Life
13. The Mission – Deliverance (12″ Mix)
14. Queen – Sail Away Sweet Sister
15. Talking Heads – Heaven
16. Don Mclean – American Pie
17. Elvis – Can’t Help Falling In Love
18. James Ray & The Black Hearted Riders – Tupelo Tree
19. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Darker With The Day

*Note from Heavy Leather admin, Rob Cowlin: Typical RM generalisation.
Throughout the 20s-70s African American jazz musicians struggled whilst their white counterparts were backed by the mainstream (FM radio in particular). See the popularity of Brubeck’s Time Out, not even Miles could compete with that.
The jazz spots of New York were swept away under a wave of gentrification, putting hundreds of musicians out of work. Thankfully, our black jazz heroes weren’t loathed in Europe or Japan, where they enjoyed considerable fame, playing theatres and festivals

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Politics

“How to hedge your finances against a future Corbyn government”

Despite some people on the left assuming they are the propaganda organ of the ruling capitalist class, The Financial Times consistently comes out with frank, honest and informative analysis of political events, with more consideration for social justice than you’d expect from a broadsheet largely concerned with the movement of money.

I was particularly intrigued with this long article on the potential impact of a Corbyn government on the very wealthy, especially those with large amounts of hoarded assets or involved in high level investment markets.

I was struck throughout how beautifully it illustrated some of the main (and most obviously Marxist inspired) aspects of the Labour Manifesto by describing the opposition people might have to it.

Here’s my “translation” of the piece, based on my own (limited) understanding of the issues involved:

 
“a quick scan of the party’s election manifesto will make uncomfortable reading for wealthy over-40s who have amassed assets”
Amazing that this should be news really. The idea that you can redistribute masses of wealth to those that need it without significantly disenfranchising those that have hoarded masses of wealth that they don’t need is pretty laughable. This is why the theory of class struggle is so important. At some point it will come down to “which side are you on?” when deciding on the merits of one policy or another.
—-
 
“Labour party statements make it clear that those earning more than £80,000 can expect to pay higher income taxes under a Labour government.”
 
Many will have little option but to pay more. “In the long term, there is little that can be done to reduce this burden, unless people consciously work less hard, move down the jobs ladder or emigrate”
 –
The assumption here is that people earning that amount of money are being fairly and proportionately rewarded for the actual amount of work they do. Has the management executive who bags himself an extra £10k bonus, worked 10,000x harder than the cleaner who cleans his office, who had a real terms wage cut?
Even if we accept the premise that disproportionately high wages are fairly earned, do we accept the premise that the only solution to avoid taxation is to work less hard? Why not encourage the company to invest its profits in wage increases more evenly across the higher and lower pay grades, so that instead of panicking about how to avoid paying too much money to your top level employees, you boost the earning power of the whole company?
If you’re a small business owner, why not employ someone? There’s lots of things you can do to distribute excess profits other than “work less hard or emigrate” and nearly all of them are good for the economy.
 
“we hear far greater interest about lifetime tax planning — for example, gifts of assets to children being made sooner rather than later — so that parents’ asset values are reduced before a wealth tax or land value tax takes force.”
 –
So they’re saying that taxation which punishes people for hoarding assets might cause them to release those assets to other people currently locked out of the market? Sounds like they’ve just acclaimed Labour’s 2017 manifesto for saving capitalism from itself.
 
“Labour would also expand the existing UK stamp duty on shares into a broader financial transaction tax. Avinash Persaud, chair of Intelligence Capital, a financial advisory firm, is a champion of the proposed tax which would “bring strength and stability to our markets”.
 
He says it would not cost jobs, although critics are less sure. Dan Neidle, partner of Clifford Chance, a law firm, says it would “create a strong incentive for funds, investors and traders to migrate from the UK”.
 –
An FTT prevents financial trading from being automatically more profitable than real investment, Avinash Persaud is worth looking into on this.

What Dan Neidle is saying that if Labour takes a rational, sane measure to direct wealth from where it isn’t needed to where it is needed, the people who create that wealth will hold the entire economy to ransom.

Isn’t this suspiciously similar to what the Trade Unions were accused of doing in the 1970s? Wasn’t this given as justification for their almost complete dismantling?
Back to the idea of class struggle again now. What we saw in the 1970s was one group of people (wage earners) exercising their power over the economy (their right to withdraw their labour) to enfranchise their section of society. People would argue that class struggle is irrelevant in today’s world of white collar workers and home owners, but surely when a group of investors attempt to threaten the economy into behaving on their own terms, that’s class struggle – just the top class struggling against the bottom rather than vice versa. Which side are you on?
 
“Labour has said it wants to see the public disclosure of trusts, which it describes as “a key vehicle for tax avoidance and illicit financial flows”. The industry says HMRC already has access to this information and making it public would put beneficiaries in a vulnerable position. 
Mr Stovold says people avoiding tax by using trusts would fear “trial by media”. “It would be a witch hunt,” he says. “People might want to consider unwinding those structures.”
 –
If the media scrutiny of your financial activities would ruin your business, your business deserves to be ruined. Once again, the FT seem to be suggesting that Labour are on the verge of literally saving capitalism.
—-
 
“Whatever the long-term outcome of Labour’s policies on UK stocks and bonds, the election of Jeremy Corbyn would initially be likely to push down the price of UK gilts, take a toll on domestic UK stocks and result in a slide in sterling”
Have you ever compared the stock market to wages? The day to day value of the stock exchange has literally no impact on the overall prosperity of the people who are actively involved in the process of working, especially if they don’t have the kind of Trade Union power dedicated to carving them out a share of that growth.
A slide in sterling has no direct negative impact on people earning and spending money in the UK (i.e. nearly everyone), other than when on holiday. In fact, a slide in sterling means that British products will become cheaper to purchase from abroad, meaning businesses will find themselves a more viable choice of supplier for foreign businesses, actually putting money into the economy and stimulating productive business in the UK. The only people that lose out from a slide in the sterling are people spending a lot of money abroad, i.e. very wealthy international investors in search of a profit.
It may also make it more expensive to import essential goods like fuel, food, and manufactured items like cars, driving up the cost of living for the average household. But that also acts as a direct incentive for investment in renewable energy, supermarkets to return to buying from British farmers and increasing the viability of manufacturing firms (like car factories) still based in the UK. If investors refuse to play ball and waterboard the average wage earner with higher living costs, it adds weight to the argument for more public provision that Labour are making.
 
“Very obviously domestically-facing sectors such as housebuilders and UK retail would be likely to underperform, particularly as housebuilders had a very good run in 2017,” says Tom Stevenson, investment director at Fidelity Personal Investing.”
More specifically, Labour’s plans to nationalise railways, water, energy and Royal Mail would take a toll on those segments of the market. And Mr Corbyn’s aim to intervene more heavily in areas such as energy could drag on the dividends paid by those companies and investment funds.”
 –
Well, duh. People running public services in the interest of private profit in a time of increasing fuel poverty and transport extortion might find themselves inconvenienced by an economic principle based on the idea that people should have a right to access the essentials of life, regardless of profitability.
The fact that the house builders had a very good year in a period in which working people experienced a massive housing crisis is very telling about how unrelated “most profitable” and “of most benefit to society” can be. This is a key plank in Labour’s argument for more economic planning and intervention at a government level.
 
“Sectors including utilities and energy companies are high dividend payers and whether it’s nationalisation or increased regulation and price caps, the outlook for higher and sustainably high dividend incomes looks under threat under a Corbyn government,”
 –
Your need for running water makes you a cash cow. Nationalise the lot.
—-
 
“And Labour’s plans would also mean a big expansion of debt, which would be bad news for bond markets,” he says.”
 –
One thing about about public debt is that in a system with (theoretically) a finite amount of money, more government debt means more people are holding credit. Public debt takes the form of low return but stable investments called bonds. It’s a bit like taking out a savings account with the government. More people with their savings tied up in government, which in turn will spend that money on long term investment like roads or other essential investments like child care, means that this money is being used to the benefit of all, without even having to pay tax (indeed, they make a profit on it!). Low public debt means that people’s savings are probably tied up elsewhere, such as the kinds of hedge funds which trade financial products without creating anything of real value to real people.

Another great thing about public debt is that the growth in the economy that it fuels actually helps pay it off. People need to stop thinking of public debt as a payday loan being spent on bills by a desperate single parent, and view it as more like asking your family to chip in for a sharp suit, a car and a smart phone on the day you get the big job offer.

“the resurgence of support for Labour and wider geopolitical uncertainty — has already led some buyers of high-end property to reconsider their purchases.
 
Simon Gammon, managing director of mortgage broker Knight Frank Finance, says some buyers in London had decided to rent rather than buy, in the belief that house prices were unlikely to rise further under the influence of these factors and homeowners might well face higher annual taxes on their properties. 
 
“There are examples of people agreeing longer than normal lets — three to five years rather than six months — and sitting it out. There’s a cost to that, but their perception is that it will be more than outweighed by any fall in the value of property,”
So what we’re saying here is that the impact of a Labour government is tenancies become more stable and prices on high end housing drops so that people previously excluded from ownership will be able to get on the ladder, and less likely to be bought by a landlord or investment fund as a financial asset. Damn.
 
“You don’t need to be a high net worth individual to have a second home abroad,” says Mr Bertin. “If you need to think about meeting future expenditure needs on a property in France or Spain the question is how do you get the currency overseas? It could be more expensive if there’s a change of administration and issues around Brexit. At worst, it could be difficult to get money out of the country.”
The worst case scenario is making is harder for people to pull their money out of the British economy the second any measure is taken to help people get on the housing ladder. Policies that have this effect are called “capital controls”, which are essential measures for preventing the owners of large amounts of capital running out of town as soon as a democratically elected government tries to implement its manifesto.

Capital controls, like “trade unions” and “nationalisation” are the kind of hard left economic madness you will be warned about in the coming years. Learn about these things, read about their benefits as well as their costs and then when your douchebag cousin tries to pass of their infantile love of money as good economic sense at the next family dinner, you can now calmly demonstrate this piratical view of the economy for what it is: Not common sense, but class struggle.

When the government of East Germany began to spend huge chunks of its national wealth to train doctors and scientists to rebuild a war wrecked economy, West Germany realised that it was actually cheaper to spend their American aid on hiring those people the second they’ve been trained, at a net loss to East Germany. It’s not hard to see why the Berlin Wall suddenly appeared.

This is not unlike the “we need freedom of movement to have enough nurses to run our NHS” fallacy.  Immigration is absolutely an invaluable and desirable aspect of the economy, as well as to the culture, but if access to highly trained people from low wage economies is acting as a subsidy to your own domestic education program, you are effectively robbing poor countries while stealing education from your own children too.

One of the problems with socialism is that it is hard to play fair when the other side is richer than you, willing to cheat and wants to see your way of life smashed. The Brexit voting working class recognise this as surely as the East Germans did.

 
“Buy-to-let landlords — already under pressure from increased tax and regulation of the rental sector — are also considering how a future change of government might affect them. Advisers say some are seeking to move ahead with partial sales of a portfolio”
 –
Landlords releasing their stock onto the market will decrease the size of the private rental centre (which can then be taken up by social housing and housing association co-ops, both another platform of the Labour plan) and increase the supply of houses to buy, decreasing costs to the first time buyer.

 

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Cassette Archive, Politics

Mixtape – Machine Beats 2016

LISTEN HERE

Walking down the stairs to a warehouse-esque party on the last night of Labour conference last year, I couldn’t have been any happier. The authoritatively cool sensibilities of counter culture were being brought into the mainstream political realm and seemed wonderful, especially to someone like myself, brought up on a diet of pop culture and middle class permissiveness.

The comrade next to me wasn’t so sure:

“I dunno, it looks a bit zaney to me”

It had literally never occurred to me that being obtuse, transgressive and edgy didn’t automatically carry some kind of inherent value, and the realisation hit me like a jolt. Ever since the late 1960s, the prevailing wisdom has been that orthodoxy, blandness and conformity are the tools of reactionary power and that any counter-cultural challenge to this blandness is fundamentally progressive.

The post 1960s culture of radical transgression grew from a rejection of both the pre-defined capitalistic modes of behaviour and the societies of socialist world, which were increasingly seen as oppressive and unsupportable by a left disorientated by the economic and cultural boom of capitalism’s post war years.

However, the genius of capitalism is to absorb what it can’t suppress, and it didn’t take long for the symbols of youthful rebellion to be reduced to a series of garish consumption options, a fact that any long time fan of punk rock will regretfully admit.

Perhaps the only surprising aspect of all this is that it took the reactionary right to discover that anti-authoritarian rebelliousness could be an equally effective weapon in their own armoury, as Angela Nagle wearily illustrates in her recent polemic “Kill All Normies” – a text that added another nail to the coffin of my faith in transgression.

All this poses some fairly unpleasant questions about the politics of pop culture and rock and roll in particular. If the whole thing is not, in fact, a redemption for a sick society, but an agent of that sickness, is there a way out? Is there an escape other than nihilistic capitulation to the system, or disappearing down a poisonous rabbit-hole of sectarian insanity? This dichotomy is visible on the left today in the antagonism between dead-eyed Blairites and the foaming-at the-mouth Trotskyists who hate them.

My hope is to trust in the dialectical proposition that everything contains the essence of its opposite. In that spirit please enjoy this 2016 mixtape of retro electro and quasi-industrial deep cuts. A mixtape of songs as bleak, claustrophobic and antagonistic as the societies that spawned them. Even if they fail to signpost the way to a better world, maybe they can shine a light on the one in which we live.

Track List

The Human League – John Peel Session 1978

Cabaret Voltaire – John Peel Session 1984

Ministry – Primental (Live 1982)

James Rays Gangwar – Absolutely Free

The March Violets – Deep (Radio Session, 1984)

The March Violets – Face of the Dragonfly (Radio Session, 1984)

Miserylab – Children of the Poor

Miserylab – People 

TV Baby – Wild Joy

TV Baby – New York is Alright

Victories At Sea – Up

Genuflex – Lotus Eats Pale Receipts

Genuflex – Bludevotion

Genuflex – Black Sails

The Sisters Of Mercy – Comfortably Numb/Some Kind of Stranger (Live 1993)

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Cassette Archive, Politics

Heavy Leather Mixtape: Podcast Episode 1 – No Revisionism, Yes Disco!

 

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO PODCAST

What makes a successful society? Is it a dazzling array of consumer products? Is it a baffling quantity of TV channels, or social media platforms, such that more and more of our ever decreasing leisure time is spent in mute panic, paralysed by the illusion of choice? Were the vast efforts in the fields of education, working class housing, free healthcare and socially owned industrial development that typified the grey dystopia to be found just on the other side of the iron curtain an evil to be washed away by consumer society?

This year Spotify ran an advertising campaign which – while attempting to be funny and personal – actually revealed the astoundingly sinister level of corporate surveillance which we’ve welcomed into our lives.

“To the person in LA who listened to the “forever alone” playlist for 4 hours on Valentine’s Day, are you ok?”

“To the 1235 guys who loved the “Girl’s night out” playlist this year, we love you”

…and so on.

Via their various motion and activity tracking applications, Apple even know your heart rate and location at any given time of day. They can pinpoint, with an astouding degree of accuracy, whether you’re at work, going shopping, taking a dump or making love. They can then feedback all this information into your ubiquitous consumption of their products, to shape your behaviour more effectively and profitably.
The combined data sets of a just a few companies, themselves mostly part of the same few mega-corporations, paints a more total picture of your public and your secret life than the Stasi state managed at the height of their powers – all without having to spend a penny on anything so impractical as a subsidised public service. Thank god for liberal democracy.
This tape is, loosely, a round up of last couple of years – both literally and autobiographically. It starts with the rock and roll funeral march of early 2016, winding its way through the strange rediscovery of retro electro and finishing with a bit of a bubblegum synthpop twist. In dialectical materialism, every crisis or conflict contains the seeds of its own solution, as we’ve watched the bad future roll out over the last few years we’ve also experience an upsurge in optimism for the better world to come. This mixtape is the musical backdrop to this emotional state.

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Politics, Reviews

Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece in Capitalist Realism.

 

In a recent speech, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson caused uproar with the comment “Libya has the potential to turn the city of Sirte into the next Dubai, once it has cleared the dead bodies away.” Despite the faux outrage this generated across the higher minded sections of the chattering classes, this is actually one of the most refreshingly honest and useful appraisals of how our system actually works. Throughout its long history, Anglo-American capitalism has manifested as everything from the slave trade to the unchallenged doctrine of the free world. It exists simultaneously as a liberator, pulling huge swathes of people out of theocratic, subsistence level misery while flattening entire surplus populations at the slightest tremor in the global oil market.

Alongside the collapse of any large scale alternatives, capitalism’s awesome flexibility and ability to incorporate (almost) any aspect of the changing world into itself has left most of us unable to meaningfully comprehend (let alone strive for) a new way of organising society: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world itself than the end of capitalism”.

Blade Runner 2049 is a majestic, visionary film that explores this idea to the absolute fullest, without once breaking into cliché or sanctimony. You can view the entire movie as nothing more than a fresh take on the cyber punk aesthetic, or as a series of moving personal stories, and enjoy every moment. Looking at some of the reactions and reviews its generated to date, that seems to be the way its been initially received. This, however, demonstrates an inability (or unwillingness) to read the main message of the film, in much the same way as a fish is unable to perceive the water in which is swims.

A recent BBC documentary saw Reggie Yates uncovering the scandal of illegal – but widespread – corporate dumping of waste electronics. The audience watch on in fascinated horror as millions of tonnes of this waste accumulate in the African nation of Ghana, powering a dystopian economy in which people live in a brutal pecking order based on their ability to profit from the breakdown of the rubbish. The audience is saddened that such a world exists, in which children and adults alike spend endless hours burning the plastic coating off copper wires and performing countless other hazardous tasks, without even the simplest health and safety equipment, let alone the education to understand that the fumes they breath freely every day are killing them, quickly. We accept that although tragic, its an explicable and predictable underbelly to a global market economy in overdrive. We’re sad, but ultimately we’re not surprised.

Which probably explains how quickly we acclimatise to the scenes of horizon filling landfills just outside the boundaries of Blade Runner 2049’s Megacity One version of Los Angeles. In a world made barely inhabitable by war and climate disaster, but still controlled by hegemonic corporate powers, why wouldn’t such scenes still exist on unfathomably large scales? A regular science fiction movie would wow us with dazzling images of spaceships and star battles, but Blade Runner instead takes us to the wasteland “orphanage” operating semi-illegally as a primitive recycling factory, in which hundreds of children work all day stripping the urban garbage for traces of nickel that will go on to be used in the building of spaceships. “The closest to going off world me or any of these kids will ever get”, notes the brutish overseer character. The presence of this workhouse custodian, played by a black actor, overseeing his overwhelmingly white charges serves to subtly point out that freedom from racial subjugation is a hollow victory if the institution of slavery continues regardless.

blade-runner-20491

The backdrop of Blade Runner 2049 is the constant juxtaposition of huge, anonymous corporate super structures (Sony, Peugeot and Jonny Walker whisky all get conspicuous placements) with the ubiquitous presence of the engineered slave race of replicants. The arch villain Mr Wallace even goes so far to explicitly state that “no great leap of civilization has been achieved without a huge disposable population, its just unfashionable these days if it hasn’t been manufactured“. And yet, the only thing that really seems to distinguish the replicants from any other working class participant in this society is the prejudice directed at “skinjobs” by “real” people. A not so subtle metaphor for the way oppressed populations can turn to racism to position themselves into a place of relative power against another, even more oppressed group.

In a brief scene highlighting the fundamental failure of this hi-tech capitalist liberation, the sinister chief of staff for the replicant making Wallace Corporation (herself a high end replicant with unusual levels of autonomy) is selling the owner of a drilling company (played by a middle aged black women) an array of potential replicant slaves. She suggests low intelligence workers as standard, but throwing in a few good looking pleasure models for herself, if desired. The scene is treated as incidental to the plot, but once again reveals the fundamental message of the film – that you can have as many layers of personal liberation as you want, but it all comes out as dystopia if the subjugation of one class by another is perpetuated as the basis of that liberation. Shocking then, that some of the initial audience reactions to this insight were “the film needs more black slaves and more female slave owners”. Shocking and pathetic.

Despite all these wonderfully Marxian assessments of the inhuman resilience of big capitalism, perpetually reasserting its dominance despite generating ever greater social meltdowns, the most interesting character by far is Joi, the holographic AI programmed to act as the perfectly domesticated female archetype. A pure, loving being, a good soul trapped at the very bottom of a megalith of nightmarish oppressions.

On the surface, Joi is nothing but a sexist product of male fantasy. She was literally designed to be anything her (male) owner wants her to be. Although she has the artificial intelligence similar to that of a replicant, she’s denied even a physical body. Owned by our replicant hero, K, she is analogous to the working class housewife, placed at the very bottom of the class hierarchy by fact of her gender. The question the audience is invited to ask is whether she even exists as a character, or is she simply a product of her programming? This question isn’t so different to the questions we’re posed by the breakdown of traditional gender roles in our own society. To what extent are any of our life choices our own, and to what extent are they sum total of everything our gender, job and media environment have made us? Viewed in this light, Joi is the true hero of the story. Despite having every aspect of her existence pre-conditioned, she still ends up making the choice to break her chains to the greatest extent she’s able, by asking K to transfer her out of her main database into a portable version and permanently break the connection between the two, facing up to the prospect of her own death in the process.

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You can interpret Joi’s every action as a perfectly programmed reaction to K’s own desires, a selfless machine for simulating love in K’s own loveless world, or you can choose to view Joi as a metaphor for the struggle that we all face – to find purpose, happiness and autonomy in a world determined to dictate our every choice. In this way Blade Runner 2049 bridges the gap between the personal and the systematic and, along with its flawless directing and a perfectly conceived score, is a masterpiece of our times.

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Reviews

Review: Alex Cameron – Forced Witness

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“Well it’s hard being a liar, I don’t know who’s supposed to be on my mind. ‘Cause I love my little darling, but I also love these women online…”

Alex Cameron made a name for themselves throughout 2016/17, touring the hell out of their debut album Jumping the Shark (Alex Cameron is a guy, but its also the name of the band formed around the core duo of Alex Cameron and his business partner and saxophonist Roy Molloy). The record’s stripped back mix of character acting and repetitive electronica formed a neat bridge between earnest pop singers like Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen and the No Wave freakary of acts like Suicide.

Forced Witness is a massive musical and artistic leap. They’ve ramped up the production values, the variety of instrumentation and the complexity of the arrangements to something much more conventionally pop. The contrast feels something like the difference between Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance and their later super-hit, New Gold Dream.

The album is front loaded, with all three previously showcased singles (Candy May, Stranger’s Kiss, Runnin’ Outta Luck) appearing on the first side. If you’ve been anticipating this record with baited breath, this might take the wind out of your sails somewhat. All the big hitters are over before you get half way through and you might be tempted to think old Al Cam and Roy are runnin’ outta ideas.

This would be a big mistake. The album is put together like a true classic, rewarding repeated listening from different perspectives. They demonstrate their radio songwriting chops early on – enough to keep any hard drinking dancefloor junkie satisfied – and then consciously push other elements to the front of their musical brew.

By the time we get to the jarringly titled Studmuffin96 we’re presented with a seriously disconcerting set of lyrics juxtaposed over a fairly inoffensive musical backdrop. If you’re not paying attention, this might be the point at which your attention starts to wander, but don’t be tempted by the sweet nothings in your groupchats, or the lewd messages from your online lover. Jumping the Shark was full of sparse, mean tunes with vague but menacing themes, Forced Witness opts for a bigger, brighter presentation but much more explicit content. This is American Psycho to Jumping the Shark’s The Shining.

Forced Witness has the feel of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions or even The Sisters Of Mercy’s Floodland. On the one hand it’s all about the fabulous songwriting and performances, but on the other hand it allows itself to drift around a bit, showcasing the engineering and production flourishes that have gone into it. Like all great pop records, it pulls together a broad swathe of musical influences and outputs them as something deeply slick and pleasing on the ear yet disquieting to the soul.

Despite the long list of retro reference points, each song deals with a set of experiences which are uniquely post-digital revolution. The alienation of life and love in the online age hangs deeply over the entire piece, as well as multiple explorations on the theme of being a young man in a time and place that increasingly has no use for the norms of your gender. This record demonstrates both confidence and vulnerability – Alex Cameron clearly knows how to put on a  great show of bravado, yet doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with it. This is music for cocksure millennials, starting to grow up and beginning to feel the panic set in.

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Politics

So you want to build a progressive alliance?

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During the lead up to this General Election campaign there have been multiple calls for an anti-Conservative “progressive alliance”. It’s a strong message with a simple aim that will appeal to most people on the left of politics.

However, before you get too excited and declare it a simple matter of intelligence and resolve – and start condemning your MP for standing in the way of progress – there are a few things worth considering:

The Other Parties

The Liberal Democrats have actively demonstrated that they would prefer to work with a Conservative government than a Labour one. Something Tim Farron has since publicly restated. So the first issue is the assumption that the Liberal Democrats want to remove the Tory government, or that they would prefer to work with a Labour one.

Also remember that on many issues, the Liberal Democrats are a lot closer in policy to the Conservatives than to Labour. Question exactly makes you think the Lib Dems are a progressive party in the first place.

In some ways, the SNP benefit from a Conservative government. It makes them look strong and oppositional and keeps separatist feeling in Scotland high – which gets them closer to independence. A good Labour government in England which offered a decent devolution deal would make their dream of independence much less achievable.

The SNP also now have nearly every single seat in Scotland. What incentive do they have to cut a deal with Labour? What does Labour have to offer them? What incentive does Labour have to cease campaigning to regain its historical political heartland? Do we intend to disband the entirety of Scottish Labour?

The SNP spent decades working towards an electoral takeover of Scotland. Many of their best people have given their entire lives to this cause. Now they’ve achieved it, what is the likelihood of them giving any ground away to a defeated Scottish Labour at this stage in the game?

No one wants to see Caroline Lucas removed from parliament, but even if you added the entire Green vote to Labour’s, we still wouldn’t have enough votes to form a government. How many seats would Labour have to effectively give away to the Green Party in order for them to suspend their entire national effort? Asking the Greens to cease trading in key marginals is certainly a worthwhile argument, but are they willing? And if we take, we will also have to give, which brings us to…

The Labour Party

The Labour Party *is* a progressive alliance between people with radically different political views. From hard socialists on one end to liberals on the other. If you admit we need to form alliances with different parties, you nullify the one basic principle keeping all those people united in one party in the first place.

The other parties in this proposed rainbow alliance have run some very unpleasant campaigns against Labour over the years, and continue to do so. Anyone remember how Peter Tatchell was defeated in 1983 by another gay man standing for the Liberals? A gay man who chose to hide his sexuality and run a deeply homophobic campaign against Tatchell? Many in Labour still do.

In order to get a progressive alliance through The Labour Party, you would need to win the active consent of people that have been opposed, slandered and abused by the other parties all their political lives. You can’t just wish to Jeremy Corbyn to make it happen, you need democratic consent within the party at large. Calls for the progressive alliance  are often viewed by councillors, activists and party officers as the childish demands of clicktavists who have never bothered to do the actual work of building a Labour government from the ground up.

Lastly, but perhaps most crucially, The Labour Party constitution expressly forbids its members to support an opposing party candidate. It also requires all local Labour Parties to provide their communities with the option for Labour representation. If a local party does decide to support a different candidate, they cease to be recognised as a CLP under the terms of the Labour rulebook.

The Many Seats Of Power

It’s a mistake to view power in the United Kingdom as resting solely in Westminster. Power is wielded in lots of ways by many different groups – just ask a Trade Unionist or a corporate CEO! Governmental power is weirdly most directly by local councils. The leader of Islington Council arguably has more power to improve the lives of Islington citizens than their MP does, even as leader of the opposition. Campaigning for a Labour MP in your local area increases the strength and visibility of your local party and potential council candidates. Even if you don’t knock off that nasty Tory MP this time, you are helping to empower Labour to implement socialist policies via local government. Aspiring and sitting councillors are often the hardest working campaigners at a local level, and asking them to stop campaigning for Labour is not only asking them to hijack their own political careers, but to also hijack Labour’s ability to form strong councils, which are often the last line of defence against malicious Conservative governance. Although MPs have the most celebratory status, and ordinary members are the most vocal on social media, it is Labour councillors who form the heart of the Party’s day to day activity, so any progressive alliance will have to be built with their consent too.
Although Labour currently hold 46 out of 47 seats on Islington Council, this didn’t happen because of a natural right to govern. In 2006, while Labour were sitting in office in Westminster, Islington Council was controlled by the Liberal Democrats – who used their local power to happily sell off and privatise as many of the council’s assets as possible. It’s through a decade of hard work that activists and councillors have been able to regain absolute control and undo much of the damage that was done – all the while bolstering Jeremy Corbyn’s position as an MP in what is now one of the safest seats in the country.

 

Despite all this, I still want to build a progressive alliance – what should I do?

The first thing you can do is join the Labour Party. There are plenty of people within Labour that believe a progressive alliance is a good idea. They point to the fact the first ever Labour government was formed via an electoral pact between Labour and The Liberal Party, and many suspect that there was indeed some behind the scenes discussion with the Liberal Democrats in the lead up to Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide.

There are also many cases in which bad Tory MPs have been unseated when Labour members and voters quietly chose to stand aside to give a powerful local Liberal Democrat a shot at the money – Zac Goldsmith’s recent thrashing in Richmond might be considered an example of this.

Within Labour there are many political pressure and policy groups, which lobby around a particular set of ideas within the party and movement. You may have heard of Momentum or Progress, but if cross party centre-left consensus is your main concern, you should consider joining COMPASS, which campaigns heavily on this issue.

If you are a member of Labour you could also petition the National Executive Committee (the NEC, not the leader’s office, is the ruling body of the party) to change the rules, allowing individual CLPs to democratically decide to not stand a candidate if they believe it would be the best thing to do to allow another party to unseat a local Conservative MP (and ultimately bring Labour closer to forming a majority government). As it is, even if a CLP wished to do such a thing it would be a gross violation of the party constitution and a candidate would be imposed upon them by the national party.

A progressive alliance isn’t a simple proposition to be pulled out of the hat once a General Election is underway. It’s a deeply complicated issue that confronts over one hundred years of political history. The intention is noble, but like all things worth doing, it will take commitment and will have to overcome innumerable challenges.

Everyone who values equality and justice will find periods of Conservative government frustrating at best and, at worst, deeply damaging. But the first step towards banishing the Tory menace, whether you want to build a progressive alliance or not, is to join your local Labour Party and start campaigning with them – street by street and door by door.
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Reviews

Book Review: Revolutionary Yiddishland by Alain Brossat and Syliva Klingberg

Despite once being spoken by over 9 million people, Yiddish – the language of the working class Jews of Europe – is now a dead language. Lost with it is a rich cultural and political history comprised of genuine heroism, bitter antagonisms and simple every day struggles.

Historians often view all past events as being part of the inevitable tide that have led us to the present reality. But what of the alternative worlds? The ones that very nearly existed but were thwarted by chance or by tragedy? What of the worlds that existed in the hopes and dreams of those millions of individuals crushed beneath the wheels of history?

The story of Revolutionary Yiddishland (1983, republished in English in 2016 by Verso), the great Jewish nation of Europe erased by genocide, is an essential and deeply moving history for anyone interested in the roots the socialist tradition.

Socialists and non socialists alike will find themselves enriched by learning the lost history of the Bund, the Poale Zion, Communists and dissidents, as well as reading the testimonies of the Jewish, socialist heroes that offered their lives to the struggle against fascism in Spain and then again in the resistance against Nazism.

When faced with the spectre of anti-semitism, it’s not enough to simply shrug your shoulders and dismiss it. Every socialist should take the time to educate themselves on the proud history of the Jewish people who’s blood, sweat and tears have fuelled the struggle to build a better world.

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Reviews

Book Review: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time (1963) is a moving treatise by American author, civil rights campaigner and socialist James Baldwin.

Contemporary to both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Baldwin eschewed the latter’s violent sectarianism, but also argued for a much more muscular transformation of American society than espoused by the former.

He viewed that society as a criminal enterprise built on the back of tyranny. Despite this, he identified the American Negro as the unique product of that society and therefore having the unique potential to lead it out of it’s illegitimacy. He argues that if America can resolve its racial nightmare, the first true Americans can begin to exist.

Never framing equality as something to be attained by the black population, he demands white America ceases degrading itself with its persistent brutality and white Americans themselves seek to become equal to the blacks in their humanity.

The Fire Next Time is a poetic piece that glows with humanity. Although James Baldwin’s sense of tragedy is at times crushing, his visionary rhetoric also fills the reader with hope and inspiration. Marx suggested that every situation contains the seeds of its opposite, and in this text James Baldwin superbly makes this case for America.

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Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: To Make The People Smile Again, by George Wheeler

To Make The People Smile Again (2003, Zymurgy Publishing) is the wonderful memoir of George Wheeler, a Labour Party member and woodworker from Battersea. In 1937, George looked on in disgust as his own government abandoned the free Spanish Republic to be squashed under the boot heels of fascism.

Appalled by British and French adherance to a policy of “non-involvement” while turning a blind eye to Hitler and Mussolini’s direct military support of Franco, he resolved to live by his values and, alongside 2,500 other (overwhelmingly working class) Britons, travelled in secret to Spain to join the International Brigades and fight for the beleaguered Republic.

The story of the International Brigades is one of the finest – yet most tragic – moments of socialist internationalism in human history. Against terrible odds and in the face of constant betrayal these men and women put themselves in the way of great hardship and death itself, knowing that the fight against fascism in Spain was the fight for humanity itself. Despite this, they’ve been mostly left out of the official histories, as their personal heroism and prescience put shame to the cowardice and short sightedness of their mother countries.

George Wheeler travelled to Spain in 1937, and took part in one of the Republic’s final victories, before being capturing during the massive fascist bombing campaign and counter attack that followed. He spent the next several months held in a concentration camp while Britain languidly made efforts to repatriate him and his surviving comrades. The German and Italian brigaders were not so lucky, and most met terrible ends at the hand of either the fascists in Spain, or the ones waiting for them back home.

His short memoir of this experience is fascinating and thrilling in equal measure, and burns with such vibrant optimism and humanity that its hard not to be moved. Despite suffering, betrayal and defeat, the memoir is surprisingly free of bitterness – what shines through instead is his inspiring faith in human goodness, justice and freedom, which no amount of mud, blood or misery could darken in him.

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