Live Review: Insecure Men, The Scala, London, 9/03/18

In a museum in Berlin there’s a replica of a flat from the communist era, designed to demonstrate to tourists how sparse and unfulfilling life in the East used to be. If you look at the expressions of the young people, you can see them doing the maths in their head – and coming to the conclusion that between a job for life with a medium sized flat, or living in a shoebox and working for an app, they’d take their chances with the Stasi.

The world was supposed to be better, technology and modernity was going to save us. In the future (about 10 years ago) war and want would be over and a united mankind would be on its way to the stars.

Instead it stayed just as bad – got worse even – but in new and dispiriting ways. Instead of the workers “holding the country ransom” with their unions, its the corporations and their algorithms holding the gun to our back. Even more depressing, we’re now expected to like it.  Free at last from stifling conformity and an overbearing public realm (or “nanny state” as we’re now obliged to call it), we’re dying of loneliness in a sea of meaningless individualism.

Western capitalism has finally crushed its old rivals in the socialist world. It stands alone and victorious, riven with parasites and infections of its own making, lashing out at its own shadow – from the Middle East to the East End of London. Private interests are God and the struggle for the collective good is the sin of our fathers, to be cast off and forgotten.

With a drabness deliberately crossing over into the uncomfortable, Insecure Men are an appeal to the bad old days. In both their lyrics and imagery, they contrast scenes of boring everyday life with jarring fascism, machismo and sleaze. Images of smiling children are placed suggestively next to writhing child abusers. Worn down, decaying council housing is framed lovingly next to glossy corporate advertising, sinister by comparison.

Insecure Men know the world is bad and they know it has always been bad. They write semi-sincere love songs to a time when society’s sickness was borne as an open wound, before the cancer grew up in the heart and lungs and mind – harder to see, but infinitely more deadly.

Their performance at The Scala last night was a stroke of genius. A genuine work of art presented through the medium of pop music. An eight piece band turned the lethargic, delicate album tracks into expansive, immersive pools of sound. The music is neither aggressive nor imposing, it just hangs over you and around you like a smog, or like a feeling of sadness that you just can’t shake.

If this ironic humour and resigned attitude to the failure of modernity is the spirit of our age, Insecure Men are the right people in the right place at the right time.

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 humoure of economics heart-throb Yanis Varoufakis, Ann Pettifor’s no-fucking-around 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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.





Review: Alex Cameron – Forced Witness


“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.