Gambling for them and us

Today we’re meant to be grateful to our political masters in the UK. They have decided to regulate the gambling sector at last. But we are still not protected from the vagaries of what academic Susan Strange once described as casino capitalism. The next recession may not be distant and the banks that triggered the last crisis have not been reformed adequately. We are still waiting for a Robin Hood Tax to address the problems caused by trading in derivatives. Taxing financial transactions in the City could actually add to the stability of the economy.

Admittedly, the addictive machines in the bookmakers were impacting adversely on ‘problem gamblers.’ Individuals could gamble up to £100 in less than a minute. The Government has opted to reduce the maximum stake to £2. However, the intervention will be far too late for many families.

This week saw the demise of American author Tom Wolfe. His Dickensian take on Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities, may have been more colourful than accurate, but the text was a powerful reminder of the gap between the traders and the masses. This gulf in lived experience has only widened since the publication of the popular novel. The divide in the UK has been highlighted by divisive recent remarks made by the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. His apology cannot conceal that the Bank of England appears to be institutionally sexist. It might be less relaxed about the inflation prospects if it had a better gender balance.

We might not be able to gamble our lives away in a happy hour any more. But it remains the case that the powerful can gamble our lives away without an hour of remorse.


The postmodern simulation of tribes

The word tribe speaks to the past. There is something of the primitive associated with it. And yet the algorithm-driven postmodern present creates tribes out of us. Social media networking and the consumption of traditional media are changing who we are. Virtual reality and lived reality are pushing us into groups. Aggressive political marketing sets fire to our traditional loyalties. Many of us can be given labels. Our views can be pigeonholed and held up for derision.

One of the first methods of attacking supporters of Jeremy Corbyn was to group us all using a dismissive discourse. Our individuality and our history was erased. At best, we were called Corbynistas. We were researched and prodded. Bourgeois journalists sneered that we were followers of Leon Trotsky. Others suggested that most of us were too young to know about political reality. The diversity in our views was suppressed. Any unusual opinions were ridiculed. A tribe had been formed and the postmodern media set about trying to discredit it by any means necessary.

Now there is a reactionary tribe or two present in the British body politic. They are often males who love money and detest political correctness. They are opposed to immigration and hostile to the postmodern. While they may have gained from global capitalism, they have a nationalist identity. Their supporters may vote against the interests of their own social class. When they make statements that reflect their unease with contemporary reality, their opponents shout “gammon” at them. A tribe has been established and its views are likely to harden.

In these circumstances, we should try to exercise our independent thought. If we support Corbyn, we may still question his nuanced policy on the European Union- a third referendum on the issue might not be such a disaster.  If we oppose mass immigration, we may still think about the historical benefits that a diverse culture has brought to our lives. In other words, we can refuse to become tribes- we can challenge the misconceptions that others may have about us. Sensitive Corbynistas and flexible gammon can cut through the media stereotypes.

The postmodern was once associated with jokes. But the laughter is now at our expense. Jean Baudrillard highlighted some of the problems with media culture in the 1980s. The theorist wrote:

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody.”

The left should not descend into the mud. People cannot be reduced to gammon. For example, we may have a drunken uncle who could be described as gammon. He should pay his taxes, but he should not be denied a barbecue in the sun. And if he wears a shirt with pineapples on it, we should not laugh.


Who Needs the Cuts? by Barry Kushner & Saville Kushner

This text is a readable exploration of media mendacity about the economics of the UK. It points out that there was insufficient scrutiny of the claim that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010. The parallel made by the then Chancellor George Osborne was with Greece. But the position of Greece was unique; trapped in the Eurozone, many of its creditors were foreign.

Professor Simon Wren-Lewis documented how media understandings of the economics of the UK often ignored expertise. This permitted austerity to be depicted as a policy of prudence. Mr Kushner and Professor Kushner have worked to illustrate how the public was offered a discourse that reduced dissent. In the 1980s, Thatcherism was highly controversial- three decades later public sector cuts were portrayed as the responsible thing to do.

Obviously, the argument draws attention to the pivotal role of bankers in the lead up to the Great Recession. It stresses that the Labour government did not spend too much when the economy was strong. It looks at how the national debt and the deficit were never out of control by historical standards. Taking a broadly Keynesian perspective, it views the imposition of cuts as having a negative impact on growth. By examining empirical data, it reminds people that the economic policies of the Conservative coalition government were ideological in nature.

It could be argued that the social polarisation exacerbated by Tory policies helped to trigger Brexit. Nevertheless, it is important to touch upon an issue which has been largely neglected by the authors of this work. The cuts have benefited various social classes. Landlords, large corporations and affluent bondholders have filled their boots as a result of the deprivation exacted on the many.

The public discourse about economics in the UK has shifted, partly because of the Corbyn surge. The conservative media has responded by triggering culture wars. Debates about snowflakes, gammon, and gender fill up the space, while the poor continue to pay the price for the crisis of neoliberalism. It is important to avoid being distracted, and to keep focusing on the pounds and pence.

From clone towns to ghost towns?

A dozen years or so ago, people were concerned that British towns were looking the same. The anxiety was that there was too little differentiation between retail offers. A High Street would contain the usual suspects and many shoppers would crave diversity. Competition between places was not leading to distinctive spaces and boredom was an issue.

While the Great Recession changed the worries of many citizens, the idea of clone towns survived for a while. Even as austerity reduced consumption, many people must have thought that ‘business as usual’ would be restored in time. Analysts may have noted the growing tendency to shop online, but many shoppers thought that it would be possible to continue buying stuff in the old way.

There was a political push to revitalise towns, but there was not enough imagination. The stress on creating experiences could not deliver regeneration across the board. Although some places have suffered more than others, the overall pattern is bleak. Shops are boarded up. Bookmakers, fast-food joints and charity stores are enduring, but many towns are not mounting a sustainable comeback.

It is premature to say precisely what should be done. Green towns are worth considering. Heritage may sometimes be used to positive effect. But at least we need not fear clone towns any more. More serious issues demand our consideration. Places with poor levels of footfall on sunny days will not be brought to life by the odd event.

Local government must bring ideas forward. For such plans to be effective, it is essential that the squeeze on the finance of local authorities is abandoned. Central government should increase income tax and use the resources to give more discretion to those involved in the production of place.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This grim novel of imperialism and racism has a new resonance in the era of President Trump. There is a brutal poetry within the psychological narrative. The vagueness of the language adds a mystery to the story. The famous critic F.R. Leavis alleged that the imprecision of the adjectives deployed was frustrating for the reader. But each individual may make their own judgement. Those who value atmosphere may give Joseph Conrad the benefit of the doubt; English was not his first language. Furthermore,  Conrad wrote:

“We live, as we dream- alone.”

The brevity of the text means that the development of the characters is somewhat limited. However, it does not diminish the power of the journey. The emphasis on light and dark means that the reader is always thinking about appearances and reality. Crude racist language reminds one of the prejudice that much of the West has maintained towards Africa and its people. Racism deprives individuals of their humanity and allows them to act without compassion.

The question is whether or not we can view Trump as a powerful version of Kurtz. There is something “contemptibly childish” about the character in the novel. Is there not a really childish quality to the showmanship of Trump? When Trump described nations as “shithole countries” he was clearly engaged in constructing a racist discourse that would have fitted in with the simplistic imperialism of Conrad’s time.

Sections of the mainstream media are keen to give Trump legitimacy. Their line is that if he can achieve X or Y then we might have underestimated him. But the point is not whether Trump can be efficient. Why should we tolerate intolerant rulers who do not care about the lives of ordinary people? It makes sense for people to campaign for change, instead of passively waiting for change to happen. Trump is a dangerous distraction who must be displaced: it is ‘business as usual’ for some of the elites who run our lives.

Why is Paul Mason attacking Louis Althusser?

“In the early 1960s the pro-Kremlin French sociologist Louis Althusser “solved” the problem of the Paris Manuscripts by declaring them to be un-Marxist.”

Paul Mason.

It is often thought that the media star and writer Paul Mason is squarely on the left of British politics. He has not been a savage critic of Jeremy Corbyn, and this means that he is often perceived as being a benign commentator on political and economic matters. Nevertheless, he occasionally says or does something which makes you think he is not to be trusted. His intemperate and inaccurate attack on the dead philosopher Louis Althusser is a case in point.

Althusser is known for his conceptual innovations and for his ability to learn from different disciplines. He was not a simple Stalinist, and it is unfair to his subtle thought to depict him as pro-Kremlin. Althusser was born in Algeria, but putting him in the French category is not necessarily inaccurate- although it should be remembered that the English historian E.P. Thompson gave the Frenchman a hard time back in the day.  Nationalism may have reared its head there, although Thompson had the sense not to produce a philosophical model of his own.

Mason continues his own assault strangely, by calling the philosopher a sociologist. This could be a typo, but it may be that Mason thinks that philosophers have a status which sociologists lack. Althusser was a creative philosopher and his contributions to thought should be discussed on that basis.

Ostensibly, Mason is attacking Althusser because the latter valued the late work of Marx more than Marx’s early musings. For Althusser, there was an ‘epistemological break’ between the two sections of theory. However, he was the subject of withering criticism on this point by John Lewis many decades ago. And Althusser conceded that his thinking had pushed ahead too far:

“I was not attentive enough to the fact which John Lewis points out, that is, to the fact of the continuing presence of the said philosophical categories after the “epistemological break”.” 
Nowhere does Mason mention that Althusser took full ownership of this deviation. The original error is only of interest to Marxist philosophers. So why does Mason want people to dismiss Althusser and focus on the minor works of Marx? There are two possible explanations. One of these is the theory that Mason does not want workers to find things out by themselves. If they read Althusser they may take a dim view of the mass media and the role that Mason plays within its reactionary systems. The other is the hope that Mason really believes in the Hegelian output of the young Marx.
It would be nice to think that Mason is an idealist, a man who wants to share beautiful thoughts about fighting the alienation of labour. However, Mason could do this without traducing a dead philosopher. Nor can one help wondering if Mason has an intellectual inferiority complex. His book sales may be great, but he is unlikely to be mentioned by the cognoscenti in the same breath as Althusser. Perhaps Mason should confine his polemics to his equals.

The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

Books  can be understood as relatives of other books. I would never have read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende if I had not experienced One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Magical realism and big families must have made an impact on my imagination way back when. Hence I picked up a memoir by Allende and found that real family sagas can be almost as dramatic as fictional ones.

Unfortunately, this memoir contains quite a lot of misery. Even when families have money they have their disappointments. Suffering comes in many forms. Some pain is haunting, occasioned by people passing away far too soon. Other anxiety is ephemeral, such as concern for fading personal appearance.

Much of this text is set in California. Allende is interested in politics and is broadly progressive in orientation. Certainly, part of the lengthy narrative is tormented by the excesses of the Republican Party. At the same time, Allende was of mature years when she put together this account. Comfortable with feminism, she seems less assured in her dealings with other aspects of the debates surrounding gender. Perhaps everyone could do with the insight of Professor Judith Butler. Professor Butler wrote:

“If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.”

Allende is a sincere writer. She holds a mirror to the difficulties inherent in composing fresh work. Furthermore, she is open about how much effort a postmodern writer has to devote to marketing. Prepared to travel and to give something back to less fortunate people, Allende is an admirable figure with a great sense of fun.

Her memoir ended with an honest tribute to the authentic love she shared with her husband. However, this neat conclusion has been ripped up by later events. Her marriage ended as her husband found further grief too much to handle. This tragic outcome shows that life has a way of throwing harsh challenges at people who have done their best. There is something random about the world which tidy arithmetic can never capture.