Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Real Corbyn Speech: "The Hope That Lives In All of Us"

Jeremy Corbyn delivered his first speech as Labour Party leader today. It was passionate though reasonable, showing him as an authentic person, caring and decent. On a Sky TV survey designed to pick holes in him, 53% of those watching reported that they could see him as Prime Minister, while an ITN News online survey chalked up an 89% approval rate at one point.

Needless to say, the media were quick to ignore these figures. Instead, the BBC's Danny Savage spent the afternoon in a pub in Leeds where he found a man who said the liked Corbyn but he "is far too decent." Shocking.Clearly he prefers to be ruled by men capable of gross indecency, perhaps committed while joining a millionaires' mutual appreciation society at university.

Similarly, Sky decided to wheel on a PR "specialist" to look at some photos of Corbyn in his office. Breathtakingly, she managed to invent all sorts of meanings into meaninglessness - his white shirt apparently was to show voters he was organised, while a fruit bowl on his table was supposedly planned to portray him as hard working (eating on the go, no lunch!). To be fair, she did concede that maybe in fact it was all just genuine stuff, especially when she looked at his red socks and sandals, before she toddled off, perhaps for her own expensive lunch.

But while his speech today, importantly dwelling on his values, was a good start, perhaps the speech he made in the video below during his barnstorming leadership campaign is The Speech that sums up what Corbyn is about, and what all of us in the anti-austerity, pro-equality movement are about. Passionate, angry at times, dissecting the gross inequality of the betrayed democracy we live in, and the desperate world around us, this is his Political Testimony, a cri de coeur which powerfully expounds on what is wrong and what could replace it.

Watch it, share it, then go and work for it, "the hope that lives in all of us."

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Capital Crimes: Honesty Doesn't Sell Cars

Volkswagen, the so-called "Peoples' Car" company originally created by the Nazi Deutsche Arbeitsfront in 1937, is in crisis.

Once an apparent byword for trust and reliability, it has been revealed to have been deliberately falsifying the level of emissions from its diesel cars by a factor of up to forty times (yes, that's 4,000%) in US Environmental Protection Agency tests. Special software designed to identify when their cars are subjected to pollution tests alters emissions to mislead the regulator - and the buying public. Over 11 million cars are affected worldwide and VW in the USA are setting aside over $6.5 billion to pay anticipated compensation, with fines expected to be two to three times that. Half a million cars - Volkswagen and Audis sold between 2009 and 2015 - are already being recalled with many more to follow.

The company's European vehicles are likely to be just as polluting, but European tests are less rigorous so, in the view of one commentator today, there is less need to falsify outcomes. Europe may be just as badly affected by the deceit though - one early analysis suggests that over half the additional one million tonnes of emissions released by the rigged vehicles will have been on this side of the Atlantic.

With its shares falling 23% in value in one day as predatory investors anticipate lower profits as customers desert the brand, the company is rushing to shore up its battered reputation with about as devious a statement as you might expect:
"Volkswagen is committed to fixing this issue as soon as possible. We want to assure customers and owners of these models that their automobiles are safe to drive, and we are working to develop a remedy that meets emissions standards and satisfies our loyal and valued customers."

  their automobiles are safe to drive
  their automobiles are safe to drive

...except of course, they are not safe at all. That's the whole point about falsifying pollution emissions.

Save the planet - and its people!
Sure, they won't crash or blow up or anything so blatantly dangerous. Rather, insidiously, invisibly, they are helping to kill the life on our planet, poisoning our atmosphere, sickening our kids and killing our elderly.

All carbon fuel emissions are damaging to the environment and the creatures inhabiting it, which includes human beings - all of us. But while petrol is bad enough with its carbon dioxide outputs, diesel is even worse. Although marketed as "clean" because its particulates are largely invisible and it produces less carbon dioxide, it produces much more nitrogen oxide. This is a far more damaging gas when it comes to global warming as well as highly carcinogenic and as such a serious threat to human health. Many British cities, including most of London, Glasgow and Manchester have higher than legal levels of nitrogen dioxide emissions under EU regulations, but no decisive action has been taken to stop this in spite of the impact on people.

Bear in mind that around 60,000 early deaths in the UK are attributed to pollution every single year with about a quarter of these linked to diesel exhaust emissions and you can see the scale of this problem. But we have a UK Government which is subsidising carbon-packed fracking at the very same time as imposing new taxes on clean, renewable energy (now ludicrously and cruelly subjected to a carbon tax in spite of having nil carbon emissions).

That's right - it's really not safe to drive.
Put into this mix the drive (no pun) of VW and all private companies to maximise their profits (legally their sole objective) and wheezes like the US emissions falsifications become routine.

We are often told of course that capitalism is an engine of creativity, that it will find the solutions to all our problems and if nothing else consumer power will force companies to clean up their act and the planet. Yet isn't this just another marketing ploy, this time to sell us the concept that there is no alternative? Nothing works allegedly other than a system that commodifies everything and extracts surplus value from the work of the mass majority of people in order to maximise the profits of the few (owners).

The reality?
Capitalism pushes its participants to exploit, not conserve; to compete not co-operate; and to lie rather than be open - VW's crime in this context is simply to be caught out rather than doing what it did. Because, under the imperative of maximising the return for its shareholding owners, fixing the testing mechanism rather than investing millions in real fuel efficiency becomes the logical thing to do.

We've never trusted vehicle sales reps for a reason. It's because, in our economic system, honesty doesn't sell cars.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Despatches from the Dustbin of History

This will be a brief post as the Lib Dems are barely worth a mention now. But the last few days have seen a smattering of risible press notices as they gather for their first conference since their near wipe out at the General Election where, after five years of enthusiastic collusion with the most extreme rightwing government we have ever had, they ended up with their lowest vote share since the 1950s and just 8 MPs. Their new leader, the rather inconsequential Tim Farron, promised a more progressive left of centre, anti-austerity strategy, claiming this was the natural ground for his battered party.

However, a month and a bit on from his election, this shifty character has shifted his politics distinctly to the right. With Jeremy Corbyn installed as Labour leader after one of the largest democratic exercises in British political history outside of legislative elections, hysterical Lib Dems are claiming a "gap in the market" is opening for their party to "fightback".

1981 - rightwing Labour MPs set up the SDP, which merged with the Liberals
Apparently, this is the yawning chasm between the Corbynite Labour Party and the Cameron Tories. Timmy apparently has fallen for the Daily Mail/BBC line that Corbyn is Stalin's angrier cousin and is preparing to impose a reign of red terror in spite of one analysis showing his economic policies are very close to those of the 1980s SDP-Liberal Alliance.

And so, we have Farron's former deputy boss, Vince Cable, the slayer of employment rights and the defeated MP for Twickenham, declaring that a veritable avalanche of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs are about to defect to the tattered banners of the House of Farron. Timmy himself said that he had "distressed" Labour MPs texting him (they apparently didn't feel like actually calling him) expressing how upset they are at the hundreds of thousands of new members who have joined the Labour Party.

The Labour rightwing have unsurprisingly dismissed the Lib Dems' claims. Yet perhaps it would make sense - our party system is no longer fit for purpose, reflecting neither voters nor even the politics of the respective parties members. We have been governed in a neoliberal consensus for so long that, like the old "front parties" in the Soviet bloc, many of the allegedly democratic choices we are given are devoid of all content, never mind differentiation.

As previously blogged here and across the Left, a realignment is needed and is indeed coming. Corbyn's election is the latest and perhaps most evident stage in it, but it is far from complete. Much sweat and tears will flow before any conclusion is reached - but just as Corbynites and others on the Left like the Greens need to work together, the Labour Right needs a new repository for its band of chancers, warmongers, privateers and dinosaurs. Where better than the apparently welcoming arms of the Lib Dems, whose twisting and weaving rootlessness would be ideal for the pro-austerity Blairites to find some modicum of machinery, however modest or even theoretical it might be in many parts of the country? They might even set up some sort of alliance and promise to break the mould of British politics.

80s revival or a has-beens' tour?
For now it probably is just dreaming on the part of Farron and Cable, a kickback to the 1980s with its perennial false dawns of centrist SDP/Liberal advance in their younger days. As  former New Romantic Timmy's more successful musical contemporaries China Crisis trilled, a case of Wishful Thinking.

For as he surveys the Bournemouth conference hall this weekend, this desperate would-be political gadfly might do well to reflect that the political divide is no longer along some sort of 1980's slide rule with a big soppy, soggy centre segment. In our broken nation, with its ever-growing extremes of rich and poor, the dividing line between progressive and neoliberal is growing ever sharper and deeper. Answers will be found in conviction and commitment to deep-seated change, not spin and dissimulation in some dilatory defence of a slightly softer status quo. Britain and politics have moved on from the vacuum of centrist opportunism.

Timmy may well see a great gap in front of his party. Indeed, it may even be a chasm - the wide, yawning dark mouth of the dustbin of history, beckoning him to jump in.

A Kick up the 80's - Wishful Thinking

Sunday, 6 September 2015

All These Moments Will Be Lost in a Shower of Cash: On The Bladerunner Sequel

"Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto."
- Dr Eldon Tyrell

A sequel to the 1982 science fiction classic film Bladerunner is being made next year for 2017 release - 35 years after the original with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard and Ryan Gosling as an as yet unknown new lead. This verges on an act of cultural vandalism. If any film stands alone with absolutely no need of a sequel, it is this.

Based on the Philip K Dick 1968 novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , Ridley Scott's film was a seminal pace-setter for the future. Referencing film noir, with its darkly dystopian cinematography of an urban world of perpetual rain-soaked night, Bladerunner posited a whole gamut of questions around the development of high-functioning artificial intelligence, the ruthless sociopathy of corporations and their abuse of science. Above all, perhaps, it threw into sharp relief the willingness of the agents of any ruling class, like the Bladerunner-policeman Deckard, to enforce the subjugation of those deemed lesser.

In the film, Rutger Hauer plays Roy Batty, Deckard's antagonist and leader of a small group of exceptionally anthropomorphic-appearing android slave-workers, or replicants, who have escaped the clutches of their manufacturers and owner, the Tyrell Corporation. Deckard is charged to track them down using a combination of psycho-electronic empathy testing and sheer hard bullets and muscle. Given just four years of lifespan, as the replicants develop self-awareness, they become hungry for life. This motivation, common to any sentient being, becomes the central theme of the film as Deckard and his Bladerunner colleagues hunt them down to terminate them.

Asked by the attractive Corporation staffer Rachael (played by Sean Young) if he ever regrets his work, Deckard coldly responds: "Replicants are like any other machine. They're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem."

But he begins to question his own views when, ordered to test her, he realises Rachael is herself an unknowing replicant, with implanted memories of a false childhood.

Harrison Ford as Bladerunner Rick Deckard
"Tyrell really did a job on Rachael. Right down to a snapshot of a mother she never had... a daughter she never was. Replicants weren't supposed to have feelings... neither were blade runners. What the hell was happening to me? Leon's pictures had to be as phony as Rachael's. I didn't know why a Replicant would collect photos. Maybe they were like Rachael... they needed memories."

He grows close to her in spite of her apparent artificial origins, leading him to question his mission against Batty, whose own objectives are simply to snatch more life for himself and his companions. And indeed, one version of the film uses a striking inserted sequence to question Deckard's own human nature; or not.

This was a visionary piece of work, significantly building on Dick's writing to highlight questions that are becoming ever more salient today. A.I. is increasingly aiding but also supplanting humans. In the not distant future, it will be able to out-think us and replicate itself. 

In the last 18 months or so there has been an explosion of speculative articles in both the scientific and the business press about the replacement of human jobs with technology - one Oxford University study estimates a 47% replacement rate in less than two decades while Harvard research found that this trend is already impacting on the incomes and prospects of manual workers. This is an infinitely faster transition that any previous wave of socio-industrial change and will completely challenge how we organise our economies and live our lives.

While much of it is in the disembodied power of computer systems, a lot of work is underway creating robotic entities for a wide range of autonomous activities, from soldiering and hazardous civilian work to medicine and even replacing humans as empathetic companions for the elderly and sick. In such circumstances, the questions posited by the original Bladerunner about the benefits and the hazards and, above all, the rights of artificial but self-aware entities become ever more pertinent. 

"Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."

So, what is the point of a sequel, especially after so long? Sometimes, questions are best left unanswered and mysteries shrouded in the unknown. Indeed, casting Ford as Deckard 35 years on will destroy the abiding enigma of the original film - whether he looks much older or thanks to CGI hasn't aged, we will finally know what he is. And how can anything realistically follow what was in effect Bladerunner's conclusion, the utterly sublime Tears In Rain sequence?

But in this world of untrammelled commerce, where even humans can be exchanged for robots in pursuit of profit, why should we hope capitalism might leave a good story alone?