Word of the year 2018: performative

Performative has helped understand so much about the world in 2018. Gender as the assemblage of performative cultural acts. Democracy degenerating into performative absolute statements of "blood red lines".

But the best has definitely been from the Guyliner though: "performative alcoholism is no substitute for a personality". Quite.

The Walking Dead: The New Frontier - Episodes 1 and 2

It doesn't take long playing the new Walking Dead season to get back into the Kirkman mindset of nihilist despair and remember Telltale's weird obsession with child anguish.

On encountering a room of supplies you know that despite appearing to be abandoned the correct decision is to not take other people's stuff. You know that on encountering other people compassion or forgiveness is impossible. It isn't enough to move people on or maybe steal their stuff in compensation.

Instead slights must be avenged, face must be saved and "justice" must be done.

When late in the first episode Clementine tells you that if you don't kill all of your attackers then they'll just keep coming after you, you know its true. Because its true, when you fail to kill all of them, they come after you and then kill an entire settlement as collateral damage.

The child horror is unrelenting as well. Clementine sports a homemade tattoo but at least that's a moment of her choosing to commemorate something, she has also been branded and I feel that's not going to have been a positive, life-affirming event.

You know characters are going to die but in the middle of having a life-affirming moment with a ten-year old, her brains are blown out, by middle-aged bandits. You may want a bleak story but consistently maiming and killing girls starts to feel less than just despair about the human condition and more about a desire to smother life at birth.

The underlying weakness of this instalment of the series though is the refusal to have your choices make real impact. I chose to tie a character's hands, only to see them effortlessly free themselves two scenes later.

The rules of the genre are also becoming clearer to me, when someone blames you for something why try to forgive them or talk them round? By now we know grudges are things that are to be savoured and nurtured. It is easier to kill any new character who seems bitter.

Crazily even their friends accept your story of self-defence. Shaking their heads and telling you that you are "the boss".

I have a strong emotional connection to Clementine, a tribute to the writers who made you raise a virtual child in the hardest circumstances. But Kirkman's individualist philosophy and commitment to the evil of humanity is as dull now in the game as it was in the comics.

Learning political lessons from 2016

Two interesting editorials from the tail end of the year: the first is the less interesting one, from the Guardian on democracy; the second is from the Economist on liberalism.

Both detect the failings the year found in their chosen strand of political philosophy and understand that changes are needed to restore vitality to them. The Guardian editorial tries to put the tension between democratic passions and reflection into a historical context and correctly identifies both the resurgence of political engagement in Scotland as a result of the independence referendum and the broader lack of engagement in turnout and politics beyond niche area campaigning.

Sadly it doesn't offer much in the way of suggestions for correcting this. One thing I felt was important from 2016 was the disconnect between popular democracy and the first past the post system of electing MPs. UKIP's failure to turn their popular vote into parliamentary representation was a bad outcome for both their supporters and their critics. While that Alternate Vote system was rejected for general elections, the fact that it is used so widely for other forms of elections means that it would be worth finding a vote system that might find general agreement. One that might avoid the curse of safe seats and wasted votes. If the government is decided by tens of constituencies not by all of them then we should expect a cynicism about the value of turning out to the polling station.

The Economist on the other hand is full of fight and proposals, it points out that the early challenges to liberalism resulted in universal suffrage and education. It is worth thinking big and trying to genuinely tackle the hard problems of our times rather than reheating a Cold War capitalism to ever diminishing returns.

Distribution of wealth, opportunity and a better understanding of the consequences of global equality are worthy problems. Looking at what the future of education should be and how people can genuinely reskill and retrain rather than be deskilled is of real social value.

Reversals of progress are disappointing but inevitable, it is when the will to respond with new answers fails that the rot truly sets in.

Universal principles are better than alliances

This weekend was the Battle of Ideas, this year instead of challenging the concept of Identity politics is basically piled in with a wild leg-breaking two-footed tackle. In the midst of the melodrama though it did help me think through something that has been bugging me, namely the concept of being an "ally".

I've primarily seen this concept in terms of feminism and Black Lives Matter and superficially it seems a positive thing. In the particular case a way for men or white people to declare themselves as active supporters of a movement. However during a panel discussion on the struggle for black civil rights one of the panellists pointed out that people claimed equal rights not because they are black but because they are human. A movement that claims rights merely for one particular group was weaker than one that claimed them for everyone.

There is no need to be an "ally" for equal rights, civil rights or human rights. You can believe in them and want to create a system that ensures that everyone has access to them and recourse when they are denied them. Your personal identity is completely irrelevant to your belief and your commitment to it.

Generalising this the principle of equality is universal and anyone can believe that people should have equal access to society and government. Your gender, sexuality or lack of it, race or any other personal characteristic is irrelevant.

Mass-movements and universal principles seem to have fallen out of favour or are expressed in only absolutist terms like the concept of the caliphate. I think there is much to be gained be reviving them and no movement based on affirmation of identity loses by participating in them.

A Brexit for all

The LRB seems to me to have done the best in-depth reporting on the referendum and the surrounding issues that I've read. How to grow a Weetabix is a wonderfully wide-ranging piece that looks at the nature of Britain as it actually is and the various issues that have built up to this moment.

It also nailed a point I was struggling to see for myself, that the Leave campaign can do and say anything and be a protean figure that anyone can get behind. I was already wondering about the fact that the money currently going to Europe has been re-spent ten times over during the debate.

This quote from a Brexit-supporting farmer, Stuart Agnew, wonderfully summarises the magical thinking.

As we talked I realised he was treating the referendum as if it were a general election; as if, instead of resolving a single issue, whether or not to stay in the EU, a vote to leave would usher in a new Britain, where farmer-hampering officials, Agnew-unfriendly regulations, scientists whose analysis he disagreed with and popular hostility to genetically modified food would fade away of their own accord.

He blamed the EU for forcing him to bury sheep rather than cremating them. He blamed the EU for stopping him growing GM crops (he was one of England’s trial growers). He blamed the EU for excessively tight control of pesticides and for forcing him to place an electronic tag in the ear of each sheep.

As the writer points out, leaving the EU isn't going to magically convert the British into feeling different about GM food or mad cow disease or foot and mouth disease. Climate change isn't going to depend on whether Britain is a European Union member or not.

But Remain is fighting for the status quo and Leave has the freedom to offer everything to everyone. Since no-one really knows what will happen after handing in notice of Britain's membership there is a chance, no matter how small, that anything might be possible. Farm subsidies might go up, migration might go down, we might be able to deport more people, we might be better off, wage might go up.

Saying yes to every possibility ends up with absurdity though. Some of the things that the Leave campaign are starting to promise are in direct contradiction to one another.

The fallacy of Brexit

I loved this article, entitled Europe's sullen child, on the London Review of Books.

In recent years countries like Hungary and Poland have started systematically to dismantle democracy and the rule of law within their own borders. They have weakened the judiciary, captured the media, and attacked all opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic. Brussels isn’t the great threat to the rule of law in Europe, it is increasingly authoritarian individual governments that pose a real danger not just to their own citizens, but to anyone holding a European passport; as long as they are represented in the European Council, the decisions they make affect everyone in the EU.

Because the majority of British people don't feel threatened by their own government right now (although certain segments, like the former miners, are rightly suspicious of the benignity of their government's intentions towards them) there is a tendency to forget why the rules and restrictions exist in the first place. Europe, including Britain, has never been a place of steady, untroubled progress. It is not a straight-forwardly good thing to let nation states do what they want without any external restrictions. Look at Yugoslavia, was the right time to intervene after the massacres had started?

The impression that right-wing populists like to give of themselves as defenders of democracy is, needless to say, deceptive. For one thing, the EU states have not ‘lost sovereignty’. That the UK can hold a referendum on whether or not to leave, while at the same time treaties can be amended only by a unanimous decision of all states together, is enough to demonstrate this point (which is not to say that individual states haven’t ceded many powers or that they aren’t, on a day-to-day basis, subject to bureaucratic decision-making in Brussels and rulings by the European Court that can go strongly against their national preferences).

In Britain, prisoners don't have the vote. Judgements by the European Court of Human Rights have been routinely ignored because the popular mood in Britain is that prison is a punishment and loss of voting rights is part of that punishment. When we choose to we happily ignore European rules that contradict our national desires.

The British Parliament exercises sovereign rights frequently, but erratically, making it difficult to differentiate between what is the will of British politicians and what is the result of aligning to the single market and European harmonisation. I personally suspect that that isn't a coincidence. Vote with your conscience in the lobby, blame it on Europe on the doorstep.

Populists always need enemies and conspiracies to explain why they aren’t already in power, or, when they do get to rule, why they aren’t succeeding and why there can’t be such a thing as a legitimate opposition. The EU has served them well in this regard. But it is naive to think that, even after getting rid of the supposed dictatorship of Brussels (and Germany), they would rest content.

If there are illegal migrants crossing the Channel in small boats then it is not because of the EU. The EU has not made Britain reduce its budget for the navy and border protection. That's something we've chosen to do ourselves as it is one of the "invisible" cuts we have made as part of our mania for austerity-lite.

In some ways I actually think a Brexit might be better for the country while worse for me personally. The first step towards recovery is being able to be honest with yourself and while we have the EU to be the bogeyman beyond the Channel, the whipping boy for any unwelcome news or poorly conceived policy the British nation seems incapable of seeing itself and its actions clearly.

The article is also excellent on the British abandonment of its European agenda, as a country it encouraged others to join Europe with a view of creating a new consensus on the kind of Europe we should have. After the ascension of Poland I feel we suffered a complete failure of vision and nerve and have retreated into "sullen" isolation, one that primarily seems aimed at avoiding our own failures than those of Europe and the Euro.

The Martian and the Bechdel test

In general the film is a model of racial representation (although the white guy is still at the top, even in the future). On the other hand I was thinking about how the film fairs when it comes to the Bechdel test.

There are two women characters in both the Earth team and aboard the spaceship.

Those on the Earth team didn't seem to interact, instead making their contribution to a male character who was mediating the overall conversation.

On the spaceship the women do interact but aside from exchanging orders and confirmations the only other conversation I noticed is when the crew is discussing whether to force the ship into the slingshot orbit or not. While this is notionally an exchange of views about the the mission it's actually a discussion about whether the women should risk themselves to save Watney. So the conversation is ultimately about their relationship to a man and hence fails the test.

Parallel London worlds

A boy was murdered near where I live recently. The spot where he fell has become a temporary shrine with flowers and graffiti. On the weekend a group of kids had started hanging out there (they hadn't been there during the week), there were talking nosily and shouting out to passers-by while another kid aimlessly (and dangerously) cycled around the streets surrounding it.

I realised that the kid on the cycle was spotting and the group at the spot were showing themselves on their ground.

There was a surreal quality to it. There in the middle of a regular Saturday of building, trading and shopping. There on the streets with their Jaguars and Aston Martins. There was a boy caught up in his own drama of patrolling the streets where one of his group had fallen.

The lines of the territory are invisible to people like me, as the article I linked to says the area consists of people of all different classes and wealth overlapping in the same metres of territory. The Bemerton estate at the centre of it, a mess ever since I've been here.

This kind of violence is mostly class-based and isolated geographically. I might get robbed but I'm isolated from the threat of being killed because of who I am and where I spend my time.

The article is wrong at least in talking about the reconstruction of Kings Cross. Caledonia Road has been that way ever since it was created to connect Kings Cross and Archway, initially through marshy farmland. To the east the planned streets, to the west the land between the road and the railway, the road itself evolving into the necessary neutral zone between the two where shared needs meet.

London, and Islington in particular, feels unique in having these social layers sharing the same geography, every other city I've ever been to links boundaries to geography, streets serve as borders. Here in a crowded city we're all creating our own psychogeography in the same physical space.

The Mockingjay Part One

The latest Hunger Games film is almost inexplicable to me in terms of popular culture. Apart from the usual rumbling American distrust of government and "the capital", the latest instalment feels more like an indictment of the whole society that has created it.

Opening with a set of hooded executions it then proceeds to take a visual tour of the atrocities of more than a decade of the war on terror.

There are the forced statements of prisoners to camera, a pastiche of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the horror of sheltering from relentless bombing and shelling, the collateral damage of precision bombing (or the killing of civilians as you might prefer to call it).

And through it all are laced the ruins of Lebanon, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq. Buildings with their facades delicately eroded by countless bullets, sheltering refugees in their cadaverous interiors and reduced to nothing but concrete rubble pits by the jets roaring overhead. A world of poverty reduced to a mausoleum.

If this is entertainment it is grim stuff and pretty subversive for a film whose certificate doesn't allow it actually show a single killing on screen.

Basic income

Issue 1305 of Le Monde Diplomatique had some interesting ideas around the concept of direct payments and basic income.

Basic income is the idea that the government organises a payment to all its citizens of a sum of money without conditions or obligation. The value of the payment is subject to discussion, but let's say here it is a sum of money that is sufficient to survive, to pay rent, utilities, food and clothing. In short the basic income is sufficient to be a full functioning member of society. The income is paid regardless of the other income you have and therefore all other sources of income are in addition to your needs.

The basic income replaces all welfare and benefit payments and because it applies universally it is easier to run than varied, conditional benefits.

Does the world owe you a living? Good Protestant embodiments of the work ethic tend to say no. However there is something deeply strange about a world where you are denied a living or society doesn't regard it as a matter of importance as to whether you can live or not.

Although Europe seems to be engaged in a strange experiment to see how long it can continue to function while denying access to employment to the majority of a generation I think that society and the state does actually owe its members a living. In fact it one of the major purposes of these institutions that they create and defend the opportunity to create a life secure in the all the needs including the opportunity for leisure and self-expression.

Our current systems of social welfare are based, in essence, around the concept of insurance and bridging payments. During periods of work you are making contributions to a social fund and during periods of unemployment you are making withdrawals from that fund.

Basic income is a radical departure from this conception of welfare. Under basic income the state makes an undertaking that all members of society receive enough money to meet their basic needs.

When governments currently want to encourage the creation of jobs they often, despite their protestations, pay a subsidy to employers and business to recruit people. Why is it better to bribe a business to pay someone a wage than it is to simply direct that money straight to the individual?

When talking about basic income with people I think the biggest issue people have one of moral hazard. If people don't have to work to live then why will they work? This is a curious argument in my mind, is more moral to reduce a person to penury to force them to find work? A lot people seem to say yes, an affirmation of their experience of having to find work without support in their own lives.

It puts a strange emphasis on the importance of work, as if it was something moral or spiritual rather than a system of exchange.

If we put our personal experience aside I think it makes sense that people work. Not to survive but to help provide meaning in their lives: self-worth, companionship, to have an impact on the world which they individually could not to achieve. Most likely they would also work to switch from merely existing in the world to acquiring the capital required to become an owner of property (of both goods and land) and therefore root themselves more firmly in their society and the world in general.

These incentives remain even with basic income. Not having to work does not destroy the positive aspects of work. However the inverse is not true; as the old trade union adage has it work without leisure and rest is no different to slavery.

Basic income also aligns with conservative economic policies that attempt to remove the tax burden from the working poor and to pay benefits and tax credits on time since the poorest in society also have the highest velocity on their money. They are forced to spend almost as soon as they receive it and therefore are the fundamental liquidity of their local communities.

But what of those who were once called "feckless". In many ways we've moved beyond the fallacy that the poor are somehow deserving of their situation and are incapable of changing their circumstance. Microfinance and a genuine more humane impulse of sympathy sees that economic constraints can conspire to make it impossible to change your circumstances without external intervention. The poor are the poor not because of their moral character but simply because they were born poor.

The more challenging category of the addicted and mentally ill are not served well under a society dedicated to the primacy of paid labour. Does basic income solve their problems or does it simply enable their issues? I suspect basic income does nothing for these people except remove the delusion that they would be fine if they had to hold down a job. Dealing with mentally illness is one of the greatest challenges known to modern society as no general measures will touch the individual chaos of these lives.

However I think basic income means that help and support can be focussed on those for whom financial circumstances are only part of their wider problem.

Imagining a world without mandatory work seems challenging but thinking that our world of labour exchange is inevitable and has always existed requires a stubborn lack of imagination.