Friday, December 31, 2010

New Vibrations I Heard In 2010

Mr Serj Tankian: purveyor of "Amazingly inspirational stuff."
1 Serj Tankian - Elect The Dead Symphony
The balance remains between that which is sought by the few - profit/And that which is sought by the most - peace, oh peace
Download: Empty Walls, Falling Stars, Honking Antelope

At the end of 2007, I made Serj Tankian's first solo release my album of the year, and described it as "Damned near flawless". At the end of 2010, I have to say that this symphonic re-working of those songs lifts them even more transcendently high, and the new songs featured here are fully worth their place in such exalted company. If anything, the subtleties of Tankian's "perfectly crafted, multi-dimensional, emotional wringer of a metal album" are brought out even clearer by his phenomenal orchestral score, and if it is possible, his voice was even more expressive that night in Auckland. Amazingly inspirational stuff. It must have been even more amazing to be there.

2 Fear Factory - Mechanize
I will forge my place in this time/Contention is sharply refined/I will expose you and force your demise/To take control of what is truly mine
Download: Powershifter, Designing The Enemy, Final Exit

2005's dreadful Transgression could never have been the end of Fear Factory. It was the end of one lineup; Raymond Herrera and Christian Olde Wolbers fell foul of Burton C. Bell. But with the onset of the economic crisis, Bell decided that Fear Factory needed to make a comeback. After all, in the words at the start of the Fear Campaign video: "It is not necessary to camouflage the insanity of the world today within a science fiction setting." In other words, the futuristic nightmares that inspired Fear Factory's greatest work are coming to pass in the present day. Burton is on fire, Gene Hoglan is a perfect fit on the drumstool, and the message to the ruling class is clear: "You want war? You got war. More than you bargained for."

3 Rotting Christ - Aealo

And now that painted crows laugh in the shade/Spreading their screams in the valley of death/Just feeling my heart trembling/The time has come to rage and fight!
Download: Aealo, ...pir Threontai, Orders From The Dead

This is the other album in my top ten with a Greek title, and this one means "thrashing, catastrophe or destruction". Considering the intense class war that's been raging in Greece this year (more than any other country so far in the crisis), listening to songs about Greek people and wars whilst reading about brutal austerity, general strikes and riots has been exciting to say the least. I don't know for sure what Sakis Tolis' take on the situation is, but listening to this I feel he must be on the side of the angels. And Diamanda Galas' contribution recalls the victims of twentieth century dictatorships in Greece. So very Greek, but so very international. Thrilling, thrilling, thrilling stuff! Non Serviam indeed!

4 Killing Joke - Absolute Dissent

Let flags of black and red unfurl/Echoes of distant laughter/Confederation of the dispossessed/Fearing neither god nor master
Download: This World Hell, The Raven King, Ghosts of Ladbroke Grove

The band's first album since the death of bassist Paul Raven (gloriously eulogised here on The Raven King) is the sound of an always intellectually edgy and vitriolic group coming to terms with the new great depression and the age of austerity. Some of the politics is still a bit conspiracy-orientated for my taste, but it's also shot through with the urgency of the crisis, and reinforced with anger at the kind of "wankers and bankers" now raping the once bohemian environs of the band's spiritual home in Ladbroke Grove, and who are now brazenly demanding unrestricted power over the lives of billions. All in all, this is everything a Killing Joke should be in 2010.

5 Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones
As you descend, I shall rise/Your demise shall be my conception/Your failure shall be my triumph/I shall feed from your decay/Your despair shall give me strength
Download: Abyss Within My Soul, Myopic Empire, My Pain

One of two albums with Greek titles in my top ten (it means 'demons to my left' apparently), this is of course Tom Gabriel Fischer's follow up to Celtic Frost's Monotheist, but without those pesky Celtic Frost members. Well, this is the best album CF never made, and every note of every song is soaked in pain and hatred for...someone. And not in any contrived way; the sad racoon was doing this way before it became cliche, and he's far too serious an artist to indulge in any fakery. Maybe he's a bit self-important, actually, but I wouldn't say that to his face.

6 The Ruby Kid - Maps

The bosses' game is only pain/My art is anaesthetic/I'll work if I have to/But never with an ethic
Download: the whole thing, after paying him! Listen to Hoxton Bounce here.

All in all, this is a superb album from a modest but extremely accomplished twenty-three year old poet. Maybe this isn't going to be the soundtrack to the struggles kicking off during this winter of such massive discontent, but it is definitely a great accompaniment. By repping those "on that next gen proletarian tip", The Ruby Kid will surely win many new fans with this material, in these times. To quote a work I'm sure he'd approve of, "true art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society." Word. Click here for my full review.

7 Íon - Immaculada

As heavenly sounds resound around/Peace is ours, and perfection/For we are mute, deep in the heart of the earth/Absorbed in the absolute
Download: Temptation, The Silent Stars, Return To Spirit

As Duncan Patterson continues his journey away from the kind of sounds that made him famous as part of Anathema more than a decade ago, he presents us with Immaculada: a strange mixture of quietness and disquiet, beauty and fear. Lisa Cuthbert's vocals evoke themes that would normally be described as 'spiritual' - i.e. using the supposedly metaphysical to try and make sense of your place in the world - over exquisitely composed layers of eerie folkish instrumentation.

8 Neil Young - Le Noise
I can feel the weather changing/I can see it all around/Can't you feel that new wind blowing?/Don't you recognize that sound?
Download: Love and War, Peaceful Valley Boulevard, Rumblin'

After four million years or however long it is, the old stager can still craft a near perfect song, and he's still thoroughly engaged with the world around him, with all its Love And War. He longs for companionship on Walk With Me, he feels seismic societal upheavals brewing in Rumblin', and he gives a potted history of the Americas in Peaceful Valley Boulevard. And all with that voice. Le Noise is so much more than just noise. It is beautiful composition.

9 Cathedral - The Guessing Game

So I built a house up in a tree/To view reality and began observing/From there I saw an abattoir for minds/A system of lies man is enslaved in
Download: Painting In The Dark, Death Of An Anarchist, Requiem For The Voiceless

Once upon a time there was a radical idealist called Lee Dorrian, who would shout down from his treehouse about the truth he believed only he could see (Funeral Of Dreams). When the ants on the ground failed to heed his words of wisdom and overthrow the system, he lost his belief that they had the mental capacity to smash their chains (The Running Man). Feeling lonely, he distracted himself from thoughts of suicide (Death Of An Anarchist) with Cats, Candles, Incense & Wine, and even Painting In The Dark. Then one day, material circumstances called a working class resistance movement into being, and Lee Dorrian became its enthusiastic and vocal supporter (songs yet to be written).

10 Eels - Tomorrow Morning
The old oak tree was dead; I had to cut it down/The sapling roots were new and sprouting through the ground/New worlds were taking shape, unseen and unknown/A branch to rest upon; a place to call my own
Download: I'm A Hummingbird, Oh So Lovely, Mystery Of Life

Following last year's Hombre Lobo, and January's Endtimes (see below), Mark Everett decides that things aren't so bad, he's a decent enough guy, and maybe there is hope after all. That's all very nice. But more than that - far more than that - is the sense of musical reaching that pervades every single track. He's not invented a new style of music, but he's tried. On some level, he has decided that the Eels sound that seemed to fit the 1990s and early 2000s so well is no longer enough for the next decade, and the challenges it will bring. This is the sound of a man taking stock of his life, and getting ready for an exciting new era.

What I was listening to this year and that...
Eels - Endtimes
So in the narrative, the whirlwind woman who came shook up Mark Everett's life and inspired 2009's Hombre Lobo has now left him. Alone, he gets all sad and that. But there's so much more to this album, which is just as well, because otherwise it might be pretty monochrome. For Everett, the turmoil of the relationship's end seems mirrored in the global turmoil, and indeed it seems to him that 'end times' are here for all of us. A gloomy prospect indeed, but don't get too down, because Tomorrow Morning isn't far away...

Filter - The Trouble With Angels
Filter are the rarest of things - a band that keeps getting better. In reality of course, it's Richard Patrick who keeps getting better, both in terms of his songwriting and his hiring of hands to make the songs work. Whereas 2008's Anthems For The Damned was explicitly political, with a politics far deeper than the then popular anybody but Bushism, The Trouble With Angels is more emotional and personal. But these are not Richard Patrick's emotional issues we're dealing with here; he's looking out at the world rather than in, and he shows a passion for life missing from 'emo' individualism.

Grinderman - Grinderman 2
Nick Cave's "lower" self is still much loftier than most people's highest of highs, and when it isn't ("What's this husband of yours ever given to you? Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen"), it's often funny. And maybe even more so than the first Grinderman, the music is uniformly haunting and compelling.

Brendan Perry - Ark
An extremely 'serious' album - both in the subjects tackled by the lyrics, and the attention to musical detail so familiar to Dead Can Dance. His voice remains as otherworldly and yet soulful as ever, and his attacks on politicians, their wars, their environmental destruction, and the numbing effects of television are very powerful indeed. This is an album to immerse yourself in.

Hole - Nobody's Daughter

Okay, so there's no doubt that Courtney Love isn't the most likeable of characters, but she's a desperate mess, and a vulnerable, pitiful figure who needs some compassion and understanding. That's certainly how she presents her self here, and not (so far as I can detect) in a self-conscious way. The assistance of Billy Corgan and others has helped her craft an often extremely heartfelt album, detailing what it's like for her to be nobody's daughter and nobody's mother in 2010.

Nevermore - The Obsidian Conspiracy
A very decent album, but from a band with standards as high as Nevermore, it feels like a bit of a letdown. Warrel Dane's philosophy seems buried under something, and Jeff Loomis really doesn't seem to be firing on all cylinders either. With their brilliance somehow muted, this seems like a work in progress.

Rome - Nos Chants Perdu
I'm very new to this band, so don't really feel qualified to say too much about this album. They are (obviously) named after the capital of Italy. Their main man is from Luxembourg, and he sings in French and English about vaguely political and philosophical themes. And they apparently play "apocalyptic martial folk", but that nowhere near describes the loungey sound of this album. Pretty confusing, but pretty good all the same!

Anathema - We're Here Because We're Here

This one just doesn't grab me, as much as I would like an Anathema album to grab me. It floats above reality, and refuses to swoop down to its level. It is brim full of pseudo-insights that actually shed no light on anything. It aspires to soar to the very heights of heaven, but it doesn't have strong enough wings for the task. Sad to say, life isn't eternal, so we'd better start improving our lot before we start writing paeans to self-help individualism. Still, technically excellent, and Steven Wilson pulls things together very well. It's just...I wish he could have produced an earlier Anathema album. This is not what the Cavanaghs' home town of Anfield sounded like in 2010.

Korn - Korn III - Remember Who You Are
I don't really know who's in Korn these days, and if any of their members are currently 'born again' Christians, but they still have dirty, chunky riffs, grinding bass, and Jonathan Davis' often gorgeous vocals.

Ozzy Osbourne - Scream
Following a couple of pedestrian albums, Ozzy has rediscovered an energy an urgency which belies his age. Gus G on guitars and Tommy Clufetos on drums bring new tricks to the Ozzy brandwagon, and if the man himself really does write the lyrics then he's definitely watching the news with growing concern and disgust.

Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
This is not classic Swans - given the gap of fourteen years since the last release under that name that is hardly surprising - but there are moments of dark, dark, dark transcendence.

Deftones - Diamond Eyes
With Chi Cheng still in a coma, Eros has been postponed, so Chino Moreno and co. have released another platterful of crunching riffs and pretty melodies. Chino doesn't want to talk about his place in the world, commenting that "I love songs where I can totally take myself out of being human." How very human.

Soulfly - Omen
An omen of what then? Max Cavalera's retirement? Hopefully not, because he's still got the fire, it's just a bit dampened here. With such a small gap between this and Conquer, plus Cavalera Conspiracy and goodness knows what else, perhaps he's not got enough grrrrrrrrrrrr to go round anymore. Which would be a shame, in these times, when Refuse/Resist is finally starting to come true around the world.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - The Road

Another beautifully melancholic film soundtrack from Nick Cave and bandmate Warren Ellis.

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk
A very passable album, with some nice moments, but really, it's no Sunday At Devil Dirt....

Tindersticks - Falling Down A Mountain
A fairly typical Tindersticks album. Pianos, balladry, melancholic gin-soaked vocals. Excellent in parts.

Serj Tankian - Imperfect Harmonies
Without a doubt the most disappointing album of the year. Aside of Borders Are... and Left of Centre, no tracks live up the sprawling, majestic sweep of Elect The Dead, and the messy electronica and orchestral combinations could really have done with a few Daron Malakian riffs underneath them. If Elect The Dead was a step away from metal, it still had System Of A Down's knack for creating order from musical chaos. Here, Tankian seems to be stepping away from songwriting in the traditional sense of that term. That is a step backwards.

Melissa Auf Der Maur - Out Of Our Minds
Certainly pretty decent, but a tad disappointing after a five year wait and the brilliance of her eponymous solo debut, 20% of my life ago.

Arson Anthem - Insecurity Notoriety
A full length (i.e. about half an hour) blast of hardcore punk fury from that one out of Eyehategod, that one out of Pantera, and a couple of other people. The resulting mess sounds like Eyehategod anyway, which is always nice.

Stone Sour - Audio Secrecy

A very ballady effort, which is far more introspective than Come What(Ever) May. At times, it seems hard to believe this is the same Corey Taylor. Not bad, but certainly not good enough, considering the calibre of the protagonists.

Sarah Jezebel Deva - A Sign Of Sublime
SJD's 'solo' debut is a definite grower, and shows off her vocal range to far greater effect than her album with Angtoria.

Stone Temple Pilots - Stone Temple Pilots
A mostly forgettable 'comeback' album. The technical ability is so obviously still there, but the inspiration isn't. Still, First Kiss On Mars is very nice indeed.

Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
After three listens it seems epic but samey, although having said that, Vertebrae took a long time to fully hit me. And then when it did...

Disbelief - Heal
The band take a bunch of other people's songs and make them sound like Disbelief songs, which is a good thing. Their cover of Killing Joke's Love Like Blood is especially enjoyable.

Sodom - In War And Pieces
A solid return from the veteran thrashers, but there's no Napalm In The Morning here. Then again, this is not the 1980s, so new style and content is needed to create a powerful impression.

Dead Prez - Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz
There are occasional solid moments, but Dead Prez are treading water really. Much as they try in their self-referential manner, they can't live on past glories (Let's Get Free, Revolutionary But Gangsta and the Black Panthers). This is yet another talented act that needs a fresh look at things. There's got to be more to the future than constantly invoking "Malcolm, Garvey, Huey".

Manic Street Preachers - Postcards From A Young Man

Yet another disappointing album from the once-mighty Manics. The reality of the world is there somewhere, but it is seen from afar, from above, disconnected. There are a few decent songs, but the rest leave next to no impression, even after a few listens. If this is the best they could do in 2010, it really is time to hang up their boots.

RPA & The United Nations Of Sound - United Nations Of Sound

Richard Patrick Ashcroft is disappointingly self-absorbed for the most part, while some vaguely interesting noises go on in the background.

Skunk Anansie - Wonderlustre

They came back just to release a bunch of relationships songs by numbers? What a shame.

Misery Index - Heirs To Thievery
Curiously uniform and unaffecting, especially when compared with 2006's Traitors.

Cradle Of Filth - Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa
A mostly boring regression from Godspeed On The Devil's Thunder, and that's saying something. They've now done two serial killer concept albums (Cruelty and the Beast and Godspeed...), and two fall of mankind thingies (Damnation And A Day and this). In both cases, the later album has been vastly inferior. Dani Filth still has the lyrical skills to pay the bills, but he desperately needs to reconnect with the real world if he's going to write anything of lasting significance.

iLiKETRAiNS - He Who Saw The Deep

A soporific sophomore from the Leeds band, which is polite enough not to leave any memories of its presence after it has left your auditory equipment.

Rob Zombie - Hellbilly Deluxe 2
John 5's crunching guitar means this certainly rocks, but maybe this is one release too far for Mr Cummings and his Ed Wood of metal act. B-movie themes seem so irrelevant in 2010.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The War You Don't See

John Pilger

"If people really knew the truth", British PM David Lloyd George told Guardian editor C.P. Scott during the imperial bloodbath of World War One, "the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know."

As veteran muckraker John Pilger demonstrates throughout The War You Don't See, a very similar relationship exists between governments and the corporate media today. This is why the newspaper "stenographers" reported the Bush and Blair claims about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction as though they were unquestionable gospel truths. This is why we never get to see that 90% of those killed by our brave heroes in the armed forces are actually civilians. This is why the state of Israel is normally portrayed as being a victim of Palestinian aggression, when the death count stats show overwhelmingly otherwise. Truth is still the first casualty of war.

Pilger takes us from the birth of "public relations" in the slaughter of World War One and the marketing of cigarettes as "torches of freedom" for suffragettes, through to the phenomenon of "embedded journalists" in the 'war on terror', and the marketing of warmonger Barack Obama as a 'peace candidate' for the US presidency. Unfortunately, the Australian jumps about quite a bit while he does it, and does not provide any real structural analysis, relying on (albeit very insightful) anecdotes from various media and political figures, plus talk of journalists "living in fear" of their livelihoods and even their lives if they dare to stray from the official line.

The overall effect of this is quite depressing to be honest. It's as if John Pilger felt that skeptical viewers would only be convinced by sheer weight of anecdote, and he wouldn't have time to light a candle after he had cursed the darkness. This is all the more disappointing since Pilger has described the mechanisms of media control at great length in his writing, often citing personal experience to illustrate the theory behind Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model.

One thing is for sure: Pilger holds WikiLeaks in very high regard, and believes its fight for survival is of enormous importance. In an interview with embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, he praises it as a "landmark in journalism", and a vital tool in holding governments to account when they say one thing to us, and quite another to colleagues and foreign rivals/accomplices.

Alas, few viewers will have seen this film, going out as it did at 22:35 on a Tuesday. Of course, that just goes to prove the thrust of Pilger's ideas. Fortunately, UK residents can see on the ITV Player until 13th January 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Heinz Means Strikes In Wigan

Heinz workers are striking against a below inflation pay offer
Workers at the Heinz factory in Wigan stopped work for twenty-four hours on Wednesday, leading to the production of an estimated 2 million fewer cans of beans and other foods. They are striking against a below-inflation pay offer, which has been combined with attacks on sick pay and changes to the bonus scheme.
...but Unite originally backed the effective pay cut

91.4% of the Unite union members at the Kitt Green factory had voted for strike action, despite Unite negotiators having previously recommended they accept a worsening of their living conditions. In the run-up to strike day, Unite officials talked tough, and declared that: "The company is treating its loyal and long serving workforce disgracefully[...]It’s our members that helped the company make its vast profits, yet it is still refusing to table an improved offer that reflects their hard work. Unless Heinz forks out a fairer deal, then strike action will go ahead.”

Indeed Heinz's profits are vast, and growing as they expand into emerging markets. Of course, all this means increases in production of far beyond 3.3%. Despite all this, Heinz bosses are using the local press to claim that the offer is one of the best in the sector, and are implicitly threatening closure by labelling Kitt Green their "highest cost" factory in Europe.

Unite leaders would like to avoid a total shutdown of the Wigan plant, because it would result in the loss of a thousand sets of membership dues. However, considering Unite leaders recommended the original offer in September, it should be obvious that they will be negotiating to sell-out their membership behind the scenes. Though a second strike has been called for next Tuesday, all the 'militant' phraseology in the world cannot disguise the true role of union bureaucrats in 2010.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Inevitability Of Police Brutality

Now we see the violence inherent in the system!
The police brutally repressed demonstrators on the 'Day X 3' student protests in London last week, continuing the pattern of escalation seen since the 'Battle of Millbank Tower' on 10th November. Quite apart from the cavalry charges and the kettling - which as Laurie Penny has noted are intended to discourage young people from making more stands - some mainstream media attention has gone to the cases of Alfie Meadows and Jody McIntyre.

Alfie Meadows is a twenty-year-old Middlesex University student and a dedicated activist. In May, he occupied the university's Trent Park management building, in defence of the Philosophy department, which had been earmarked for cuts. On the evening of 9th December, he was batoned on the head by police when he tried to leave the kettle. He then fell unconscious, and suffered a stroke. He received hours of emergency brain surgery at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

Jody McIntyre is an activist blogger with cerebral palsy. On 9th December, police attacked him in his wheelchair on two separate occasions (one of which is shown here). As Phil Dickens observed, McIntyre's subsequent BBC News interview with Ben Brown was "a transparent display of the propaganda model in action." Furthermore, "The BBC is also at pains to stress that they "cannot verify the authenticity of this footage." But a counter statement by the police is printed entirely without comment."

Yet again, the mainstream media begins their coverage from of cops from an incorrect premise - that they are neutral upholders of democratically decided laws - and therefore subject anyone with a complaint against them to enormous suspicion. For those with the stomach for it, Richard Littlejohn sunk further into the bog of bigotry in the Daily Mail.

Disgusting though the police's behaviour was, we should not be in the least surprised. Capitalism is economic brutality, and is in direct contradiction to the interests of the overwhelming majority. As a last resort - once the usual safety valves have failed - it can only be imposed by physical brutality. This is a task which normally falls to the police, though the army are kept in reserve behind them. As a participant in the Parliament Square demonstration wrote on The Commune's website:
"If the police hadn’t been at parliament square last night, and if they hadn’t been prepared to act brutally, parliament would have been stormed, and legislation to triple top-up fees and abolish EMA would not have been passed. The brutality of the police is not incidental to the nature of the state, it is essential to it."
Demonstrators should expect repression from the police, because repression is the whole point of police. The state claims for the itself a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In turn, the mainstream media acts as cheerleader for state power. Those who would go against the system need to be aware of this, and take it into account when drawing-up their strategies.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Real Threat Of Fascism In Europe

The threat of fascism is rearing its hideously ugly head in Europe once more. However, this threat doesn't come from members of the British National Party, the English Defence League, or any of their continental equivalents. That's not to say that such people won't get swept up in it - they may well - but they seem unlikely instigators. No, the real danger is from the military of countries facing grassroots working class fightback - as they have done in Greece and Spain since the summer.

Back in August, Greek truckers struck against the 'centre-left' government of Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou, as he tried to impose European Union and International Monetary fund diktats, 'liberalising' the truck licensing system. Fearing that the new system would cost them tens of thousands of euros, thirty-three thousand truckers brought the economy to near standstill, by striking for six days. On day three, the government effectively conscripted the truckers into the army, making the strike illegal. But still it continued, and five hundred truckers fought riot police who were defending the Transport Ministry. At this stage, the president of the truckers union began efforts to shut down the strike, claiming that truckers "had to consider the difficulties their actions have caused for society at large". When truckers still refused to return to work, the real army were deployed to break the strike, and supply airports and power stations. This in a country ruled by a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.

There was a similar story in Spain this week, when 'centre-left' Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero ordered that the military take over ten airports, where air traffic controllers were staging a 'sick-out' against the privatisation of the national airport system, the imposition of dramatically increased working hours, and almost totalitarian sick leave checkups. As controllers called in sick at 5pm on Friday, union bureaucrats condemned the action, and insisted that workers should "calm tensions" by returning to "normalcy". Zapatero responded by signing a special decree, giving the Defence Ministry temporary control of Spanish airspace. Controllers were forced back to work at gunpoint. As in Greece, the union tops uttered not a word in protest. Of course, General Francisco Franco was the Spanish head of state from 1936 to 1975.

Throughout Europe and much of the world, governing politicians of all parties are imposing the burden of the financial crisis on the working class, following the demands of international financiers. Unions have organised marches, rallies and even one day general strikes, but these have been of a symbolic nature, and merely intended to allow workers to 'let off steam'. On the occasions when workers have begun to break free of union constraints, the army has been allowed to restore "normalcy" by any means necessary. We can expect ever more draconian state repression in 2011, as resistance to cuts spreads, and union leaders lose control.

There are other aspects to the new fascist threat. Right-wing politicians in Italy, Hungary, France and Holland have been inciting racial hatred against Muslims, Roma and others. Also, with tensions between states intensifying, the potential for even greater militarism certainly exists.

Just like in the 1920s and 30s, economic strife is prompting working class resistance. And just like in the 1920s, the ruling class is turning to brutally repressive methods to enforce its rule. The treatment meted out to young people by police in London on Thursday is surely just a sickening taster of what's being prepared by our political masters. Yet again, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, we face a stark choice: socialism or barbarism.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Ruby Kid - Maps EP

When I reviewed The Ruby Kid's last effort, I remarked how: "It is intelligent AND heartfelt. It is of ‘the streets’ AND threatens to go beyond them. It commiserates in my troubles AND makes me glad to be alive." Well, the same goes for his Maps EP, though it's a very different beast to Winter In The City. That should be welcomed of course, as change is the only constant and all that.

Whereas WITC was recorded with a band - the Black Jacobins - Maps features a more conventional relationship between the emcee and his producer, Dan Angell. Daniel Randall (the Kid's real name) is perhaps less verbose/more straight-talking, throws fewer obscure references at the listener/is more accessible, and is much more reflective/less polemical than previously. 'Reflective' is often a byword for being self-absorbed, being a navel-gazer, and - worst of all - being 'emo'. But that could never be the case with The Ruby Kid, because he couldn't look inwards at himself without looking outwards at the wider world. That's the beauty of dialectical materialism, folks.

In some ways, it's ironic that The Ruby Kid has toned down his propagandising, right at the time when the class struggle is hotting up. But that's not to say there's no politics here; there's much more than you'll hear on almost any release this year. Opener All Hands On Deck begins with a sample from Matewan (a 1980s film about a miner rebellion in the US), before controversially but commonsensibly declaring that "We should live inside the palaces we lifted bricks to build", and urging "grand scale larceny/Expropriate the rich". Similarly, the wonderfully named Growing Up Is A Euphemism For Knowing Your Place is an anti-wage slavery anthem which features tour mate Al Baker, and the delightful lines "I'll work if I have to/But never with an ethic".
The Ruby Kid is repping those "on that next gen proletarian tip"
Other tracks - The Key, Hoxton Bounce - tackle the contradictions and paradoxes of the rap 'scene'. In the latter, Randall critiques the oh-so-edginess of North London posers ("Within the beating heart of every new idea you're drawn to/Is the remnants of a better one someone else had before you"). This hipper-than-thou-osity can't last much longer though, because "Battle lines get drawn" and "You will need to pick a side in that".

London features heavily on Maps, and Randall has probably spent a lot of time looking at them since his move to the capital a year ago. Like Hoxton Bounce and the title track, The Imagined Village also powerfully evokes the sense of a young man trying to find his place in the world, both geographically and socially.

Ends-Means is perhaps the standout track for me. An explosion of ideas around how we go about our "Charlie Darwin business" and survive in this world, it matches skillful delivery with some seriously scuzzy beats. Of course you know what the Kid's talking about when he says: "To say that it can't buy you love is mostly true enough/And having it won't make you happy/But it's tragic if you lack the stuff".

All in all, this is a superb album from a modest but extremely accomplished twenty-three year old poet. Maybe this isn't going to be the soundtrack to the struggles kicking off during this winter of such massive discontent, but it is definitely a great accompaniment. By repping those "on that next gen proletarian tip", The Ruby Kid will surely win many new fans with this material, in these times. To quote a work I'm sure he'd approve of, "true art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society." Word.

The Ruby Kid can be followed on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. His official website is here. The Maps EP launch party is on Saturday 11th December, at Ryan's Bar, 181 Church Street, Stoke Newington, London. N16 0UL

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Mock The Weak: Why Frankie Boyle Isn't Funny Anymore

Frankie Boyle likes making jokes about the physical appearance of others
Frankie Boyle thinks chavs are poor. Frankie Boyle thinks that pre-cancer Jade Goody was fat. Frankie Boyle thinks Susan Boyle (no relation) is unattractive. These are just some of the oh-so-conventional opinions we can glean from the first two episodes of Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights, brought to you by Channel 4 and a comedian who has forgotten he's meant to be funny, not 'shocking'.

Boyle's latest vehicle is his first TV outing since leaving satirical panel show Mock The Week, where he fell foul of BBC bosses by claiming Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington resembled "someone who’s looking at themselves in the back of a spoon". He'd also courted controversy by saying Queen Elizabeth was "now so old" that her "pussy is haunted". Both of these jokes were shocking because they targeted people who are national icons, and mocked their physicality. But were they funny? Maybe not, though plenty of others definitely were.

Tramadol Nights is a twenty-five minute show, containing two minutes of introductory insulting of audience members, several minutes of standup, and about fifteen minutes of bizarre sketches. Last night's episode had a group of Glasgow children torturing a furry character from a kids' TV programme, and a young girl with the face of an old man walking in on her parents using her massive dildo. What was supposed to be funny - rather than disturbing - about all this is far from clear. If you didn't see the first week, it would be difficult to believe week two was actually an improvement on a seemingly eternal 'Knight Rider is mentally ill' reimagining, and a horrible Green Mile 'spoof', where the condemned black man cured illness by "fucking" the afflicted. 

What makes Tramadol Nights such a disappointment is the fact that Boyle is actually very politically savvy. Because Mock The Week had a topical quiz element, he could occasionally show his more thoughtful side. Though the humour was still blacker than black, he demonstrated that he was an intelligent man who engaged with the week's news, and often derided the pretensions of the rich and powerful. When Tony Blair was worried about his 'legacy' as Prime Minister, Boyle was in no doubt that Blair "will be remembered as a mass murdering bastard. In one hundred years, he'll be a fairytale Iraqi parents will tell to scare their kids." He was extremely concerned about the state of the environment spinning out of control ("we're just slightly evolved monkeys clinging to a dying piece of rock hurtling through space waiting for our eventual death"). He was also angered when the BBC apologised for a joke about the Israeli occupation of Palestine ("a cake" that is "being punched to pieces by an angry Jew"). 

In an Independent interview, Boyle called BNP leader Nick Griffin a "stress ball" for "a racist government with a racist immigration policy". "I don't think I'm angry," he added. "I'm horrified – powered by horror. I think we've really got to change."

Questions have to be asked. Is he "horrified" by the very sight of Adlington and Susan Boyle? Is he "horrified" by some people being slightly overweight? Is he "horrified" by black sexuality? Or is he - for all his 'edginess' - playing things very safe, by attacking those who are often marginalised? Why isn't he sticking it to Israel now he apparently has the chance? Is Tramadol Nights just nihilistic vulgarity for the sake of a payday?

Jimmy Carr has said that analysing comedy is a bit like dissecting a frog, because "Few people are interested and the frog dies in the process." However, it can be done if you're that way inclined. It's one thing to attack "political correctness" - the 'moral' norms of the establishment - but comedians have to go beyond this if they are going to make most of us laugh. Especially in these times of great economic crisis and naked political corruption, people increasingly want to see those at the top - rather than those scraping along the bottom - cut down to size. In Tramadol Nights, Frankie Boyle is tickling the debased funnybones of a shrinking audience.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Nerve 17 Launched On Merseyside

I'm no longer involved in producing Nerve magazine, but they seem to be doing very well without me! This new issue celebrates the centenery of the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike, as well as many other local events. The inspiring calendar contains new and rare artwork and photographs, plus many interesting facts from one hundred years ago. This is no dry history lesson. As the editorial says:

"NERVE calendars always show stimulating and thought-provoking art and dates of special significance to our culture. They are a reminder to us that people have always fought to defend and improve our standard of living. And they aim to inspire hope and courage in this period of Con-Dem cuts.

"1911 was a time when the pace of struggle was dictated not by the leaders of Trades Unions or the Labour Party, but by workers who relied on each other. There are lessons here for us as we build networks to defend our schools, libraries, the NHS and other services."

Click here for the full index. Paper copies available from News From Nowhere, libraries and art galleries.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Trouble With Eric Cantona's "Very Easy" Revolution

A video starring former Manchester United and France forward Eric Cantona is getting big attention online. In the clip, Cantona puts forward an idea for a "very easy" revolution, calling for a mass withdrawal of funds from the banking system.

Even in his playing days, Cantona had a reputation as one of football's thinkers, which was earned through his behaviour both on and off the pitch. Most famously, his 1995 observation that "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea", confused and delighted the press pack in equal measure. More recently, Cantona has turned to acting, and had a starring role in Ken Loach's 2009 film Looking For Eric. In interviews, he spoke intelligently about the film's themes and the process of acting in general.

Now, as the economic crisis worsens for many people, Cantona believes that "I don't think we can be truly happy when we see misery all around us." Since street protest doesn't seem to be having an effect on government policy, and "the system is built on the power of the banks", "it can be destroyed through the banks" if "three million people...withdraw their money, and the banks crash." At that point, "the system collapses" and "they [politicians] will listen to us differently."

Bank Run 2010 claim that 14,000 people have agreed to take part in the day of action on 7th December. But there are many problems with Cantona's idea. Firstly, in global terms, not many people will take part. Even if 140,000 people withdrew an average of £1,000 simultaneously, that would 'only' add up to £140 million. Governments around the world are throwing trillions at the banking sector, because the financial aristocracy has a firm grip on the levers of power. When compared to the financial clout held by a tiny parasitic elite, even a mass action pales into insignificance.

But even if the entire population of Britain (for example) withdrew an average of £1,000 each, costing the banks about £60 billion, what would follow? Well, as burglars toured the nation checking under beds, the government would simply give the banks another £60 billion in bailout money, should they ask for it. This money would then be recouped in yet more drastic cuts, leaving those with least under their beds even more vulnerable.

Though Cantona's intentions may well be honourable, he has not given his scheme sufficient thought. Revolutions are not isolated, cataclysmic events. On the contrary, they are the result of long, protracted struggles, during which the new society grows in the shell of the old. They are made in workplaces, in neighbourhoods, and yes, on the streets. Consumer power is no substitute for workers' power.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How Do People Become Radical? (Part Two)

Student demands are selfishness in action
Continued from Part One

Becoming radical is not easy. For me, it was a quite deliberate process of smashing what William Blake called the "mind forged manacles" - the heavy, clanking, iron chains cast in church, school, and even the home. As my new knowledge grew, I found myself increasingly able to contextualise the old teachings. But this is a long, drawn-out task, which I know I am far from completing, though I have been working on it for twelve years. I doubt I will ever complete it, regardless of what happens politically during the rest of my life.

And then there's putting your thoughts into practice. Often of course, there are economic costs, not to mention the 'free time' given up to organising things, (maybe) writing subversively, and taking political action. The more you immerse yourself in this world, the higher the toll it takes. You are combating everything; swimming against the tide. There have been many moments - such as once when I was awoken at four am to face off with massive, dead-eyed riot cops - when the inevitable question 'Why?' entered my head.

But then why do people do anything? To put things as simple as possible, people act in one way because it seems better than all the other ways. Becoming a communist seemed better (and more logical) than giving up all hope for myself and humanity, and I remain one for similar reasons. And when I believe, how can I not act?

There's a more formal Marxist way of saying the same thing. Perverse though it may seem, activism is a kind of 'selfishness'. We are all shaped by the flow of history, and yet:
"History does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not ‘history’ which uses men as a means of achieving – as if it were an individual person – its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends."
When I take part in radical activism, I do so because I believe it's in my best interests. If there was some kind of situation where it seemed to be against my best interests, I wouldn't continue. There is nothing less radical than martyrdom. So in the fullest sense, to go back to my friend's questions, I see my own activism as very much 'nurture' over 'nature'. Sure, I must have been born with certain predispositions, but they have been shaped by the events of my life. No less than the investment banker or the president, I am doing what seems best for me.

I'm aware that this isn't a fully satisfactory answer, because it doesn't offer some kind of 'magic bullet'. There's no particular argument you can make that will definitely make people see things your way. Ranting at them doesn't help, because it often just alienates you from people who could be allies. On an intellectual level, all that you can do is try to put the day to day disasters into context, predict the way things will turn out if capitalism is left to continue unabated, and offer realistic ways out of this mess.

If we're talking about 'selfish activism', nothingiseverlost's comment on Part One raises more interesting questions about how "one of the big dividing lines is the point where you start basing your activity around your own needs and everyday life". Is there a division "between getting pissed off at what capitalism does to people in Iraq/Colombia/other distant location that you can't really affect, and getting pissed off at what it's doing to you personally"? With a new generation of students and workers becoming radicalised by the economic crisis of their own lives, 'the selfishness of solidarity' seems like a good idea for another article/thesis/book!

So what does separate us from "the ones who are content to fritter their lives away watching soaps and reading The Enquirer?". Ultimately I would say it is an urgent sense that the world can (and must) be a better place for us and our descendents to grow up in. In these times of heightened class struggle, the celebrity magazine reader of one week is likely to become the hardcore revolutionary of the next.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Strengths and Limitations of the Portuguese General Strike

On Wednesday, a 24-hour general strike against austerity measures paralysed the Portuguese economy. This afternoon, the Portuguese parliament forced the package through anyway. While Wednesday's action demonstrates the potential social weight of the working class, Friday's vote shows that - as in Greece and France - one day strikes and marches are not going to stop governments submitting to the financial aristocracy.

Wednesday's 'greve geral' was jointly called by the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and the General Union of Workers (UGT). It was the first time in decades that both big unions had called out their members on the same day. According to CGTP officials, 75% of Portuguese workers took part in the strike. Significantly, Labour Minister Maria Helena Andre was forced to admit, “We are facing a very reduced participation in the private sector of the economy.” Private sector employees are traditionally reluctant to come out on strikes spearheaded by their public sector counterparts.

The WSWS reports that:
"Portugal’s largest exporter, Volkswagen's Autoeuropa plant, which produces 500 cars a day, came to a standstill. Trains and buses in the capital Lisbon came to a halt. Many shops were shut. Almost all workers employed by city and town municipalities stopped work. No flights took off or landed at the country’s airports. Ports were also closed. Other public services—health care, education, the post office and banking—operated minimal services."
On examination, it is obvious that the general strike was called in order for workers to let off steam, without actually threatening the existing order of things. Union leaders across the globe have shown similar tactics time and again in 2010 - they have talked tough when needed, whilst negotiating with government behind their memberships' backs. One day strikes in Greece, France and now Portugal have completely failed to overturn austerity plans. The symbolic nature of the Portuguese strike is clear from a consideration of its date; the government was aware that they just had to ride out one day, and then they would be free to slash public sector pay by 5%, freeze pensions, and raise VAT by 2%.

However, the financial aristocracy doesn't think even this is enough. Markets are now - in the words of the BBC - "bet[ting] on a Portuguese bailout". Following events in Greece and Ireland, a certain pattern is emerging. First, traders bet that the government in question will default on its loans, pushing the cost of those loans higher. Then, prominent politicians from that country deny that they will be seeking a bailout. Then a bailout is announced, followed by ever more savage austerity measures, to be borne by the social class that produces all wealth - the working class.

This week's Portuguese show of solidarity proved yet again that it is the workers of each country who actually keep economies running, and generate profit for the bosses. Yet they can have no effective say in the shape of those economies, so long as they remain trapped within the confines of reformist union structures.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Irish Sighs - A Warning To Us All

Misfortune of the Irish
The Irish government's "Recovery Plan" is a recipe for poverty, misery and social crisis on a massive scale. It is also a recipe for "significant civil unrest", according to a warning from a prominent Irish trade union leader.

Dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in return for an €85 billion loan, the Plan will see the equivalent of €20 per week taken from the average person, although as usual the poorest will be hardest hit.

25,000 public sector job losses are scheduled over the next four years, with €2.8bn "savings" in welfare also envisaged. The minimum wage will be cut by one euro an hour, leaving the rate at €7.65, and VAT will increase by three per cent over the period. The extremely low rate of corporation tax - credited with fuelling the "Celtic Tiger" growth of the 1990s and early 2000s - will remain. Finance Minister Brian Lenehan even told the banks that the state pension fund would be used to bail them out, should that prove necessary. There are fears that Allied Irish and Bank of Ireland might soon become so-called "zombie banks" - financially insolvent but 'undead' due to government money.

Taken in total, the latest phase of Irish cuts exceeds the per capita impact of George Osbourne's recent Comprehensive Spending Review in the UK. However, these Irish cuts double the agony piled on by previous cuts made since the financial crisis began in 2007.

Despite all these enormous sacrifices to the great god Mammon, European financial markets have taken a further slide, with investors expressing doubts that even the measures announced yesterday will be enough to prevent the Irish government from defaulting on its loans. Perhaps ironically, by doing this they are pushing up the cost of Ireland's loans, and the country's credit rating was downgraded overnight. Lenders also feel that the Irish government's figures are based on over-optimistic economic growth projections (1.75 percent in 2011, 3.25 percent in 2012, 3.00 percent in 2013 and 2.75 percent in 2014).

A layer of parasitical financial capital is currently turning its attention from one country to another (Greece, Ireland, Portugal? Spain? UK?), betting against the success of the economy, reaping the rewards as it sinks under their weight, and then demanding slashing cuts in government spending in return for loans. Having become global, the capitalist economy is now in a highly profitable tailspin - profitable, that is, for a tiny elite. Others might call it a 'depression'.

David Begg, head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, disputes the claim from Eamon Devoy of the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union, that “we are on the brink of significant civil unrest in this country, the like of which has not been witnessed in this jurisdiction for decades”. Begg remains publicly confident that his trade union bureaucracy can curb workers' anger, stating that: “It’s not the case that people think the whole thing is inevitable, it’s simply that they’re much more law abiding people who don’t want a revolution,”

Begg and the rest of the Irish trade union bureaucracy have already tied Irish state workers into a no strike agreement, in the so-called 'Croke Park Agreement' at the time of the previous cuts round. If Croke Park stands, there will be no official avenues for letting off steam, as there were during the recent Greek, French, and Portuguese one day general strikes. An eruption of dissent is therefore inevitable.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Student Occupiers Open Class Struggle Classrooms

The occupation at Warwick
Students across Britain are taking direct action against the double whammy of 300% tuition fee rises and huge cuts in higher education funding.

A mass walkout of university, sixth form, and even school students began at 11 am. The BBC reports that university students took part in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh. School walkouts have been reported in Winchester, Cambridge, Leeds and London.

The actions - which are beyond the control of the National Union of Students bureaucracy - have largely been organised via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as word of mouth. In contrast to the spontaneous breakout of direct action witnessed at Millbank Tower two weeks ago, this day has been planned for some time, so the most tech-savvy generation in history is showing one of its greatest strengths - its capacity for self-publicity - something which by-passes (and occasionally feeds into) the corporate media.
Police? Camera? Action!
So far, occupations of university buildings or rooms have been announced at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, Manchester Met, University of the West of England, Royal Holloway, Birmingham, Plymouth (see this live feed!), Warwick, Essex, Leeds, and London South Bank. Doubtless more will follow in the coming hours.
Great minds...
For the students taking part - or even going about their usual business on campus - these occupations will now be transformed from classrooms of hierarchy-based learning to classrooms of class struggle. Over the next few days, these occupations will take different paths. Perhaps some will win concessions from university management. Others may well descend into in-fighting as the noose tightens. Others could be overwhelmed by police repression. But the real value of these occupations will be in helping to create a culture of resistance, and as an object lesson in how corporate institutions and the capitalist state combat such resistance.

In these times of savage cuts and austerity as dictated by international finance, the students cannot win free education on their own. This can only be achieved by the working class as a whole, as part of a project to transform society for the benefit of all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How Do People Become Radical? (Part One)

"Suddenly everything fell into place."
A few days ago, a Facebook friend asked her "activist friends":

"When did you become an activist? Have you always been one to stand up for the underdog? Did you have some sort of awakening? Is this thing nature, or nurture? I ask because we need to find a way to awaken the others. What separates us from the ones who are content to fritter their lives away watching soaps and reading The Enquirer? I'd love to hear how you got this way!"

I'd like to pick up these questions, and offer some answers. I will use the term 'radical' rather than activist, because for me activism covers every kind of protest and lobbying of the government that you can imagine, and I'm not particularly interested in Amnesty International or Friends of the Earth. Of course 'radical' has its own problems as a term (a Google image search picked up reactionaries like Islamicist preachers and Barack Obama), but I think it means anyone who (to borrow the words of Henry David Thoreau) 'strikes at the root' of the problem - capitalism itself - rather than "merely hacking at the branches of evil".

In his article How I Became A Socialist, William Morris claimed it may be of some use to describe his "conversion", but only if "my readers will look upon me as a type of a certain group of people". I agree, but the problem with my own conversion is that I doubt "a certain group of people" became radicalised in a similar way. The transformation of my outlook sounds like a 'born again' religious conversion when I describe it. Of course, this is for my own readers to judge.

In late 1999, I was eighteen. I was also more or less suicidal. I had been taking anti-depressants for maybe a year and a half, having been diagnosed with 'clinical depression'. I was consumed with self-disgust, but also disgust at the state of the world. I had a long-standing interest in politics, which in my mind went back as far as the 1984-85 miners' strike, and one of my earliest memories is the shock of watching police attacking strikers at what I now know to have been the Battle of Orgreave. I also remember advising my parents to vote Labour rather than Alliance at the 1987 general election, because "they would be more likely to get the Tories out".

By about the age of fifteen, I was becoming critical of the monarchy and nationalism, and couldn't understand why the media always talked as if Britain was the centre of the world, when it was just a small island with a smallish population. When Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997 (replacing the Conservative Party that had been there my whole life), I enthusiastically supported the government, and tried to persuade myself that they were making things better for the majority. However, early policies such as the cut in benefits for single parents (voted on while Blair was partying with celebrities), and the decision to bomb Yugoslavia, gave me pause for much thought.

'Maybe they are trying to make things better', I remember thinking, 'but there's something systematic that's stopping them'. I read some political theory, and tried to think of alternative ways that society could be organised...without much success. But I don't want you to get the wrong idea; I was more preoccupied with wondering what would happen if I killed myself, and what might be the least painful way of doing so.

Then, in maybe September 1999, my socialist grandad gave me his battered old copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell. As I wrote this June, in my review of a play version, "Suddenly everything fell into place". I understood immediately that the capitalist system itself was the foundation of all major problems in the modern world. From there it was The Communist Manifesto, and to a soundtrack of Rage Against The Machine and early Manic Street Preachers, I decided that I too was a communist. The recovery from depression was also underway. I resolved to learn how the capitalist system worked in as much detail as possible, a process that is still very much ongoing.

Next week I'll give a fuller answer to those Facebook questions, with reference both to my own experience and those of others.

Continued in Part Two

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skyline (15)

Aliens and alienation battle it out in Skyline
Directed by Colin Strause and Greg Strause
Written by Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell

There's no doubt that Skyline is a remarkable film. It is remarkably bad. It is remarkable that $10 million have been spent on this preposterous pile of junk. Of course, Los Angeles churns out poor cinema by the canyon-full, but Skyline goes way beyond simply being poor. It is the worst movie I have ever paid to see. I therefore want to explain why, almost as an act of self-cleansing.

A bunch of people are in a plush LA apartment block. I could tell you vaguely who they are, and the reasons the plot would say they were there, but you really don't need to know that. Knowing it would add nothing. All you need to know is that the real reason they are in the apartment block is they need to be trapped somewhere quite high up when the aliens come, and it has to be a plush apartment block so the blinds do certain things.

The aliens do come. They kind of hypnotise bystanders using these blue beams, bystanders who then float up to the sky, where we later discover they have their brains ripped out. People who see this kind of thing going on don't particularly want it to happen to them, so they hide, or try to escape. As a last resort, they fight them. One man - I won't dignify him with the word 'character' - even punches one. Yes, he punches a gargantuan thing from another world, a thing that has already demonstrated its resilience and vast technological superiority. But that's not the most ridiculous thing about it; the punching tactic actually works.

Skyline is a film that is entirely built around the special effects. It's as if the 'Brothers Strause' actually sat down to watch say Close Encounters of the Third Kind, saw the giant ship, and thought 'We could do those effects so much better these days; how can we make a film that would allow us to string a series of set piece visuals together?'

So plot devices are (very obviously) lifted from just about every alien movie you've ever seen, and possibly even World Invasion: Battle LA, which isn't out yet, but for which the Brothers served as visual effects designers. There is literally no character development, and the dialogue could easily have been written by a ten year old. Personal motivation - including that of the aliens - is considered an irrelevance. "Does it really matter?", as one man said to another. The second man had wondered aloud what the hell the aliens might be playing at. This earned him the contempt of his companion, maybe because including their motivation in the script could lead to a Stealth bomber bounce being written out or something.

This is not about whether or not you like action films. It's about the directors not worrying about whether their audiences care about the people in the action film. It's about massive, overwhelming hugeness, signifying nothing. It's about writers who have probably never experienced anything interesting, who fail to show us anything interesting.

B movies have a long history, and over the last decade there's been a slew of films deconstructing the clichés of so-called 'genre films', giving us a few laughs on the way. But for all that Skyline is laughably dreadful, I get the sense that the production team took it damned seriously. The 1980s Spielberg-esque orchestral swells blatantly tell us when to be happy and sad - because the script can't - but it's all done entirely without irony.

The Strauses funded this effort themselves, and that's their decision. Perhaps they wanted to showcase what they could do visually for other people's films. But it's high time that writers with something to say were paired up with production people who could match their vision. In these times of economic strain and political change, there are many new stories to tell. The success of TV shows like The Wire, Mad Men and The Tudors shows that the potential audience is out there, and hungry for something different.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

'Wills', Kate and the Return of the Ghost Town

The happy couple
According to BBC News, this morning's biggest story is the engagement of William Windsor to Kate Middleton, following what is being called a "marathon eight-year courtship". And maybe it is significant in a way. Not for the wedding itself of course - which will just be two people saying some words in a building - but for the way it will be used, and the way it will be viewed.

Prime Minister David Cameron declared himself delighted at the news, saying it was "A great day for our country, a great day for the Royal family and obviously a great day for Prince William and for Kate." When the Cabinet were informed of the "unadulterated good news", ministers apparently gave "a great cheer", and "banged the table".

And well they might. At a time when the government is going flat out to increase the gap between super-rich and poor, they will no doubt be hoping that the royal family performs its ceremonial role, and 'unites the country' - i.e. chloroforms the opposition in workplaces and on the streets. I am reminded of satirical website The Onion's headline for the 1981 marriage of William's mother, whose engagement ring Middleton now wears: "Fairytale Wedding Distracts Rank-and-File: Economically Ravaged British Underclass Temporarily Forgets Miserable Lives".

July 1981 was an interesting month, and not just because I was born. With Margaret Thatcher's neoliberal reforms biting, poor young people rioted in Liverpool and Leeds, following uprisings in Brixton and Birmingham earlier in the year. The Specials were at number one with Ghost Town, a song which - as Harpy Marx has blogged - "capture[d] the moment". But yes, certain layers of society were distracted by the ill-fated wedding of Charles Windsor to Diana Spencer. There was bunting - not fighting - in many streets, as people toasted the "fairytale".

Nearly thirty years have passed, and social conditions have worsened for the majority, because Thatcher was just the beginning, and her disciples continue her work to this day. However, those three decades have not been lived in vain. Many have become 'disillusioned' - in the true sense - with royalty, and indeed all those in power, who are rightly seen as entirely self-serving and detached from everyday life. Despite the media fanfare, a glance at the BBC's 'have your say' page for the engagement shows a general lack of interest, plus concern about how much the patriotic extravaganza will cost. 'Steve' perhaps sums up the consensus with the following: "Oh goody rejoice the World is saved. Hope they have a nice wedding,no doubt we will be picking up the tab! Any chance of a day off?"

And there is the dilemma for the ruling establishment: a lavish wedding will no doubt overwhelm some people into 'uniting' behind the royal family. But at a time when every penny of government spending on 'commoners' is being questioned, the spectacle of a parasitic elite indulging in taxpayer-funded back-slapping would provoke furious anger in others. Because, of course, "we're all in it together".

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Advice That Met Cops Don't Want You To See

They're FIT, but my gosh don't they know it?
The London Metropolitan Police closed down anti-police surveillance website Fitwatch on Monday. This was after the blog published advice to any protesters "waiting for a knock on the door" in the wake of last week's dramatic anti-cuts demonstration by students at the Conservative headquarters.

The Met's "e-crime unit" told hosts that Fitwatch was attempting to "pervert the course of justice" by offfering tips such as "Perhaps now is a good time for a makeover".

"We hereby request [you] de-host this website for a minimum period of 12 months", Scotland Yard wrote. "The website is providing explicit advice to offenders following a major demonstration in central London."

Fitwatch (whose Facebook page is here) was set up in 2007 to counter the activities of the so-called 'photocops' - more officially the Forward Intelligence Teams - who shoot video footage at even the most peaceful demonstrations and public meetings. The usefulness of their recent "explicit advice" can be judged at this Indymedia repost, and many other locations.

As I noted last week, the Millbank demonstration marked "a watershed in the fightback against austerity Britain". However, the nature of the capitalist state demanded a watershed in the repression of those willing to fight back. The attack on Fitwatch, plus the "attempted murder" arrest of a man suspected of being the foolish Millbank fire extinguisher thrower, shows that the ruling class will use all resources at its disposal to impose the burden of the financial crisis on working class shoulders.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Battle of Millbank: A Watershed in UK Fightback

The student demonstration quickly ascended into anarchy
The protest, rioting and occupation at the ruling Conservative Party's Millbank headquarters marks a watershed in the fightback against "austerity Britain". It was a 'demonstration' in the truest sense of the word; a sense that had been watered down to near meaninglessness over the past two decades of shuffling A to B marches and empty speechifying. It demonstrated - perhaps for the first time in many of the participants' short lives - that 'ordinary' people in the UK don't have to take a lifetime of debt and misery lying down.

Participant reports describe in thrilling detail the moments when these young people took their first, uncertain steps across the imposing physical and mental barriers they had been presented with. The Commune’s Mark Harrison tells how National Union of Students (NUS) stewards made the crucial mistake of instructing members of the unexpectedly huge fifty thousand-strong crowd: “Don’t go off the right, that’s Tory HQ, carry on forward for the NUS route”. Once at Millbank, New Statesman blogger Laurie Penny poetically describes how:
“Not all of those smashing through the foyer are in any way kitted out like your standard anarchist black-mask gang. These are kids making it up as they go along. A shy looking girl in a nice tweed coat and bobble hat ducks out of the way of some flying glass, squeaks in fright, but sets her lips determinedly and walks forward, not back, towards the line of riot cops. I see her pull up the neck of her pink polo-neck to hide her face, aping those who have improvised bandanas. She gives the glass under her feet a tentative stomp, and then a firmer one. Crunch, it goes. Crunch.”
Smashing; the state
The NUS had called the demonstration in response to the coalition’s proposed tripling of student fees, combined with a 40% cut in teaching budgets. By all accounts, NUS organisers and police alike had expected ten thousand students would show up, but were overwhelmed by the massive crowd, hundreds of whom took the opportunity to occupy the Millbank offices, and thousands of whom cheered them on.

The response of the NUS bureaucracy was as appalling as it was predictable. Labour-supporting NUS president Aaron Porter was all over the mainstream media, denouncing the breakaway demonstration as "shameful", and absurdly claiming that a small handful of "troublemakers" had been able to hijack his rally. Porter’s line fed into mainstream media condemnation of the "brainless" students, who were derided as "middle class", and "thugs" – words which are not often seen together.

The truth is that with 36% of young people now going to university, more students from working class backgrounds are making it than ever before, though already significant class divisions will inevitably be further skewed by fee increases. The demonstrators are part of a rapidly radicalising generation, who face mountains of debt before they even find full time work. Graduate unemployment is currently at a seventeen year high, and will undoubtedly spiral higher still once the government’s cutbacks kick in.

A law student poses with a looted Tory cricket bat
In a situation like this, it is not surprising that the traditional mechanisms for voicing dissent are increasingly not seen as anything like sufficient.

The Daily Telegraph gleefully pressed ruling class panic buttons by quoting a Liverpudlian student as saying: "Normal protests are just Socialist Workers marching and doing nothing. We smash up buildings because it will get us into the news and we're not going to stop until the Government listens."

However as Phil Dickens notes, smashing things up is no substitute for a thought-out long term strategy for defeating capitalism as a whole:
"Regarding what actually went on today, we should see this as merely the beginning. The occupation of a university campus or building over a lengthy period could inspire the same spirit of solidarity and ignite the broader debate that the Vestas occupation did. Indeed, when such occupations did happen they deserved far broader publicity."
The red and black flag of anarchism over Tory HQ
But the press release from the rooftop occupiers hints that class consciousness is developing:
“We oppose all cuts and we stand in solidarity with public sector workers, and all poor, disabled, elderly and working people. We are occupying the roof in opposition to the marketisation of education pushed through by the coalition government, and the system they are pushing through of helping the rich and attacking the poor. We call for direct action to oppose these cuts. This is only the beginning of the resistance to the destruction of our education system and public services.”
Wednesday may only be the beginning, but living in Britain feels very different now that it has so dramatically begun. Thursday occupations at Manchester and London Goldsmiths universities illustrate precisely why.

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