Creeping Fascism Creeps

Part of the long political propaganda campaign to create confusion about the authoritarian right has been to see it as indistinct from all the other forms of totalitarianism. The distinction that is most relevant is neither an ethical one nor an ideological one but one of steps and process.

Terrible and appallingly murderous regimes have existed in many forms. Some come to power after the collapse of the state and society. Others are murderous at a distance, inflicting mass systematic violence on parts of a far-flung empire – such as the horrors of the Belgian Congo. Fascism though creeps. It coopts institutions and policies that already exist. It exploits social fears and it targets those who are already marginalised first. It ramps up the prevailing authoritarian tendencies in a society.

The incarceration of refugees is a policy that has been adopted by centre, centre-left and centre-right governments with a “tough but fair” rationale or via appeals to social stability or on the basis that it will somehow pre-empt more reactionary racist politics. It doesn’t do the latter. Instead, the policy has enabled dehumanisation of immigrants and helped create an infrastructure of control that can be used against people.

“Moderate” governments in Australia have established offshore camps for refugees. By doing so the effectively demonstrated that a government could get away with locking people up without access to due-process in camps from which the press and independent inspection were excluded. Even if it was possible to follow policies like this with benevolent intent, it is still a recipe for abuse and suffering.

These policies create the apparatus for fascism by:

  1. by creating a class of people without the normal legal rights
  2. by creating a mechanism of mass incarceration of this class of people
  3. by creating quasi-police forces to operate such camps
  4. getting ordinary, non-extreme voters to go along with such policies as supposedly reasonable and humane.

It’s that last point that should frighten us all.

The horrific policy adopted by the Trump regime of kidnapping children as a deterrent against immigrants and asylum seekers is rightly outraging people. It is important to be clear that it is a definite escalation of policy imposed by the Trump regime. However, it has its roots in ‘moderate’ policies that preceded it.

Supposedly, conservatism, libertarianism and liberalism all accept the principle of natural human rights i.e. that individuals have rights that exist not because the government or government structures grant those rights but because a person has those rights regardless. However, this supposed core belief is so fragile that it is easily ignored for expedient policy. Fascism is never warded off by compromising with it. There isn’t a safe way for a liberal government to be a bit fascist in one arena in the hope of keeping extremism at bay.

The ease with which the Trump regime could shift the full power of the American state into stealing children from families and imprisoning them should be a warning to every other Western democracy. Dismantle the apparatus that enables shuch abuse before your own Trumps come to power.

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The Bortsworth Mysteries: The Case of the Shifting Genre

It was a dark and stormy morning and our protagonist was about a mission both dangerous and of great import.

“Wake up!” said Timothy the Talking Cat, a highly intelligent cat with a piercing intellect who was looking very dapper that bright morning in a yellow bow tie that deftly coordinated with his purple, velvety fur.

“I am awake,” said Susan.

“It is so hard to tell because you sleep standing up and also last night I painted eyes on your eyelids which was funny at the time but now I regret because when you close your eyes it looks like you are staring at me in a really angry way like you are about to stomp on me,” replied Timothy loquaciously (who was briefly surprised that of all the words the meat robot hadn’t spelt incorrectly “loquaciously” was one of them).

“That’s how my regular eyes look,” explained Susan.

“Oh,” said Timothy, backing away nervously and eyeing up possible escape routes.

“So what do you want on this dark and stormy morning,” asked Susan.

“It’s not dark or stormy,” observed Timothy cautiously turning to look outside the garage door where he could see the early sun shining on the meadows adjacent to Felapton Towers.

“I know, I was referring to the obviously incorrect opening sentence,” said Susan.

“Why do you sleep in the garage?” inquired Timothy whose keen powers of observation had settled on the salient fact that Susan, a relatively small triceratops but objectively large being was residing in one of Felapton Towers’s many garages.

“I don’t. I wasn’t asleep. I was looking for paint thinner to clean my face with because somebody painted eyes on my eyelids last night and when I catch the small mammal that did that I will indulge my desire to learn how to play Australian Rules football by using him as the ball.” said Susan.

“Before you act on that desire let me explain a couple of things. One, when I said that I painted eyes on your eyelids I meant ‘i’ in the sense of ‘Straw Puppy did it’. Two, I’ve an exciting publishing proposition for you that would be definitely impaired if I was to be unjustly used as a game piece in some antipodean excuse for anti-cat cruelty.” said Timothy speaking both in a hurry and in a voice that he felt sounded like a lawyer but which was based on that one time he watched Rumpole of the Bailey whilst simultaneous playing Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney on a Nintendo DS which he had confiscated from a student at Bortsworth High School during an unpublished chapter of his adventures when he was a substitute French teacher. I should add the episode of ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ was in French and Timothy was showing it to a class of Year 9 French students (as in students of French, the students themselves were English because the class would have been redundant if the students were French, although the students all had a timetabled lesson called ‘English’, which is around the point when Timothy left the school because it was all too confusing and also he got sacked for playing video games in lessons.)

“I’m all ear openings,” said Susan.

“Said Susan sardonically” add Timothy who was growing increasingly aware of the relative size of the text after things he said compared to the text after things Susan said and was increasingly uncomfortable with it, not out of a misplaced sense of inequity but because it felt like a foreboding omen of sudden violence that would most likely be directed at him. Controlling his desire to inquire why Susan had said ‘ear openings’ rather than ears and deciding that it was probably a dinosaur thing and then realising for the first time that birds don’t have visible ears and getting mildly freaked out by the fact, Timothy continued: “Well, I’ve been thinking about genres and where all the money is…”

“I’m not being in a romance novel written by you or your improbably grass-based dog friend,” stated Susan.

“No, no! Not romance! Gosh, I may be a vicious beclawed predatory monster with a gun fetish and the ethics of a shark that quit eating fish and became a hedge fund manager, but even I don’t have the fortitude to survive the cutthroat world of romance publishing.” exclaimed Timothy, shaking his tiny (by fang-filled) head at the thought.  He may have faced down space vampires, zombies and monstorous squirrel hegemony but he did not have the stomach to face down the trademark wars of the battle-planet known as ‘Romance Publishing’.

“Well if you haven’t got the guts for Romance then you clearly aren’t thinking of going into the Thunderdome-like lawless zone of YA publishing either,” observed Susan.

“Exactly! No, my plan is to ditch all this SF stuff and fourth-wall breaking stuff and go into COSY MYSTERIES!” said Timothy.

“Cosy mysteries?” said Susan curiously, “Is that like when a T-rex falls out of a tree, narrowly misses a triceratops and instead lands on a pile of sleeping marsupial proto-badgers, thus cushioning his fall but nobody knows why?” Susan was intrigued by the notion of a sub-genre that she was, as yet, unfamiliar with. What new possibilities might this engender for her taxonomic project of classifying all dinosaurid literature into a single universal scheme?

“Cosy mysteries like Midsummer Miss Fisher Murder on the telly! It occurred to me only the other day! We have the perfect setting already! A stately home in a small town in rural southern England! An eccentric collection of characters! Some sinister looking people who probably would murder somebody for complicated but petty reasons – like Mrs Brigsly for example who strikes me as the murdering kind.” enthused Timothy.

“I see and, if I may speculate, you need an odd-couple pairing as the main characters. You see yourself as the sharp-witted but debonair detective and me as the apparently dull but actually astute ‘muscle’ who often provides the key insight for solving the mystery. Our contrasting characters and modes of operation providing both a source of banter and also a way of diverting the plot into many false leads and red herrings with the final conclusion resolved more by fiat than actual detection?” said Susan.

“Yes!” said Timothy.

“It is a terrible idea and after much reflection, I prefer my original plan of using you as the football in a game of Australian Rules,” said Susan.

“eep,” said Timothy running swiftly out into the morning which actually had turned both dark and stormy in the intervening time thus proving the opening sentence correct, if a little premature in its description of the prevailing weather conditions.

An Odd Dream About Potatoes

As the title implies, I had an odd dream about potatoes. In it a farmer was paid royalties on his potatoes i.e. he sold his potatoes but each time his potatoes were sold on (whether as a whole or as ingredients) some of that money was passed back to him and as a consequence, he was very rich. He was surprised other potato farmers didn’t do this.

Now this was literally my subconscious talking and it is notoriously bad at thinking through the full details of its schemes – it can barely keep major details consistent from one part of a dream to the next. As an inventor of economic schemes, I wouldn’t trust it. Clearly, the potato royalty scheme would never work and makes very little sense for products that quickly lose their identity.

However, it made me mindful how much our modern capitalist society is full of QWERTY-keyboard systems of economic arrangements, particularly in the area of intellectual property (itself a convoluted fiction) but not only there. The conventions of share ownership, company governance, limited liability, not to mention even deeper fundamentals like banking and money.

How much of the way our modern economic systems works is an inevitable outcome of the workings of the giant distributed algorithm of vague market forces and how much is convenience, historically contingent, or a self-sustaining convention whose efficiency arises out of it being the convention everybody adopted.

We know many of these conventions coalesced in 18th and 19th century Britain and were further codified in 19th and 20th century America. Other countries adopted them either for reasons of convenience or for reasons of force and colonisation. What didn’t occur was many different cultures developing quasi-free market capitalism independently of growing European/American hegemony. Put another way, a key element of the pseudo-Darwinism of survival of the profitable/economically-efficient was not in play: a variety of competing variations on “capitalism”.

This isn’t a post advocating a worldwide experiment to improve the inner workings of capitalism, aside from anything else the possibility exists that we currently have a system that is less ruthless and exploitative in its workings than it could be. I’d rather see a social and economic change that took us further away from centring so much of our activity around profit, rather than thinking too much about how we could continue to do that but differently.

No, this is a post about speculation of the non-financial kind. What other kinds of economies can we imagine? What small changes of convention would make the world very different? So much of our modern ‘free market’ relies on governments agreeing to conventions (from weights and measures to intellectual property laws, to corporate governance and liability, to laws of inheritance). What if those laws had been different?

People would still people we can assume but people are flexible and shaped by the world they are in. What if all rights to property ended on your death? Well, people would take care to divest their personal property and their wealth to their children before they died. So some might say, little would change but imagine how the ripples of such decisions would alter the lives of the wealthy in ways different to that of the poor. For better or for worse? I don’t know – probably just different. For the very wealthy sudden death would take on an extra fear – a powerful man who owned controlling interests in many commercial entities suddenly dying would become hugely disruptive. Sure, companies would invent new legal and financial instruments to reduce such risks, but that is yet another ripple outward that would change this imaginary world. And here I’ve assumed modern capitalism still managed to evolve in such a world.

What if we took an alt-history approach and looked at when certain ideas really began to coalesce? Without the printing press, there is little need for the concept of copyright. What if governments at the time had made no provision for copyright, what if anybody could print anything (a very radical ‘freedom of the press’). How differently would our literary world have progressed? How differently would modern notions of intellectual property have progressed? How would writers seek to control their own work? Serial fiction was important in the 19th century (think Dickens) perhaps it would have stayed so as it would be easier to maintain a brief temporary monopoly on the latest instalment.

A better world or a worse world or just a different world? Would the broad brush strokes of our world converge or would the world be very different? I’ll be sure to ask my subconcious the next time I see them.

Timothy and Babies

[Scene: Bortsworth High Street near the still derelict Woolworths. It is summer in England and the inhabitants of Bortsworth are still giddy from the brief vitamin D boost they got from a sunny day in May.]

Dramatic Personae:

  • Camestros Felapton – raconteur and bon-vivant
  • Timothy the Talking Cat – a rat-auteur and bomb-savant
  • Mrs Brigsly – an inhabitant of Bortsworth and carekeeper of a baby
  • A baby – a baby of unknown provenance in the care of Mr Brisgly

[Timothy] I had to look up ‘bon-vivant’ and the dictionary did not say ‘binges on Netflix and chocolate hob-nobs’
[Camestros] It is more of an attitude than a strictly prescribed lifestyle.
[Timothy] and I’m the one who tells anecdotes in a ‘skilful or amusing way’
[Camestros]…well…
[Timothy] It cleary says “OR”!
[Camestros] Let’s change the subject shall we? I’m already on the sixth line of dialogue, I’m not going back and changing the list of characters now.
[Timothy] Ohhh…is that what that means. I assumed you couldn’t spell “dramatic persons”.
[Camestros] Aha! A timely interruption! There is Mrs Brigsly pushing a pram with a baby in it. Good morning Mrs Brigsly.
[Mrs Brigsly] Fuck off you weirdo and keep that fucking fire hazard away from the baby.
[Timothy] Oh, I don’t think the town has forgiven you for that giant “foam incident” yet Camerashop Fissilechunk.
[Camestros] You mean the ‘incident’ where you doused the town in petrol to scare away the squirrels and I had to drop fire retardant foam on the whole town just to stop the place exploding?
[Timothy] We remember it differently.
[Camestros] Well Mrs Brigsly has angrily walked away so you missed your chance to say hello to the baby.
[Timothy] What kind of baby was it?
[Camestros] Just a regular baby I guess. They all sort of look the same.
[Timothy] I wonder if it was a baby dragon?
[Camestros] No, it was a human baby.
[Timothy] I don’t see how you could know that when it hasn’t had a chance to grow up yet.
[Camestros] Aside from the issue of why Mrs Brigsly would have a baby dragon in a pram or the issue that dragons don’t exist, it was clearly a human baby that looked exactly like a human baby!
[Timothy] But you said all babies look the same!
[Camestros] In context I clearly meant all human babies. Look, cat babies don’t look like tiny humans do they?
[Timothy] Cats don’t have babies.
[Camestros -insistently] Cats have babies.
[Timothy] I’ve never had babies.
[Camestros] Cats in general, as a species, have babies.
[Timothy] Ah, no, that’s where you are wrong. Cats have kittens. Kittens look nothing like babies.
[Camestros] Kittens are cat babies.
[Timothy] That’s ridiculous. A cat baby would be a baby that grows up to be a cat. I’m not ruling out that possibility as a rare occurrence (we live in a strange world after all) but biology, science and common sense says that infant cats are kittens and kitten are not babies. Babies go “wah wah wah” and kittens go “mew mew” to cite just one attested biological facts about babies and kittens.
[Camestros] When I say “cat babies” I’m using the term analogously to mean infant cats i.e. kittens.
[Timothy] Well now you are just shifting the goal posts – which, I might add, is how to use an analogy correctly in a discussion and not in some weird ass way where you suddenly say “babies” when you mean “kittens”.
[Camestros]So let me get this right – you think babies all look the same and that they grow up to be different things and once grown up we know what kind of baby they were?
[Timothy] Oh don’t think I didn’t notice you shifting the argument! Yes, babies are a excitable bundles of potential. One might grow up to be stock broker, another a butterfly, yet another a mighty dragon but at the start they are just babies.
[Camestros] What can I say? You are not just wrong, you are absurdly wrong.
[Timothy] And yet you can’t win this argument.
[Camestros] Indeed not. Also, I think Mrs Brigsly may have organised a mob of angry townsfolk to chase us out of town…
[Timothy] eep!

Review: Solo – A Star Wars Story

I admit that from its announcement, I didn’t see much point to this film. The curse of the prequel trilogy was a need to fill in the vague elements of backstory, often forgetting that the original film worked by creating a sense of a deeper history and a bigger galaxy than we actually saw. So a Young Han Solo movie didn’t interest me — it would inevitably be a stringing together elements like winning the Millenium Falcon, completing the Kessel Run in X number of incorrect units, meeting Chewbacca, etc and we’d all expect to go ‘ooh’ when something like that happened.

I once went on a Beatles Tour of Liverpool with a friend who loved the Beatles. It was a weird experience as Liverpool is a city I know quite well. The tour guide treated every stop with a kind of chirpy reverence as if each semi-detached house or park gate was a holy relic. People took excited photographs and I felt really odd. It took me awhile to get over the cynical detachment and enjoy the tour for what it was: something fun.

Oddly, Solo does indulge itself in exactly that way even down to a pause-for-weighty-significance when Solo gets his blaster. It’s no spoiler to say that Solo will play cards with Lando for the Falcon, that he will meet Chewbacca, and that the film is peppered with references to almost every trait and famous line and significant object you can think of for the character of Han Solo.

But I say “oddly”.

The odd part is that this really didn’t become annoying. Instead, Solo manages to be fun, clever and exciting. Not the best Star Wars film but certainly far from the worse and an enjoyable space-opera/heist-movie/western in its own right. Yes, it has a lot of that tour-around-Solo’s-youth elements but it knows it has to be fun and exciting and carry some emotional oomph in places.

Cleverly it picks up elements and themes from other Star Wars films that have taken a secondary role to the main thrust of the dark-v-light side of the force and the saga of the Skywalker family. The Jedi and the Sith don’t get a mention (the Sith get a visual reference near the end with a fun surprise) and the nearest we get to a Skywalker is a reference to Tatooine.

Instead, we get to see life under the Empire from the perspective of its criminal underclass and network of gangsters. Life under the Empire is one of war and criminality often working hand-in-hand. Han has been living for years as a part of the gang of child thieves on a shipbuilding world and as a young man is ready to escape. The first part of the film follows him off the planet and (briefly) into military service with the Empire before he falls in with a different group of criminals. Here the main story takes hold as quest to steal starship fuel entangles Han into a series of events that involve a sinister criminal conspiracy and a rival gang of mauraders led by the mysterious Enfys Nest.

The cast is excellent. Alden Ehrenreich as Solo isn’t the strongest actor in the group but he is more than good enough and it’s a tough job to follow Harrison Ford. He manages to give the character enough street smarts and attitude to feel like Han Solo but also enough naivety and vulnerability to be more than a impression. Donald Glover as Lando is dripping in charisma. Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany play cynical criminality in quite different but effective ways. Thandie Newton is under utilised. Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s revolutionary robot pilot steals most of the scenes she is in from the rest of the cast. Emelia Clarke manages to plausibly convey both a hardened cynicism about the world she is in with an equivalent vulnerability to Solo as a character.

Lots of big, great looking set pieces. Some space battles and utter space nonsense that is gloriously stupidly fun. Some genuine suprises and twists. Betrayals, counter-betrayals, stand-offs and robot uprisings.

Take it for what it is and have fun.