Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 29/09/2018 - 3:39am in


brexit, eu, Games, Politics, UK

With only six months left to the moment when the UK leaves the EU, the Brexit end game is upon us. If there is to be a Withdrawal Agreement at all, the Northern Ireland border problem must be solved within the next couple of weeks. But at present, both sides are well dug in and showing no inclination to budge. No-deal Brexit is looking increasingly likely.

Nonetheless, the game is still afoot. In Salzburg, the EU appeared to strike a mortal blow to Theresa May's Chequers proposal. After this, surely she had to compromise on her red lines?

Not a bit of it. Mrs. May is sticking to her Chequers proposal, apparently hoping that eventually the EU will blink. She remains, as ever, oblivious to the mortal damage that this would do to the EU as a political project.

But agreeing a deal with the EU is not Mrs. May's top priority anyway. With the Tory party conference approaching, continual rumours of a leadership challenge, and Boris trying to make himself look like Churchill-in-waiting, she is only really interested in disciplining the hardline Brexiteeers in her party, particularly the unruly ERG.

Sometimes I wonder if Theresa hexes her opponents. They certainly seem extraordinarily accident-prone. She came to power by saying nothing and waiting for the other leadership candidates to trip themselves up, which they duly did, one after another. And now she seems to be pulling the same trick again.

Right on cue, the ERG has shot itself in the foot, not once but three times. Recently, it released two alternative Brexit trade deal models. The first was curiously (and all but illegibly) written in faded blue 10-pitch Courier as if it were produced on an old typewriter with a worn-out ribbon. The second was written in tortuous econospeak which unfortunately failed to conceal some pretty basic errors.  Both papers were promptly and hilariously skewered. Trade wonks had a field day, of course, but it didn't require specialist knowledge to see what an Eton mess the ERG had managed to make of its proposals. It was downright embarrassing.

To make matters worse, the ERG's "alternative proposal" for Brexit included recommendations to build a "Star Wars" space defence system and send an expeditionary force to the Falkland Islands. The ERG was shamefacedly exposed as stuck in an early 1980s time warp: the Star Wars system was a Ronald Reagan scheme that was never built, and we all know that the Falklands War was Maggie's finest hour. A photo of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Peter Bone looking utterly despondent went viral. Caption competitions abounded.

The ERG's brilliant idea for solving the Irish border problem was an equivalence regime which the EU has already dismissed as unworkable. It would therefore be impossible while Ireland remained in the EU. Suddenly, a new "Irish freedom party" popped up, promoting Irish exit from the EU. What remarkable timing.

Of course, even if Ireland left the EU, it would still be a separate country, and no trade between separate countries is ever completely free, except in a single market. On Twitter, one lunatic Brexiter, exhibiting a breathtaking ignorance of Irish history, suggested that the solution to the Irish border problem was for Ireland to rejoin the United Kingdom. This is of course a complete non-starter, but our Brexiter was blithely convinced that all that was needed was a sticking plaster on the 1916 Rebellion. Whatever they teach them on the playing fields of Eton, it obviously doesn't include Henry VIII, Cromwell, King Billy, the Battle of the Boyne or the Famine.

Theresa didn't have to say or do anything to overturn this pile of imperialist horseshit. She just stayed silent and let the press do it for her, helped by the DUP, which summarily rejected the IEA's Canada Plus trade proposal. Even the DUP knows that Ireland is not going to leave the EU, and without that, the IEA's scheme is dead.

Of course, the ERG continues to bluster. This week, Boris Johnson has written 5000 words in the Telegraph proposing yet another wholly unrealistic Brexit deal. And Jacob Rees-Mogg, appearing yet again on the BBC's flagship Question Time comment programme, has issued barely-concealed threats of leadership challenges. But the truth is that neither really wants to unseat Theresa at the moment. Their best strategy is to let her take the country through Brexit (of any kind, though the harder the better), then promote themselves as the new team that will lead Britain to the sunlit uplands. I suspect Theresa knows this perfectly well and is going along with it, because let's face it, she needs their support. It is not quite checkmate for her yet, but it is increasingly hard to see how she can stay on as Prime Minister after Brexit.

Neither Theresa and her allies nor the ERG group are remotely interested in what is best for the country. All they care about is who governs it. Brexit is really nothing to do with the EU. It is, as it always has been, a war between two wings of the Tory party over the right to govern the UK.

Now, those of you who look down your noses at the parochial Tory party and say "of course the Labour party wouldn't behave like that" - you couldn't be more wrong. The Labour leadership is playing exactly the same game.

Jeremy Corbyn says that Labour MPs will vote down whatever withdrawal agreement Mrs. May agrees with the EU. Ostensibly, this is because any deal that is acceptable to both the EU and the UK government would fail to pass Keir Starmer's "six tests". But as the six tests were carefully designed to ensure that no Tory deal could possibly pass them, this claim is not exactly honest. Labour's real objective is to force the Government to call a general election. They think that voting down the withdrawal agreement would amount to defeating the Government on a confidence motion. The government would have no choice but to resign.

The trouble is that by signalling it in advance, Labour has probably scuppered this Machiavellian scheme. Labour cannot by itself defeat the withdrawal agreement. It needs some Tories to vote against it as well. Leaving aside the unpalatable fact that this would mean Labour voting with hardline Brexiter Tories, the Tories might not defy the whip - especially if they knew that by doing so they would bring down the government. The only thing that can be guaranteed to unite the Tories is the prospect of a Labour government. If Johnson & Rees-Mogg thought that voting against the withdrawal agreement would result in a general election which Labour was likely to win, they would close ranks and back the withdrawal agreement, regardless of what they have previously said. Bringing down Theresa May's government before Brexit is not remotely in their interests.

Of course, the DUP might vote against a withdrawal agreement, if it didn't like the terms for Northern Ireland. But Theresa is wise to this, and so is the EU. Do you really think they would agree on a deal that they know the DUP would reject, when the only way Theresa can get it through Parliament is with DUP support?

But let's suppose for the moment that Labour does manage to garner enough votes to defeat the final withdrawal agreement. What happens next?

Voting down the final withdrawal agreement would leave no-deal Brexit as the only option. The Government would be obliged to inform Parliament what it intended to do next, and Parliament woudl have a vote on that - though it might not have the right to amend the Government's plans. The Government has suggested that it could simply inform Parliament that it would go ahead with no deal even if Parliament opposed it. But the Institute for Government thinks that the government would be under pressure to resign:

The Government would probably come under political pressure to resign, to subject itself to a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, or to move a motion for an early general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. What happened next would depend not on the precise terms of the EU Withdrawal Act, but on the UK’s Brexit policy, as it then stood, and on how the EU27 responded to it.

There are only six months until Brexit, and as yet no withdrawal agreement has been agreed. If a withdrawal agreement were defeated, there would be no time for a general election before Brexit. So an extension to Article 50 would be needed. The European Council has indicated that it would be likely to grant such an extension for a general election.

However, because there is so little time left, the Government could decide to hold the general election after Brexit, thereby eliminating any need for an extension. If it did so, then there would be a disorderly no-deal Brexit followed by an economic crash. And because Labour would have voted against the withdrawal agreement, the Tories could reasonably claim that the economic crash was Labour's fault. They would be certain to campaign on this. "Labour's car crash Brexit has wrecked the economy," they would say.

There is another possibility, of course, and that is that instead of calling for a general election which the Tories could delay until after Brexit, Labour could call for a second referendum. This would also require an extension to Article 50, as there is no time to organise a second referendum before Brexit. Would the European Council be likely to agree to an extension for such a purpose?

It would depend what was on the ballot paper. If the referendum simply gave the British people a choice between a deal which Parliament had already rejected and no deal, it is hard to see why the EU would agree. It would be a completely pointless ballot which they would inevitably see as a delaying tactic, and they have already said they will not agree to extensions which merely delay the inevitable. There would have to be some other option open to the British people. What might that be?

The most obvious option would be Remain, which is the status quo. But Labour is every bit as divided over Brexit as the Tories. Offering Remain as an option would blow this wide open. There would be howls of "Betrayal!" from core working-class voters, particularly older men in Northern constituencies. Already, the leader of one of the biggest trade unions has warned that "the referendum result must be respected". Labour can't afford to alienate its traditional vote. Remain must be off the menu.

Alternatively, Labour might offer to negotiate a new deal, as John McDonnell has suggested. The problem is that Labour is not in power, so this would require a general election - which it is unlikely that Government would call before Brexit. And Labour doesn't have a coherent proposal to put to the EU anyway. It only has a Black Forest Gateau, and as I have already explained, cake and cherries are lethal for the EU. Furthermore, why would the EU want to renegotiate a deal that it has already agreed? Getting the agreement of the entire EU27 is not easy. Unless Labour's proposal is both entirely credible and significantly different from the one the Tories agreed, the EU might not want to renegotiate.

As far as I can see, voting down the withdrawal agreement leads inexorably to no-deal Brexit, simply because Labour can't make the Tories do what they want. But Labour would inevitably be blamed for that no-deal Brexit. What price the next election then?

Not that things would be any better if Labour MPs voted for the withdrawal agreement. "But how could we possibly vote for a Tory deal?" cry Labour activists. It is something of a mystery to me how Labour MPs could vote with the ERG group but apparently not with Theresa, but then what do I know about politics? The activists do have a point. Voting with the government on a deal which violated their own six tests would be electoral suicide. In the general election that is bound to follow Brexit, Labour MPs would be blamed for selling out to the Tories. The voting public doesn't like politicians who break their promises. Just look what happened to the Lib Dems.

So perhaps Theresa has hexed the Labour leadership, too. Their present stance is certainly a gift to her, because it makes it more likely that dissident Tory MPs would vote for her withdrawal agreement. As it stands, Labour cannot reinvent Brexit in their own image. They cannot offer the British people a real choice in a second referendum. They cannot force a general election before Brexit. And because they are so completely stuck, they look unlikely to win an election after Brexit. They seem to have boxed themselves into a corner. It is checkmate.

Related reading:

Cake and cherries
An alternative Brexit polemic
Game theory in Brexitland

Image from Wikipedia via Reddit.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Anti-Semitism and the Aristocracy

Last night I put up a piece debunking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, based on the chapter about this vile book in Jon E. Lewis’ The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups (London: Constable & Robinson 2007), pp. 433-50. The Protocols are a notorious anti-Semitic forgery, probably concocted by Matvei Golovinski of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, to make his master, Nicholas II, even more anti-Semitic and to intensify the persecution of the Jews.

The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a secret meeting of a group of elite Jews, intent on destroying all non-Jewish religions and conquering and enslaving Christians and gentiles. They claimed that the Jews were at the centre of a massive conspiracy controlling the banks and were encouraging the downfall of Christian civilization by promoting liberalism, democracy, socialism and anarchism. At the same time they were distracting gentiles from uncovering this plot through using alcohol, gambling, games and other amusements.

There is absolutely no truth in any of this whatsoever. But the book became an immense success and was read and influenced many Fascists and anti-Semites. These included Adolf Hitler, who made the book a compulsory part of the German school syllabus.

Like much of Fascism, it’s a rejection of modernity – the mass society of modern politics that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Modern politics and secular ideologies were attacked. At one point, the Protocols claim that Darwinism, Marxism and Nietzscheanism have been successful because they have been promoted by the conspiracy. (Lewis, Mammoth Book of Covers-Ups, p. 444). The forger’s own view of what constitutes the best society is revealed very clearly in another passage, in which the conspirators celebrate their destruction of the aristocracy.

The people, under our guidance, have annihilated the aristocracy, who were their one and only defence and foster-mother for the sake of their own advantage, which is inseparably bound up with the well-being of the people. Nowadays, with the destruction of the aristocracy, the people have fallen into the grips of merciless money-grinding scoundrels who have laid a pitiless and cruel yoke upon the necks of the workers. (p.446).

Historically, some of the persecution of the Jews in the later Middle Ages was due to the fact that a large number of the aristocracy had become seriously in debt to Jewish bankers, and tried to get out of their obligation to pay it back by urging for their persecution and expulsion.

A significant number of aristocrats and the upper middle class were supporters of Nazism before the Second World War. The leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, was a baronet. Aristocrats and landlords joined pro-Nazi and appeasement organisations like the Anglo-German Fellowship. Martin Pugh on his book on British Fascism between the Wars describes how the aristos welcomed members of the Nazi elite at dinner parties on their estates, when the swastika was discreetly flown from the flagpoles.

And there still seems to be a fascination and dangerous sympathy with Nazism even today. Way back in the 1990s and early part of this century, Private Eye published a number of stories about one Cotswold aristocrat, who had very strong anti-Semitic, racist and anti-immigrant opinions.

And then there’s the Traditional Britain Group on the far right of the Tory party. These also have the same, genuinely Fascist attitudes, and one of their leaders is fascinated with the Nazis and the Third Reich. It was the Traditional Britain Group, who invited Jacob Rees-Mogg to their annual dinner, which Mogg accepted. When the Observer published the story, Mogg claimed that at the time he hadn’t known anything about them. If he had, he wouldn’t have gone. Which doesn’t really sound convincing, as people don’t normally accept dinner invitations from organisations and people they know nothing about. But perhaps Mogg, as well as being viciously right-wing, is also very naïve.

As for the Tories being good friends of the Jews, as the current head of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyle claimed in a speech, David Rosenberg posted up in response a series of incidents across the decades which put the lie to it. These showed very clearly how anti-Semitic the Tories had been, and which parts of it may very well still be.

And one of the attractions of anti-Semitism, apart from sheer racism, is that, in the form of conspiracy theories like the Protocols, they blame the Jews for all the forces of modernity that threaten the aristocracy and the upper middle class, and celebrate the aristocracy itself as the people’s saviours, and so appealing very strongly to certain types of Tories.

On Games and Society: On Iain Banks' The Player of Games, reflexivity and transformative experience.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/06/2018 - 1:11am in


art, Games

Gurgen never ceased to be fascinated by the way a society's games revealed so much about its ethos, it's philosophy, its very soul.--Iain M. Banks (1988) The Player of Games, p. 30. 

The Player of Games is a clever science fiction novel, but here I want to treat it as a contribution to Socratic Political Theory (recall here and here). The action starts in an imperial, utopian somewhat anarchic (there are few laws) society with little scarcity (nor money) and not much death full of semi-clever drones that serve and keep humans alive. This intergalactic human society is surrounded by an, in part, hidden machine-culture in which super smart machines and networks reveal consciousness and intelligence that outstrip anything we are capable of. Jointly these two societies inhabit the Culture, which is extremely powerful in the galaxy. It's ruling ideology (it's called a 'philosophy' by themselves) is 'Strength in depth; redundancy; over-design" (239) This is an ideology of precautionary principles. In this volume of the series, we never learn what keeps the machines from killing of the humans they outsmart. Perhaps the humans are thought the useful redundancy of the Culture.

The Culture is committed to a Whorfian thesis about language, and its language has been designed to facilitate the flourishing of the Culture. The Culture itself is governed by the ruling machines in the manner of Government House utilitarians. The humans kind of know this, but they can never be quite sure what the machines are up to. This turns out to be an important, structural element in the novel. The Culture also seems a bit resistant to creative innovation. 

Prior to the start of the narrative of the novel, the Culture encounters another technologically skillful civilization, the Empire of Azad. This is a militant and hierarchical meritocracy.  This society has not solved the problem of scarcity, and so it is based on property (or "ownership" 114) means it both needs conquest abroad and material inequality has severe consequences for the quality of life of those at the bottom of the hierarchies. (It has abolished formal slavery -- something they are said to be proud of, but there is wage-slavery.) Part of the fun of the novel is that the Empire of Azad seems a lot more familiar than the Culture to us readers, but that the representatives of the Culture finds it disorienting and (despite all the glitter and color) inferior.

The meritocracy of Azad has two important characteristics. A game, conveniently also called 'Azad,' (which means 'machine, or perhaps system' [76]) is the main selection mechanism of status within the hierarchy. The game (Azad) reflects (like a "model" (76)) the social reality of Azad, "whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance." (76) But because the game, Azad, is such an important social institution, it also structures social reality: "such is the pervasive nature of the idea of the game within the society that just by believing that, they make it so," (77; emphasis in original.) It is to Banks's credit that he does not merely characterize such reflexivity, but also shows the ways such reflexivity can be both extremely robust (the game Azad and the Empire so structured have co-evolved for a long time) and quite fragile--if the idea can be undermined in the right way the whole society can collapse rapidly. Interestingly enough, from the point of view of political philosophy, is the observation that in  such a (partially heriditary meritocracy), the opinion of the people is still vital to the survival of the hierarchy--propaganda precisely consists in giving the people what they want to hear.  

The second characteristic I just mention, but deserves fuller discussion. The Empire of Azad has three sexes: males (with testes and penis), and two kinds of females:  one with a reversible vagina and ovaries and one just with a womb (74). This sexual division of labor facilitates a social hierarchy with the first kind of women on top and the other on the bottom. The novel was first published in 1988, and one can see that Banks has thought through some of the potential implications of surrogacy and genetic engineering.   

The novel is structured around a subtle distinction between a mere game player and a game player that is a 'true gambler.' (21) The former, presumably, enjoys play and the thrill of winning, and does not concern us here. However, the latter "needs the excitement of potential loss,even ruin, to feel wholly alive." It is not obvious one needs to be a true gambler in order to be a great or greatest game player. In fact, the novel is most interesting on this very point. The main protagonist (Gurgeh), who is the best game player of the culture and also among its leading game-theorists, discovers in the narrative that he is such a true gambler.* There is a revealing seemingly unconnected detail that illuminates this point. Gurgeh's sexual and personal identity is remarkably un-fluid given the society he inhabits. (Sex changes and sexual preferences are very fluid.)  He is one of the very few in his society who has not never changed sex, or (being a man) has slept with a man (24). That is, it's clear his identity is tied up with both extreme loss aversion and treating loss as existential. But in the right circumstances the true gambler is willing to risk all. 

As an aside, the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be one of the super-smart drones who are part of of the machine network that runs the Culture, explains at one point that in the ruling ideology, dubbed 'dynamic (mis)behaviorism' (a species of consequentialism, by the way)  that identity is less important than humans think: "We are what we do, not what we think. Only the interactions count." (231) The logical problems such a view encounters are not confronted. 

But it turns out the fluidity of identity in another sense also accompanies the true gambler (who is both risk averse and eager for existential games). For, as it happens to be a true gambler, and to know it about oneself, involves playing games that one knows may change who one is--a so-called transformative experience: "he would change; he would be a different person at the end of it; he could help but change, take on something of the game itself; that would be inevitable." (82) That is, if a true gambler plays a game in which one can suffer great, existential loss  (and I am leaving that un-defined in this post) then by definition she can know in advance of the game that she can come out transformed without knowing the content of the transformation. The point of playing the game is not to be transformed, it's feeling the thrill of being alive in the right sort of way; but the transformation is a known  by-product if and only if one survives. (Of course, this is compatible with the existence of all kinds of other transformative experiences.) The game of Azad can also generate transformative experiences for those players who don't expect it.

Let me wrap up, Gurgen has been trained up, we may, on playing many different kind of games throughout his life. Even so, in his game playing he represents the Culture. As it turns out, however, this is be sufficient to beat the very best folk in Azad at their own game. He is more adaptable than they are and this somehow represents a feature of the Culture. However, it turns out, as he gradually becomes aware, that he himself was a pawn -- even a pawn that could be sacrificed -- by the  machine-network that runs the Culture. It is worth reflecting on this momentarily.

In the Culture, something we learn early, the study of game theory and the study of philosophy are sharply distinguished (p.15)  This is significant, as I hope to suggest in (closing in) what follows. Gurgen is very good at the former. We only get hints of the game theory, but among the humans of The Culture it seems to be a mixture between the craft involved in the study of positions in the matter of say Chess and Go, and the more formal kind of apparatus we find in say our (Earth) game theory used in economics or political science. 

Again, Gurgen is notable for being good at playing games and theorizing about it. He also recognizes that games and society are intimately linked. But strikingly his contributions to game theory is all about games one can play and not the society in which they are embedded and (can) model.* This lacuna in his theory, perhaps even a consequence of the way the discipline of his culture is structured [recall the Whorfianism], is especially striking in virtue of the fact that his very own game theory involves a metaphysics in which "reality is game" because "physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance." (41) 

So, one of the indirect points of the book is that only the insertion of what I have been calling Socratic Political Theory, a meta-theory in which the games and structures of societies are analyzed in comparative fashion [More and Le Guin (recall) are astoundingly good at this], completes the proper union of philosophy and game theory. (That's an ideal game theory.) We learn that Gurgen is fascinated by the subject matter (see the quote above), but that he lacks skill in it. Absent such political science one is, for example, slow to recognize, as Gurgen is, that one can be a pawn in a game played by hidden powers behind the scenes, that is, the invisible ruling powers of the Culture.



*En passant we learn in the novel that in addition to games, (i) genre stories (fairy tales, horror, etc.) and (ii) conventions of punishment also reveal much about their socities.