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2017, the Russian Revolution, and the idea of utopia

Billed as a year of imagination and possibility to mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, 2016 didn’t quite work out that way.

2017 offers another opportunity to consider the meaning and value of the idea of utopia, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the most significant utopian enterprise since the American and French revolutions.

For most, the Soviet experiment, like 2016, will be remembered for its dystopian character: the bloody civil war that followed the Revolution; the swift suffocation of the nascent workers’ democracy by an overbearing bureaucracy; the immense suffering of forced-march collectivisation and industrialisation; the terrors of the 1930s police state; and the chronic misfiring of an economic engine that finally sputtered and died. The hulking edifice of the USSR stands as a ruined dream factory, utopia’s tombstone.

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My favourite books of 2016

There are some chaps who are no good for anything but books. I plead guilty to being such a chap. EM Forster, A Room With A View

Indeed. Here are ten books I particularly appreciated this year – though not necessarily published in 2016 – listed in alphabetical order. I reviewed quite a few of them for various online magazines, and where applicable have provided links to the versions archived on this site.

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Inventing the Future: towards the automated economy

Once the future belonged to the left. 100 years ago a confident labour movement, emboldened by the prospect of revolution across Europe and excited by the possibilities afforded by rapid technological progress, dreamed of utopian futures.

Workers seemed on the verge of taking control of factories and offices from managers, opening the way for democratic control of workplaces and the wider economy. The mechanisation of the processes of production and distribution promised a fully automated economy, making possible a dramatic shortening of the working week and a new age of leisure.

Modern architecture promised gleaming new metropolises, free of the dirt and squalor of the slum cities of the industrial age. The new science of aerodynamics held out the possibility of escape from the limitations of the earth itself: the utopian science fiction of HG Wells, Mikhail Bogdanov and others, with its dreams of space flight and technologically advanced socialist societies coloured the language of daily political discourse.

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Detail from The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Blue Labour’s theology of the common good

Blue Labour is the most significant intellectual movement to have emerged within British social democracy since Tony Blair’s modernisation project of the 1990s. It shaped elements of Labour’s 2015 manifesto, and is likely to become even more prominent in the wake of the party’s defeat.

New Labour rejected the party’s long standing faith in statist economic intervention in favour of a ‘soft’ neoliberalism: revenues generated from the play of an uninhibited market were channeled towards public services, with tax and benefits adjustments mitigating inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

Blue Labour proposes a fundamentally different political economy, rejecting New Labour’s instrumental view of the market without proposing a return to socialist economic planning or Keynesian macroeconomics. Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, a collection of essays edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst, is the project’s weightiest publication yet, exploring Blue Labour’s philosophical foundations, and tracing its lineage within the history of the labour movement.

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Ice floes viewed from plane window

General Election 2015: a view from the window seat

After some involvement with General Election 2015 it’s strange to find myself 36,000 feet up on a plane headed for a long planned holiday on the other side of the world just as the campaign enters its most intense phase.

Thoroughly immersed in politics as I now seem to be, it’s not entirely unpleasant to have the opportunity to escape the febrile atmosphere for a couple of weeks, particularly that in post-referendum Scotland, now a different, politically charged country.

And my view from the window seat, with the blue haze shimmering over the tip of Greenland, affords an opportunity to breathe out, to try to attain a certain perspective, to discern what is and is not of lasting importance amidst the clamour of day-to-day political debate.

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