“…indifferent to the future…”
After consuming a Ritz cracker, two Valiums, half a can of Tab, and one weak, vodka-based cocktail, a girl named Karen slips into a coma one Friday night in 1979.
Seventeen years later she wakes up and the world has changed. The novel, Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, from 1998, shares its basic outline with the classic tale of Rip Van Winkle – or, for that matter, a great deal of the nineteenth century’s futurist literature: L’an 2440, Looking Backwards, The News from Nowhere, and countless others. But Karen doesn’t wake up in utopia. The contradictions of capitalism have not resolved themselves in her sleep. If anything, they have got worse.
“I’m not sure I completely like the new world,” she confesses to her friend Hamilton. “The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get … racing ahead … getting sacked from work … going online … knowing computer languages … winning contracts. I mean, it’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future.” In the seventeen years she spent asleep, something disappeared from the world as she sees it, “‘meaning’ had vanished”.
When I was at university, in the first years of the twenty-first century, it was considered practically a given that music could have no intrinsic meanings. A piece of music may be meaningful to you, or to specific social groups, in certain contexts, under certain conditions, but it does not in itself bear meaning. This notion, of music as mere “form moving in sound,” was not original when the critic Eduard Hanslick so phrased it in the midst of the 19th century’s war of the romantics. In fact, we can trace the idea at least as far back as Adam Smith’s essay, ‘Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called the Imitative Arts’, first thrashed out in the years immediately after the publication of The Wealth of Nations made him the prophet of free market capitalism.
“Melody and harmony,” wrote Smith, “signify and suggest nothing.” Without the anchorage of poetry or pantomime, instrumental music was suitable only for a sort of contemplation “not unlike that which derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.” And even in the case of a piece of music – such as a song, dance, or opera – which did seem to have specific meanings attached by the association of another art form, the music itself could act only “like a transparent mantle,” which might lend a “more enlivening lustre” to the meanings and sentiments already expressed.[ii]
As the musicologist Lawrence Kramer suggests, the “problem of meaning” is a symptom of music’s modern separation from ritual. Today, he argues, “No ideas about music are more conventional than that music has no meaning, at least in the sense that words do, and that this lack is something to be treasured, something that helps make music special.”[iii] But even as Kramer wrote those words, the question of meaning was raising its head once more.
Just a few years earlier, another American musicologist named Leo Treitler had noticed a sudden avalanche of books about musical meaning. Treitler tells a story in which he is reading a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the New Yorker and is suddenly struck by the line, “Inside the lights burned in the middle of the day and the string quartet was playing a piece by Mozart, full of foreboding.” So alien is such a characterisation – of a music unambiguously “full of foreboding” –to the formal discourse of musicology, that Treitler found himself “sucked into a fantasy in which Marquez is reading the story aloud and has just come to that sentence himself. A squad of young men and women rush up to him, outfitted in black leather boots, breeches, and vests. Their hair is close-cropped or slicked back. Their leader hands Marquez a summons.”[iv]
“…an outbreak of meaninglessness…”
The hyperbolic nature of Treitler’s little tale implies an awareness on the part of the distinguished professor that while most of us will merrily ascribe any number of meanings to all kinds of music without too much thought, the kind of vigilance represented by his squad of bovver-booted young musicologists remained largely internal to the confines of the academy. And there they might well have stayed. But in the last few years, signs of a kind of creeping panic over meaning have started to seep out of the ivory tower and into the world outside.
In 2013, the music journalist Sophie Heawood wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she confessed that since throwing out a record collection which once “drew out the short sharp words of feelings and turned them into illustrated sentences”, the music she listens to via internet streaming services on her laptop now sounds “about as deep as an oatcake”.[v] It is telling that Heawood relates the new depthlessness she finds in music to a change in the technology through which she experiences it. It was in a pit of depression induced by the years he spent embedded in the Palo Alto dot com bubble, writing Microserfs, that Douglas Coupland conceived Girlfriend in a Coma. The malaise was spreading.
As well as being a composer with a penchant for unusual wind instruments, Jaron Lanier was a pioneer of virtual reality who spent the eighties and nineties in the Silicon Valley thick of it, hobnobbing with the heads of Apple, Microsoft, and Google. So it came as little surprise when in 1999 he wrote an essay entitled ‘Piracy is Your Friend’. In this New York Times piece, Lanier insisted that the free distribution of MP3s was “an opportunity, not a problem.”[vi]
But in 2002, writing an open letter to the producer and theorist Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Lanier began to worry that something had gone awry with mainstream pop music in the last decade or so. It was not so much that all the new music was bad; but that there was no new music. Not so much that the content was schlocky; but that there was no content at all. Still he insisted then that file-sharing could not be blamed, that the music industry’s obsession with Napster and the like was “such a crock” and that perhaps, had Napster been given the chance to develop, it could have been just the impetus music needed: a “new electric guitar”.[vii]
Except of course file-sharing has indeed developed, somewhat voraciously. And by 2007 Lanier was admitting, “I was wrong. We were all wrong.”[viii] In a book called You Are Not a Gadget, first published three years after this mea culpa, Lanier wrote extensively about his disappointment with the digital world he had helped to create. He worried that under the influence of social networks and software protocols like MIDI, people are “beginning to design themselves,” – and the art that they create – “to suit digital models” of themselves, and that consequently the ongoing “process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped.” Perhaps, he mused, the ultimate consequence of the seemingly infinite abundance of words and melodies available on the cloud, is to be “an outbreak of meaninglessness.”[ix]
“…if all music had disappeared…”
In 2002, Bill Drummond had already come to a similar conclusion. One day in the spring of that year, the author and former member of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, stepped through the doors of an HMV megastore in central London and felt a peculiar dread overtake him. Faced with “aisle upon aisle of CDs, rack upon rack in every genre possible,” Drummond thought to himself, “I know whatever I get here, when I get it home, it’s not going to be real. It’s not going to open another door in my head.”
That night, back at home working on his laptop, the feeling got worse. “It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music – the past hundred and ten years or whatever that it has existed – is behind that screen laughing at me. It was saying, go on, download us!”
Drummond proposed a radical solution, “We’ve got to start all music again. I got into this fantasy in the end: wouldn’t it be great if all music had disappeared? We knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything. Drum kits don’t work. It’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music, but it cannot be done on any instrument.”
Drummond’s reverie tapped into a strain of hitherto dormant cultural catastrophism that had reared its head in the run-up to the millennium and never quite lain down since. To people still in the midst of the last century, it was pretty much a given that their leaders might capriciously elect to end all life on earth at the push of a button. However, from the phantom Y2K computer bug to the various Mayan apocalypses and ecological disasters (whether ultimately man-made or otherwise) favoured by post-millennial Hollywood film-makers, there lingers a decided whiff of Biblical chiliasm, of Nature’s angry vengeance wrought upon the folly of man. The bomb, at least, maintained a certain deliberate decisionism. It was an apocalypse with agency – no matter now madcap and divorced from the majority of actual people that agency may have been.
Today, though the internationally recognised Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still stands at five minutes to midnight (closer, in fact, than it did for most of the sixties and seventies), we seem to worry little about the bomb.[xi] And yet in a strange sort of way, we live our lives as though the nuclear holocaust had already happened. Culture increasingly resembles not the gleaming fantasia of utopian dreams but the jury-rigged bricolage of post-apocalyptic nightmares.
“…every mark, blotch, and stain…”
An order of monks in a desolate wasteland, patiently copying and illuminating the shopping lists and trivial memoranda of a long-dead electrical engineer onto treated lambskin. The scenario is from a post-apocalyptic fable by Walter M. Miller called A Canticle for Leibowitz, set six hundred years after an atomic catastrophe. But it speaks just as eloquently about our own culture of reissues, remasters, reformations, and gatefold audiophile 180-gram vinyl editions of the long lost demos of some supposedly pivotal rock legend or other. As I read about the desire of Brother Francis (Miller’s protagonist) to duplicate precisely “every mark, blotch, and stain” on the holy relic (an old engineering blueprint) he had discovered in an abandoned shelter, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion between the singer Billy Childish and critic Simon Reynolds in the latter’s book, Retromania, about the fortunes spent on valve studio equipment, the fetishism of antiquated recording equipment and ‘stripped back’ production styles (mono, analogue, live, untreated, etc.).[xii] Reynolds’s book is all about pop music’s hopes for the future being crowded out by a series of compulsions to repeat the past. “Instead of being about itself,” he notes elsewhere in the text, “the 2000s has been about every previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.”[xiii] It’s as though music has been gobbled up by one of the “time prolapses” in Brian Aldiss’s novel from the mid-seventies, The Eighty Minute Hour.
A weird, sprawling ‘space opera’ in which characters spontaneously break into arias set in verse form, the narrative of this novel is set at the very end of the twentieth century, several years after another world war. It seems as though the pollution from so many nuclear explosions has ruptured the very fabric of space-time, creating pockets of the past in odd places throughout the solar system, and leaving various characters lost and stranded in former centuries. “But suppose your references are all wrong!” speculates one of the characters at one point. “Suppose nothing has happened to us and we’re sitting comfortably back home on earth, 1999 A.D., only we’ve all spiralled round the twonk and are so ego-sick of progress that we’re sunk in a mass-hallucination about it?”[xiv] Our situation is more severe. Rather than hallucinating the time distortion effects of a real thermonuclear war; we have hallucinated the war. The fallout, however, is real.
[ii] Smith, A. The Works of Adam Smith, vol.V, London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1811, pp.278-302
[iii] Kramer, L. Musical Meaning: Towards a Critical History,Vol. I, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, p.1, p.11
[iv] Treitler, L. ‘Language and the Interpretation of Meaning’ in Music and Meaning, Robinson, J. (ed.), New York: Cornell University Press, 1997, p.23-4
[v] Heawood, S. ‘Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop’, The Guardian, Tuesday 4 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/music-died-cds-listen-laptop
[vi] Lanier, J. ‘Piracy Is Your Friend’, New York Times, May 9 1999
[vii] Lanier, J. ‘Where Did the Music Go?’ in Sound Unbound, Miller, P. D. (ed.)
[viii] Laneier, J. ‘Pay Me For My Content’ New York Times, November 20 2007
[ix] Lanier, J. You Are Not A Gadget, London: Penguin, 2011, pp.39, 128, 174
All quotes from interview with the author conducted in July 2006, parts of which subsequently became an article for Plan B Magazine and Drummond went on to write many of the same things in his book 17, published in 2008 by Beautiful Books, London.
[xi] A timeline of the Doomsday Clock may be viewed online at the Bulletin’s website, http://thebulletin.org/timeline
[xii] Miller, W. M. A Canticle for Leibowitz, New York: Bantam, 1961, pp.60-70; Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past, New York: Faber, 2011, p.270
[xiii] Reynolds, 2011, op. cit. pp.x-xi
[xiv] Aldiss, B. The Eighty Minute Hour, New York: Leisure, 1975, p.75
Listen to Jam City’s NTS mix [mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/NTSRadio/jam-city-1st-june-2015/ width=660 height=208 hide_cover=1 hide_tracklist=1]
I have zero time for the common refrain of middle-aged music journalists, “why is there no political music nowadays?”. It’s a question that’s lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. But, if I was going to bother to reply to someone asking that this week, I’d just ping them a link to any of Jam City’s recent interviews (if examples from rock were needed, see also Algiers or Perfect Pussy). Here’s a couple of recent excerpts:
From Complex magazine, in April:
Dream A Garden is a statement album, telling stories about emotional fallouts in the neoliberal world, the same world depicted by Classical Curves with its glossy images of luxury possessions. Is Classical Curves, Dream A Garden—but with a certain cynicism?
Yes, absolutely. In the past, I’ve been fascinated and repulsed by the glossy surface of neoliberal capitalism: luxury products, useless electronic. But after a while, you realise that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Dream A Garden is about learning to situate those luxury images within a larger context of violence, exploitation, and depression….
I hate this line of, “No politics on the dancefloor.” Dance music has never NOT been political! It’s always been transgressive, from disco to dub-reggae to grime. It’s only in the last few years that “the underground” has got further and further away from those agendas. We need to ask why this is.
“To Latham, the inherent politics of dancing, raving, clubbing – whatever you call it – are blindingly obvious. “If you take a long view of history, there’s always been a kind of transgressive politics to dance music – disco, dub, reggae, rave, grime – but it’s funny, someone said to me in an interview the other day, ‘People don’t normally associate club music with politics.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ It’s never not been political! But somehow, in the last five years or something, in correlation to a lot of political things that have been going on, specifically in this country, it has kind of become an island, a little bit.” So you’re not concerned by the cultural gatekeepers who keep saying political music isn’t what it was in the 80s? He laughs. “It’s not! It’s not the 80s! The 80s are done and dusted.”
“People say about this generation that it’s the apathetic generation or whatever, but I think we’re probably more educated about a lot of things than ever, people are plugged in, and they know what’s going on. But the exhaustion is still there. It’s hard to know how to find a language to talk about these things. I don’t understand mainstream party politics, I never have, it doesn’t speak a language to me that I’ve ever felt I could relate to, and I’m sure it’s probably the same for most people.” And yet he has found a language, and as a political lyricist he is refreshingly natural and unconventional, his heavily filtered voice plaintively singing short lines about riots, body image, the sadness and solipsism of consumer culture, “porn and Adderall”, and the yearning to reconnect, and to feel again.
For Latham, hope lies in other people, strangers meeting (or not meeting) in some of the cultural spaces that are themselves falling victim to contemporary capitalism; he cites a spate of club closures in London, the gentrification of others, and also, in light of the cost of tuition fees, “being able to afford to study; and meeting people, and forming a band, or starting a club night. It’s like the internet’s all we have, and none of us really have any money, so of course that’s the way that we organise and seek comfort from other people. But the doors to do that in real life, that historically have made other movements possible, just seem quite closed to our generation. We need those places and spaces where we can celebrate, because it’s a coping mechanism.”
“We have to deal with the complete privatisation of every aspect of our lives, and I just really believe there should be a physical space where we can go for six or seven hours to reorientate ourselves, actually be fucking humans again, and dance, and hear things that make us feel good inside.”
While dance music’s historical role as a site of possibility and transgression is inarguable, there can be an assumption that dance music today, and, by extension, the people involved in it, are inherently left-wing. Which, as anyone saw Boddika’s tweet and the response to it last week will know, is far from the case. He tweeted:
Many industry figures leapt to defend him, to say it must have been taken out of context, that anyone with a jot of sense would know he didn’t really mean it like that. But several also immediately called out his racism, with Jam City (in a now deleted tweet) and Night Slugs boss Bok Bok amongst the most outspoken.
Granted, few currently big electronic artists are quite as outspokenly political as Jam City (at least, ones that get interviewed in the Guardian). And, equally, there are plenty of politically engaged DJs/producers/performers and always have been. It would be OTT to proclaim that Jam City heralds a new era of politically engaged dance music. Dream A Garden probably won’t end up as the soundtrack to a summer of riots, 2015. But it feels like there may be a slight shift towards a somewhat more politically engaged, diverse electronic music scene, and Jam City’s recent output is an encouraging sign.
Jam City plays the ICA tonight, 5th June.
A new mix and a new tumblr, Base Consciousness from kpunk/Mark Fisher.
Quick mix to explore some of the moods in the wake of the election defeat: initial shock then renewed militancy and sense of purpose ….
So, the election results are in and it’s 1992 but with “Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru”. Depressing? Yup. But where do we go now? Below is an extract from kpunk’s most recent post, outlining some potential strategies we can adopt in the face of the election results. Read the whole post here. – TS
I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.
The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:
Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?
Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.
All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.
The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has … This problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.
The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #it’snotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).
Any way, here goes:
1. Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affection into spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.
2. Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.
3. Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.
4. Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.
5. Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)
6. Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realism post. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, “entrepreneurs” exploring cheap labour, etc.
7. Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up very rough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.
8. Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.
Summer is coming
The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of “Red” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….
Flatford on Wednesday morning
Also, a request to anyone with Labour connections…
Can anyone who has any influence in the Labour Party please ensure that as many people as possible read the pamphlet Jeremy Gilbert and I wrote last year? It was specifically designed to counter the Blairite monopolisation of the rhetoric of modernisation, so it has many arguments that can be weaponised in the current struggle to stop Blairism coming back from the dead.
Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
This was the front page of the Guardian on the day my son was born nearly five years ago. That year, my wife and I earned fifteen thousand pounds between us. I was working as an hourly paid lecturer in adult education and in a university, as well as doing some freelance writing and copy-editing. We were able to survive without living in penury because of the three hundred pounds a month in tax credits we received.
This was the way Brownism and Blairism worked: allowing low wages and precarity to proliferate with one hand, mitigating their effects with benefits on the other. By then, like most of the population, I loathed New Labour. Labour had become so capitalist realist that surely it couldn’t be much worse if the Tories got in? I shared the widespread view that elections don’t change much: all that’s on offer are minimally different versions of the same thing (neoliberalism).
It soon became very clear that this was not the case. Cameron and Osborne unleashed Capitalist Realism 2.0, the most audacious confidence trick in recent political history: make the poor and vulnerable pay for the bank crisis. Use the crisis as a pretext to destroy even more of the welfare state. Sigh their fake sighs, and tell us what “difficult choices” they had to make …
Today, if my wife and I earned what we did in 2010, we would receive only 50 pounds in tax credits a month.
Of course, for me, working like this was something of a bohemian lifestyle choice. If I’d wanted to, I could probably have got better paid work – after all, only a fool would expect to enjoy working for a living. But what of all those stuck in low paid precarious work forever? The disabled? The long-term sick and the chronically mentally ill, forced back to work?
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
I wasn’t very interested in this election a few weeks ago. To be honest, even though I had been commissioned to write a piece about the TV coverage of the election, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to watch the first debate (I’ll watch it later) until Laura Oldfield Ford, excited by Niciola Sturgeon’s performance, texted me and asked what I thought. I switched on ITV+1, and the process of re-awakening that has occurred in the last few weeks began.
For reasons I will explore more fully in subsequent posts, I have spent the last year in a state of de-activation. I was thrown back into the privatised connectivity of the OedIpod, with its constant stream of low-level anxiety and compulsive micro-enjoyments. I couldn’t write, except in a mechanical way; what I produced seemed stillborn, stilted. My main mood altering drug of choice, music, didn’t work. I binged on box sets. I enjoyed time with my wife and son, but there was a fugitive quality to this enjoyment: my fingers always itched to reach for my smartphone. There was always something I should already have done that I hadn’t – the urgencies piling up, like a flashing red light constantly blinking in my peripheral vision, never letting me settle. Most of these urgencies were small things, they didn’t matter too much, but perhaps there would be some long-forgotten urgency was going to calamitously re-emerge, too late for me to do anything about it? I’ll just check …
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
The coldly terrifying thing about this state of dejection was that it was not a completely paralysing depression – more a kind of exhausting drudgery. It felt liveable; indeed, it felt like I could – perhaps would – live the rest of my life in it. Perhaps I have expected too much from life. Now I would have to adjust to misery, like everyone else does. Others were much, much worse off than me. It wasn’t like I was to chip ice off the windscreen in the morning. I had been precarious for years – now I was in well-paid secure employment. Why couldn’t I just be happy? OK, so I had to do marketing promotions, complete ‘quality’ paperwork, amend module proposal forms six times – but it was hardly coal mining, was it?
You see, you see:
I had become once again the compliant subject of capitalist realism.
“…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”
Engines of dejection
Bifo is right. It wants us to be dejected: not so catatonically depressed that we can’t work, but not so confident and secure that we will refuse to do bullshit jobs. (What is this it that wants us to miserable? Why, the real management of the Overlook Hotel of course. Our misery is like nectar to it …) Capital needs people desperate, scrambling on the edge (watch Tory MPs laugh at starving families!), it needs people scrimping and saving and crossing off lists, it needs people to be grateful for any work, no matter how poorly paid, no matter how insecure, struggle after struggle, year after year …
In the last five years, after the initial euphoria of dissent in 2010 and 2011, an acrid fog of despair has slowly but ineluctably sunk over what Cameron, chillingly, calls “our country” …. choking the social energy out of institutions (no time to talk, sorry!) … reducing workers to automata issuing commands to one another … diminishing, at every level, our capacity to care …. no time, no time …. no money … don’t know, I’ve got to go mate …. looking over our shoulders, fearing the worst …. maybe it will be me next … better stay in line … accept the extra workload, I’m afraid that’s how things are now …
Pain now, more pain later ….
Misery is over (if we want it)
The last week or so, I have, each day, played with my son for a few hours, been out on long walks, enjoying extended time with my wife, and managed to write thousands of words. Why can’t life always be like this? Why indeed? It’s only been possible because I have decided to suspend all my bureaucratic obligations until after the election. (Back to “proper” work tomorrow: so expect another post in a year or so.) I have managed to do this, not by some heroic act of magical voluntarist will, but because of a lift in mood that is not just personal. Scotland, Syriza, Podemos … it’s taken a long while for the significance of these developments to filter through to me … but talking to comrades … attending, as a so far inactive member, to what Plan C are up to …. feeling the electricity that Russell Brand has generated …. All of this has gradually returned to consciousness during this election campaign. I don’t think I’m the only one. But have we awoken too late to stop the Tories? Has their smog of dejection de-activated enough people – people who were hardly likely to have been reactivated by Labour’s campaign?
The two most obvious parallels for this election would seem to be 1974 – a weak Labour government, propped up by smaller parties, or, ominously,1992, with Labour crushingly defeated by John Major’s Tories after they were expected to win. Shaun Lawson makes a strong and convincing case for why today might turn out to be a re-run of 1992. Much of this is to do with the unreliability of polls. Because of the so-called “shy Tory” phenomenon – voters not admitting to pollsters that they would vote Conservative – the polls were spectacularly wrong in 1992. Major didn’t only win, the Tories ended up with the largest amount of votes ever cast for a political party in Britain. Lawson argues that, despite polling being adjusted to factor in the shy Tory effect, current polling may still be inaccurate (because, for instance, it tends to be internet-based, which biases things towards a younger demographic).
I’m not sure how convinced I am by the parallels with 92, however, for two reasons.
1. Hyperstitional effects. As Baudrillard argued, we can’t treat opinion polls as neutral positivist descriptions since they might well affect the very thing they are claiming to predict. It seems likely that this might have happened in ’92.
The atmosphere leading up to the 92 election was very different to that preceding the current contest. There was the disastrous Sheffield Rally. Kinnock’s triumphalist shout of “We’re alright!”, still excruciatingly embarrassing to remember nearly twenty five years on, not only destroyed the “statesmanlike persona” he had confected, it gave the impression of a manic and jubilatory over-confidence. The premature celebration came off as unseemly, desperate – as if Kinnock himself, never mind the electorate, couldn’t quite believe that he would be Prime Minister. It also gave Murdoch’s press something to really stoke the fears of reluctant Tories with, especially when the polls were suggesting that Labour would win: look, they think they’ve won! If you’re thinking of staying at home, don’t – every vote is needed!
It isn’t really like that this time. Polls are predicting a hung parliament, not a Labour victory – there isn’t the same resource of fear to feed off. Victory for Labour is uncertain, not an imminent possibility that needs to be desperately averted. Furthermore, while the Tories have certainly tried to scaremonger, a Labour government now is not the terrifying prospect that it could be made to seem in 92. After Blairism, Labour is no longer the Other to neoliberal commonsense that it could be presented as then.
As I said in the last post, Miliband has kept his campaign emotionally subdued – no extravagant promises (“I want to under promise and over deliver”); no messianic fervour (this by contrast with Blair as much as Kinnock). It’s true, Miliband doesn’t seem to have Prime Minesterial gravitas, but, then again, neither did John Major, surely the least likely Prime Minister ever.
2. We’re in New Times
In 1992, we were still in the high pomp of capitalist realism. The crash had not yet happened. There was still something on offer to those who wanted to vote in their own interests and let everyone else go hang.
The Tories have nothing very much to bribe most of their supporters with this time. Without the false balm of the “Big Society”, they only have a negative message – it will be worse under Labour – and a muted promise: pain now, a little less pain later. Is this enough to motivate the wavering?
Neoliberalism is finished as a project, even if it lurches on, thrashing around like a decorticated terminator. We’re finally groping our way, blinking, out of capitalist realism. The psychic blockade that prevented us from thinking and acting is lifting. This has only registered in this campaign in some minor way with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens (the multi-party nature of British politics now is of course another way in which we are in new times by comparison with 74 and 92). If Labour manage to form a government, we will be celebrating a Tory defeat far more than we will be hailing a Tory victory.
But nothing is certain at the moment. I don’t think there will be much certainty tomorrow either. My feeling is that things will be very volatile over the next few weeks. One thing is for sure: we need to be prepared to mobilise if the Tories attempt a coup. And they surely will …
Normal capitalist realist service was resumed on Thursday, on the BBC Question Time Leaders Special. With the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens absent, horizons contracted, expectations lowered, we were once again asphyxiating in the Oxbridge-Westminster bubble. This was most obviously signalled by a discursive exclusion: “austerity” was never mentioned, so we were back on the arid terrain of a debate the terms of which were set by England’s austerians in 2010. The question, once more, was: who would cut the deficit quickest?
Miliband further deflated the mood – I think deliberately – by explicitly ruling out a “deal” or a “coalition” with the SNP.Given the right wing press’s scaremongering, Miliband’s denying that a deal will happen might have been necessary in order to make the conditions for such a deal possible. Any equivocation would surely have been seized upon by the right wing media, and relentlessly used to stoke up the fears of voters less likely to vote for Labour because of the prospect of a coalition. The audience members imploring Cameron and Miliband to be honest about possible deals were as ingenuous as those who hailed the programme as a triumph of participatory democracy. Neither leader could “be honest” about how the vote is likely to go on Thursday because that very speculation could change what actually happens. Such is the state of our current “democracy”: everything is distorted by media projections, by politicians’ (second) guesses as to how voters may behave in response to those projections, a whole phantom science of feedback.
Baudrillard: “Polls manipulate the undecidable. Do they affect votes? True of false? Do they yield exact photographs of reality, or of mere tendencies, or a refraction of this reality in a hyperspace of simulation whose curvature we do not know? True or false? Undecidable.”
For most of this campaign, Cameron has given every impression that he far rather be tucking into country supper than demeaning himself hustling on the hustings.
Defending the status quo is not as energising as tearing it down, and comfortable Cameron never had the class resentment-jouissance that drove grocer’s daughter Thatcher to battle trade unionists and old school Tory grandees alike. For him, it’s a career, not a mission. Cameron has never seemed like a man burning with conviction; he comes across more like the captain of some public school cricket team who whose main motivation for winning is to remind uppity comprehensive kids who’s boss. On Thursday, Cameron finally went into bat for his class like he meant it.
He needs to. This election is pivotal. Either the Tories can “finish the job” of looting and pillaging everything working class struggle built, or they themselves could be on the brink of destruction. The Conservative Party haven’t won an overall majority since 1992. It’s difficult enough keeping this party of opportunists, quislings and crazies together at the best of times; if they fail to win again, will even Boris be able to prevent meltdown? And with the Tories in disarray, the right could finally be forced off the centre ground that they won and radically re-defined under Thatcher.
Pumped up, calmed down
In front of the BBC cameras, Cameron’s performance wasn’t quite as slick as his upper lip, but he discovered a poise that he has seldom mustered in the past few weeks. The problem with Cameron getting pumped up last week is not only that it looked pathetically forced (his claim that he was “pumped up because I am” was a transparent deception as well as a tautology. He was “pumped up” because Tory backers demanded that he at least gave the appearance of caring). The more serious issue is that such displays of simulated passion undermine Cameron’s key appeal, which has to do with projecting casual authority: what David Smail, writing before Cameron came onto the scene, called “[t]he confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister.” Cameron’s accent, his posture, his smirk, convey a consistent message: relax, I’m in control, defer to me. When he strays from this “ease and familiarity”, he risks looking angry and/ or uncomfortable, and apparent affability gives way an affronted sense of class superiority, as in the “calm down, dear” incident.
Presenting the Tories as the nasty party has been counterproductive, the fake letter of support from small businesses devolved into yet another Thick of It farce, but Thursday’s flooding of the audience with Tory supporters posing as undecided voters worked. Cameron was back on home territory: the bizarre inverted world of English capitalist realism in which referring to a global banking crisis was desperate reaching for excuses, and austerity was the only possible course of action for any prudent government. (The best thing about New Labour was Alastair Campbell – a skilled operator and a technician, an expert on how to win ground on a hostile media terrain. It’s hard to imagine that, if he were still running things, that Labour would have been ambushed like they were on Thursday.)
A picture of discontented new wealth
Under the questioning of businesswoman Catherine Shuttleworth, Ed started to look like a supply teacher who had earnestly planned an interesting and informative lesson, only to find out that the kids just wanted to humiliate him, whatever he said. The Tory narrative of Labour profligacy was once again established as a self-evident truth that only a fool and/ or a brazen liar would contest. This narrative was all the more convincing when it was re-cycled/ re-cited by a “concerned businesswoman”, “struggling to survive in a tough climate”. The subsequent exposure of Shuttleworth as a probable Tory plant will not erase the impact of her TV encounter with Miliband, if only because complaining about the audience not only implicitly concedes defeat, it makes Labour look like sore losers.
For the moment, let’s believe Shuttleworth’s story that she isn’t a Tory. (Although note that even the DM whitewashing is carefully worded: Shuttleworth only denies that she’s ever been a member of the Tory party, not that she’s a lifelong Tory voter, which is of course impossible to prove or disprove.) The question then would be why she should be so ready to blame hard times not on the government which has been in power in the last five years, but on the government which was in power when she actually built and grew her business? Miliband’s pitch – Labour is all about supporting small business owners – is part of a strategy that could be fruitful in the long run, since it could break the alliance between small business and corporate capital which has been so central to the installation of capitalist realism. But Shuttleworth’s response to these overtures shows that breaking that alliance will be a long and hard struggle. She immediately started bleating on behalf of Tesco – as if Tesco didn’t enjoy its greatest success under New Labour, and as if its downfall wasn’t a direct consequence of the very corporate tyranny that Miliband was moving to attack?
While Miliband was correct not to capitulate to nonsense about Labour overspending, it was clear that Labour has left it far too late to challenge the dominant narrative. On the face of it, Labour’s acquiescence in the austerity myth has been inexplicable. Paul Krugman writes of:
the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.
Why this weakness? In part it may reflect the fact that the crisis occurred on Labour’s watch; American liberals should count themselves fortunate that Lehman Brothers didn’t fall a year later, with Democrats holding the White House. More broadly, the whole European centre-left seems stuck in a kind of reflexive cringe, unable to stand up for its own ideas.
You say “reflexive cringe”, I say “reflexive impotence” … Labour’s slowness to respond to the crisis was not merely some failure of judgement or strategy; it was a consequence of how deeply capitalist realism had saturated the party. There was no question of Labour using the crisis to impose its own programme, because, by 2008, it didn’t have much of programme beyond capitalist realism. Everything had been set up for a corporate appeasement, and there were neither the organisational nor the intellectual infrastructure to come up with anything new. Capitalist realism wasn’t something that Labour was waiting out and planning to overcome, one day; it was embedded as an effectively permanent baseline set of conditions – conditions which receded from visibility even as they imposed strict limits on what could be said and thought.
I’m in a trance, I don’t ask questions
Following Wendy Brown, I argued that capitalist realism can be understood as a kind of dreamwork. In this dreamwork, briefly interrupted in 2008, the banking crisis is some repressed trauma which is known about but never confronted, a Real that the dreamer stays asleep to keep avoiding. Capital is the dreamer here, and, insofar as capitalist realism is sustained, we remain figments in its dream. Yet capital is also our dream, which, Matrix-like, has constructed the virtual reality in which we think we live from our energy, our desires and our fantasies.
You would think that mention of the banking crisis would produce some cognitive dissonance when set against the narrative of Labour profligacy. If there was a global financial crisis, how could Labour also be responsible for the deficit? No doubt, part of the success of the “Labour did it” story is due to the hold of folk politics. A narrative about incompetent politicians maxing out the credit cards is easily digested; it’s far more difficult to assimilate the opaque and abstract mechanics of finance capital. But one of the most valuable insights in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown comes from his account of cognitive dissonance itself. Referring to the work of Leon Festinger, the social psychologist who worked extensively on cognitive dissonance, Mirowski reminds us that cognitive dissonance is not a threat to false beliefs. On the contrary, cognitive dissonance is a mechanism by which false beliefs can be maintained when confronted with evidence that directly disproves them. In fact, as Mirowski writes, Festinger’s crucial claim was “that confrontation with contrary evidence may actually augment and sharpen the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer”. Mirowski quotes Festinger:
Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart…suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.
This points to a relationship between desire and belief that has been posited at least since Hume and Spinoza’s critiques of religion: we believe in part because we want to believe. But we also want to believe because the belief has become core to our subjectivity.
If you get too burnt you can’t come back home
The great mystery of neoliberalism is to what extent its advocates “really” believed it. Was it ever anything more than a ruse to restore ruling class power and wealth? Of course, the answer to this partly depends on which advocates we are talking about. It’s possible that certain key proselytisers for neoliberalism never believed it, and only opportunistically fixed upon it as a way of destroying the “red bases” of working class power. With others, it’s more likely that a belief was aided by the desire to believe. This desire was motivated by economic interest, of course, but also by certain libidinal satisfactions: the pleasures of seeing the working class defeated, of seeing the poor and vulnerable stripped of social security. For a certain English petit-bourgeois sensibility, Thatcherism was the equivalent of a riot: a jubilee of destruction, a temporary autonomous zone for a reactionary desire that feeds off suffering and misery.
And as I was standing by the edge
I could see the faces of those led pissing theirselves laughing
(and the flames grew)
Their mad eyes buldged their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger
The funeral pyre will be re-lit if the Tories win on Thursday (bring some paper and bring some wood/
bring what’s left of all your love for the fire), and after five more years, there won’t be much left … The NHS will have been gutted, sold off by stealth; education will continue to be asset stripped, ripe for yet more corporate plundering …. the most vulnerable will be pushed further into destitution, women and children first …
This is why Cameron’s android smoothness, like Boris’s bluster, is so crucial for the Tories. It is a cloaking device, obfuscating the project, keeping the gibbering libido hidden behind a humanoid face and a calming, plummy voice. Imagine if Gove (who’s been pushed back into the attic for trying just too hard to be one of the posh boys – so vulgar, so nouveau) – imagine if Gove, with his defrocked pantomime dame pout, his lickspittle lips smacking with the class hatred that only a class traitor can feel, imagine if he were leader….
By contrast, Cameron’s strength is that it is hard to work up much class hatred for him. People that wealthy and privileged are like rare beasts: something you hear about but rarely encounter. In fact, I’ve seen more pandas in the flesh than old Etonians. You also get the sense that Cameron has no particular animus towards the poor – it’s rather that the experience of poverty is so remote for him that he simply cannot understand it, except as some theoretical possibility. The poor are pixellated background characters in the blearily cheerful steampunk simulation that Dave projects: everything’s fine so long as you don’t look too closely.
Dismantling capitalist realism
But let’s return to Mirowski’s summary of Festinger’s research:
Philosophy of science revels in the ways in which it may be rational to discount contrary evidence, but the social psychology of cognitive dissonance reveals just how elastic the concept of rationality can be in social life. Festinger and his colleagues illustrated these lessons in his first book (1956) by reporting in a neutral manner the vicissitudes of a group of Midwesterners they called “The Seekers,” who developed a belief that they would be rescued by flying saucers on a specific date in 1954, prior to a great flood coming to engulf Lake City (a pseudonym). Festinger documents in great detail the hour-by-hour reactions of the Seekers as the date of their rescue came and passed with no spaceships arriving and no flood welling up to swallow Lake City. At first, the Seekers withdrew from representatives of the press seeking to upbraid them for their failed prophecies, but rapidly reversed their stance, welcoming any and all opportunities to expound and elaborate upon their (revised and expanded) faith. A minority of their group did fall away, but Festinger notes they tended to be lukewarm peripheral members of the group. Predominantly, the Seekers never renounced their challenged doctrines. The ringleaders tended to redouble their proselytizing, so long as they were able to maintain interaction with a coterie of fellow covenanters.
Mirowski makes an analogy with proponents of neoliberal economic doctrine, who – far from abandoning this doctrine after its discrediting in the crisis – held to it even more doggedly. This is what Miliband faced on Thursday. Blank stares of mesmerised true believers seven years after the saucers didn’t arrive. Shuttleworth’s interjection like some Manchurian Candidate trigger, provoking automaton-applause …
This shows how difficult the task of dismantling capitalist realism will be. A whole process of deprogramming, involving new narratives, new libidinal attractors, as well as new ways of sharing knowledge, will have to be undergone. While this is certainly a formidable challenge, it is something that is already underway and which we can intensify quite quickly.
Of particular importance, it seems to me, is a popular demystification of economics and “the economy”. The austerity myth has only seemed credible because of a widespread economic illiteracy – an illiteracy I very much share. Economics functions now much as theology functioned in the medieval world – as an intricate and elaborate system of concepts, objects and reasoning that is closed to non-initiates. We need something like a Reformation in/ and against capitalist economics – the equivalent of the Bible being translated into English. I think this could be done, not by a series of large-scale conferences, televisions, or films – although of course these wouldn’t hurt – but virally. Small groups of people, including at least one individual who is an expert in economics, could get together and talk through some key concepts and principles, major economic events, etc. This could take place in private homes, in universities and colleges, in social clubs … In addition to everything else, this would also serve the function of reviving sociality, of re-building a class consciousness that has been dissipated by the individualising tendencies of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism.
Back to Thursday, here’s “entrepreneur” Chris. “A ban on zero hours contract would prevent me from running my small business …” Well, would it now? We’ve heard many versions of this plaint over the last few months, from businesses big and small. What this amounts to is saying that, these businesses cannot function without super-exploiting workers, and they cannot function without indirect government subsidies (with benefits supplementing low wages). Hold on a minute: didn’t the capitalist realists make their “hard decisions” to close down nationalised industries on the grounds that they weren’t viable and they were draining too much public money?
We need a new, communist, realism, which says that businesses are only viable if they can pay workers a living wage. This communist realism would reverse the capitalist realist demonisation of those on benefits, and target the real parasites: “entrepreneurs” whose enterprises depend on hyper-precarious labour; landlords living it large off housing benefit; bankers getting bonuses effectively or actually out of public money, etc.
But the concept of communist realism also suggests a particular kind of orientation. This isn’t an eventalism, which will wager all its hopes on a sudden and final transformation. It isn’t a utopianism, which concedes anything “realistic” to the enemy. It is about soberly and pragmatically assessing the resources that are available to us here and now, and thinking about how we can best use and increase those resources. It is about moving – perhaps slowly, but certainly purposively – from where we are now to somewhere very different.
Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.
“We’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.”
– Richey James, 1992
I knew the death of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t likely to usher in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Eighties, but it’s been good to see the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike pass this year and last with due commemoration, and with little attempt to present what happened as a good thing.*
A few months ago I went to a screening of Still The Enemy Within.** This documentary does a fine job of detailing the strike’s background and bringing the experience of the strike to life. Generally I avoid (resist?) revisiting the strike in quite such unflinching detail, because – and apologies if this sounds hyperbolic; it isn’t – I find doing so almost debilitating, as though nothing else matters outside of emphasising how permanently shattering its results have been for a huge part of this country. The depth of feeling can be such that you want to back away from the edge. At this stage, at this distance, all one can do is bear witness.
(Every time I try to write about the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the exercise turns out to be merely a scraping at the surface, an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the heart of the matter. It’s a gradual stripping away of layers, on my part, of bravado and defensiveness and fatalism. This post won’t be definitive either. I want to do the thing justice, to give it adequate weight, and I know I can’t, so this will have to do. For the purposes of this piece, in any case, the strike is less of a conclusion and more of a jumping-off point.)
In its uncompromising commitment to telling a bleak and unrelenting story, Still The Enemy Within is a necessary supplement to something like Pride. The strike deserves to be remembered in the latter’s upbeat and uplifting terms of solidarity, sure, but equally what deserves remembering is that there were no happy endings, nothing of what we learned in the Nineties to call emotional closure. (Hoho, the only things that got closure in the Nineties were more of the pits.) There are wider questions here about what counts as history, and whether history must be necessarily cool-headed and objective, not relieved by colour or comedy or complicated by messy, judgement-clouding emotion. But the tangle of story and history surrounding the strike suggests that the event and what it stood for are not “just” history yet. Like Hillsborough in 1989, Brixton in 1985, Toxteth in 1981, the Miners’ Strike is a flashpoint that unforgivingly illuminates its era. That Eighties hot war of government against people still hasn’t cooled.
You may imagine how exceptionally bored I was as a post-industrial Nineties teenager. (I mean, I couldn’t even join a brass band.) Growing up, before I ever knew I wanted to be a historian, I wanted to understand history – both its grand outlines and its bathetic, personal confines in which I knew my community to be stuck. How did we get here, and why? Growing up I felt stymied and stifled by history, and had the consequent compulsion to dig beneath the surface for the story. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish?
Growing up, I was always conscious of how heavily the past weighed on the present. There was no reason, apart from coal, for my part of the country to exist, or certainly for it to be populated. The history of mining towns in my part of the country, as in others, has been a history of striving to create community, culture, entertainment, knowledge, leisure and dignity in the face of tedious and often dangerous and degrading toil. But without the coal, the community had no purpose and no point. And nothing really replaced it after the Eighties – despite “regeneration”, despite the Objective One funding poured upon us like curiously insubstantial manna. This, plus the aftermath of industrial trauma: the spread of petty crime, addiction, depression, despair, broken marriages, lost hope. Coming of age in the Nineties, in a place that no longer fully functioned – or which functioned but to no apparent end – felt like being born into a peculiar variant of original sin. Somehow, within government and media, this state of affairs was held to be our own fault, too: something we’d brought upon ourselves by having the temerity to unionise, to organise and aspire, by wanting better for the collective and not just the individual. By doing so, we had apparently provoked this cataclysmic response from above, as though by our subversive hubris in desiring higher wages, job security, and state provision, we had angered the nervous gods of monetarism and markets.
What was brought down on us in 1984 – the lightning smiting of industrial Britain – has been passed on in oral history, enshrined in memory, family and community. But it was officially, ‘respectably’ documented and analysed too. In 1994 I read Seumas Milne’s account of the state’s covert war against the miners, published at the tail-end of the Conservatives’ second great round of pit closures. There had been no resumption of civil war in response to that second offensive, however vindictive it felt. In 1992 there had been a rapidly mobilised protest march in the pouring rain which looked in retrospect, despite its mass and militancy, like a funeral procession before the corpse was cold. By 1994 a book like Milne’s could come across like an implausible, conspiracist pulp thriller, if you didn’t care to examine the history behind the story.
As a teenager I became preoccupied with finding and reading all possible material – books, newspapers, conference speeches, biographies, cartoons, Spitting Image sketches – produced about the Miners’ Strike. The books pictured above are a few of the several shelves’ worth I amassed – second-hand volumes of first-hand reportage, biography, reflection, investigative journalism, and not excluding Tory triumphalism – in an attempt to understand what had happened, how, and why. (I didn’t want simply to ask those who had lived through it a decade ago for more than they’d already chosen to let me know. It didn’t feel exactly taboo, but, in that manner of children who want to avoid upsetting their parents, I didn’t care to bring it up. The post-traumatic quality of the strike’s aftermath was obvious even to a self-absorbed adolescent. I avoided the subject out of courtesy, out of the desire to let old wounds continue to – not heal, of course, but, ah, scab over. How can you talk to people who, quite understandably, Didn’t Want To Talk About It? The strike was buried close to the surface and best not exhumed.)
Well-meaning liberal retrospectives – which Pride decisively, if narrowly, avoids being – can fetishise and exoticise when they lionise. Some stories tend to treat the Eighties as unique – the decade’s divisive brutality as something sealed off from these softer days and never to be repeated – rather than as part of a conflict both longstanding and ongoing. Nonetheless, there was something qualitatively different about the story of 1984-5. Mining communities in Britain had long been considered ‘a breed apart’, with all the ambiguity that signifies. Through strikes – the weaponised withdrawal of labour – British miners made an enemy of countless British statesmen. Churchill, sending troops into the Rhondda in 1910, wanted its people on their knees and starving; Heath in 1974 challenged the country to decide who was running it. Mining communities held an iconic position in the myth and reality of British labour, and Thatcher was nothing if not an iconoclast. For all the history of violent confrontation between state and organised workers, this time was different. Men interviewed for Still The Enemy Within on their experience of the strike still seem shell-shocked when they recall their disbelief, recall not knowing what had hit them.
And yet to talk about the strike as conspiracy, as plot, frequently gets you accused of outdated class warriorship and victim complex, of the politics of envy, bitterness and paranoia, of living in the past. (To which I say: guilty as charged. It’s hardly an irrational response.) What’s been good about most thirty-years-on retrospectives on the strike is the relief, when reading, that it wasn’t just you, that this stuff has been and is being documented, argued, quantified, recorded. You aren’t simply railing into the wind. First off, a confrontation of this kind was a foregone conclusion, planned at least as far back as 1977. The involvement on the government’s side of increasingly swivel-eyed anticommunist agitators suggests that the strike was invested with symbolic and strategic significance stretching far beyond the British coalfield. Yet at the time events were marked by mealy-mouthed denial and obfuscation. With few exceptions, the national media throughout 1984 cheer-led with wholesale misinformation and with a state-sanctioned demonization of the British working class.
The extent of mendacity involved in media coverage of the strike was matched by the strike’s equally remarkable policing. In June 1984, a mass picket of the Orgreave coking plant saw, for the first time in Britain, the deployment of police units carrying not the normal full-length shield used to guard against missiles, but short shields that could be used aggressively in conjunction with batons, and which were used in police assaults of individuals after charges of the crowd by mounted police. These tactics, developed for use in riots by colonial police forces in Hong Kong, were still in evidence in policing of the Poll Tax Riots at the decade’s end. Press coverage of clashes between pickets and police was of course almost uniformly hostile to the former – which you’d expect from something like the Sun. But the BBC, no less, when reporting the pitched battle at Orgreave, ran reversed footage which transposed the sequence of events, making police charges appear a defensive response to provocation by stone-throwing pickets rather than an act of aggression. Only in 1991 was an apology issued for this, with the BBC claiming that its footage had been ‘inadvertently reversed’.
On the ground, meanwhile, mining communities resembled disputed territory under foreign occupation. 1984 was a year of government-sanctioned violence by police against a large section of the mainland populace. The use of truncheons, riot gear, police horses and dogs against strikers became commonplace. Travel restrictions were placed on roads, phone lines were tapped, homes raided and residents intimidated and assaulted. And still the strike’s high stakes were denied and its details obscured – even now, these stories are received with some surprise. (And I mean, what can you really say about something so out-there as the Sun’s attempted ‘Mine Fuhrer’ front page, or families being made dependent on soup-kitchens and food parcels, or the BBC running news footage in reverse? I understand it sounds more like some kind of old-wives’ tale or populist propaganda. But history it is.)
From the perspective of a present day that calls itself post-ideological (when what’s meant is post-socialist), the strike was notable for being an example of ideology-driven politics. All the pleas at the time that ‘the pits were the people’, that their closure would have an almost unimaginably devastating impact, were often presented with heartbreaking earnestness – as though, if only the right people could be made to hear this case, to see it from this sympathetic and rational and empirical angle, then reason and compassion would prevail. But this was too generous an approach. It wasn’t like Thatcher or her ministers or her corporate cheerleaders didn’t know the likely impact of pursuing this course. It was a conscious sacrifice, like rising unemployment, considered a price worth paying. It’s hardly ever stressed that, for Thatcherites, ‘conservative’ was mostly a misnomer; there was very little they cared about conserving. British organised labour, and the people who composed it, were to be taken on, eradicated, ploughed up and the earth salted, with dogmatic and ruthless revolutionary zeal. (And despite all this, however Pyrrhic a victory it may be, we have survived, and are still standing.) In the end, Thatcher simply made a better extremist than Scargill did.
In the years since the strike – and particularly post-Savile – an awful lot of allegations that had previously swirled on the further shores of the internet have turned out to be grounded in fact. But still we seem to have a mental block on seeing the Miners’ Strike as one in which a government deliberately deployed the police, the secret state and the press against a singled-out section of this country. It feels like there’s something not quite cricket about anyone who’d sanction such a thing, even though we know such strategies and tactics have historically been sanctioned by ruling elites across the world, and are still. But if we do acknowledge these things, then what kind of country, and what kind of world, do we acknowledge this one is? How do we reconcile ourselves to it?
Thirty years on, I don’t know what course my life might have taken, what I might have become, without the strike’s disruption of the usual way of things, without its destruction of what I was born into, without its closing off of certain paths. My life has taken the course it has – bitterness, resentment and resolve, the escape route of higher education and economic migration – for lack of other options. This doesn’t change the fact that many equally deserving individuals right now, from where I’m from, don’t even have the options I had. Sometimes I think, perversely, ludicrously, that the strike is something I should be grateful for.
What did the miners’ strike do for me? As has been usefully reinforced in recent retrospectives, the strike involved the empowering of women, the assertion of solidarity across lines of gender, race and sexuality. This meant that solidarity – or, to give it its modern gloss, ‘intersectionality’ – was something I had ingrained as common sense while I was growing up, not something later externally imposed by rote or quota. In addition, it made me aware of how fundamental class is to how one experiences and understands the world around them. The kind of class warfare the strike exemplified was experienced collectively, communally, not as some kind of personal slight. The strike and its aftermath isn’t my story – it’s the story of everyone who knows what I’m talking about. The strike’s impact on me was its impact on others: I grew up as part of a class who had come to expect the worst, who had very few political illusions, and on all of whom something destructive and debilitating was enacted. The Miners’ Strike left me with no faith in the police, no trust in the media, and no illusions about the nature of class relations. Turns out these are all useful transferable life skills.
Growing up, it baffled me that anyone could see the British police as a benevolent force. Visions of unfamiliar men in uniform ranged at the end of the high street or stalking with ill-intentioned confidence through back-gardens at the behest of an unassailable higher authority provide something of a formative experience. Just like, growing up knowing about the press’s muddied reporting, it baffled me that anyone could assume that mainstream media in Britain is or was truthful, accurate and unbiased. When you’re designated an enemy within, you become sceptical that anything – law, authority, justice – works the way you’re told it does. It baffled me, after the Eighties, how anyone could be in any doubt that class war is a reality and always, always fought effectively from the top.
Apologies if this plaint appears to boil down to: I Was Antagonistic Towards The British State Before It Was Cool. It’s merely personal background, brought up to explain why I sometimes get impatient with the excitable commentary of those who took until university or later to realise that the police could be an oppressive and not a protective force. It’s not that such commentary is unwelcome or unhelpful, it’s just galling to be told what one already knows and then expected to applaud the revelation. (You know, like Polly Toynbee discovering that low-paid work and poverty is pretty shit. Yeah, I was shocked, I tell you.) Does it matter, that disparity of experience? Well, only in so far as current media and politics are shaped increasingly by a common class experience – public school, Oxbridge, internship – while the perspectives of others, and the experiences that shaped them, rarely get a look in as direct articulation, only as mediated through a framework of sensationalism or stereotype. (Not that the post-Eighties middle classes can help their sheltered upbringing, of course. We can’t all be given such a vivid crash course in this kind of thing. Maybe I should check my post-industrial privilege, eh. Sorry, there’s that bitterness and resentment again.)
I’ll précis my upbringing under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown: I, like others like me, was encouraged to aspire by my family, my teachers and my peers, but that only produced a sense of frustration when looking at the world beyond. From the Nineties onwards our communities had no visibility, no political validity, and we were static, stuck, abandoned, left to rot. I grew up with the attitude that I was never going to get anywhere. What did curiosity or drive matter when they were so solidly outweighed by class, when the world in which you were told you could succeed was so obviously unsentimental, unlikely to lend breathing-room to anyone of your class, and already the triumphalist stamping-ground of those who had already made an enemy of you? The neoliberal dogma-dream of individual aspiration was there throughout the Nineties, presented as something that you were a failure if you didn’t buy into and succeed at, but the socio-economic chasm between where I stood and what it offered seemed unbridgeable, and made it all a harder sell and less of an illusion. That particular sense of fatalism, of militant pessimism, is hard to convey if you didn’t grow up with it. Particularly if you grew up entitled and comfortable and innocently shocked by how harsh the world could be, if you remain surprised by the idea of a government making its governed into enemies within.
Stories, of course, are usually wrapped up and not left messily, unsatisfactorily open-ended. That’s partly why the story of the Miners’ Strike is hard to tell as fiction – although it has been tried, necessarily long after the fact. That’s partly why the festivities that greeted Thatcher’s death two years ago were not so much celebration as catharsis: it felt as though some dust could finally settle. Pride, unavoidably, side-steps the inevitable unhappy ending in favour of its larger narrative. Still The Enemy Within, to its credit, lets the narrative bleed into the present, showing its results in the triumph of monetarism, privatisation, defanged unions and the Blairite hollowing-out of the Labour Party. It’s too easy, these days, to fence the Eighties off as a barely-real time of cartoonish heroes and villains, when so much of the present crisis has its roots in battles won or lost in that decade. In just the past few years there’s been an avalanche of uncovered media, police and political corruption, as though no one even feels the need to hide their contempt for those below them. But then why should they, when the Eighties showed them they could get away with anything they wanted?
Ultimately, despite the history, it turns out the miners weren’t all that special. As the Eighties battlefield continued to take shape, it turns out we in 1984 were just our enemy’s most immediate – and most powerful – obstacle. To a mind informed by that enmity, by that fight and its aftermath, it seemed obvious that if the government, police and press could lie about us for a full-on year and afterwards, with so little compunction, and occasionally with such unfettered glee – then they could lie about anyone and anything. And, of course, they do. It’s not as if the intertwining of police corruption and brutality and media misinformation against ‘enemies within’ has improved in the past thirty years. In the run-up to this country’s next dispiriting, disempowered casting of votes, whole sections of society are still demonised, not least those accused of bringing poverty on themselves through ‘low aspiration’, ‘idleness’, ‘fecklessness’ in areas that never recovered from the Eighties. But also, with the uppity and insurgent working class no longer the most convenient scapegoat, we’re seeing a dehumanising focus on other sectors of society – on immigrants, on the unemployed, on claimants of disability benefit. (And let’s not forget the overlap these groups have with veterans of 1984.) When seeking where responsibility for the country’s misfortune might lie, we are, as ever, encouraged to look anywhere but upwards. The battle may be over but the war is still on.
* (I say ‘no attempt’, admittedly I haven’t checked for any such tediously contrarian contortions at, say, the Daily Telegraph or Spiked Online or similar.)
** For upcoming screenings of Still The Enemy Within, click here.
Rhian E. Jones blogs at Velvet Coalmine, and writes on pop culture and politics for various outlets. She is the author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class + Gender (Zer0, 2013) and is currently working on a book about the Manic Street Preachers with Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke (Repeater, forthcoming).
New post on the elections, capitalist realism and left populism, by Mark Fisher, (cross-posted from his blog, k-punk )
LIMBO IS OVER
Tony Blair’s brief appearance in this election campaign, offering tepid support for a tepid Ed Miliband, ought to have been irrelevant. In many ways it was: who needs yesterday’s man, the hawker of an outmoded “modernisation”? Except, like so much of today’s culture, Blairism is obsolete but it has not yet been surpassed.
In Blair’s Castle Grey Skull, it is always 1997. Blair is like some inverted Miss Havisham, frozen not at the moment of his defeat and failure, but just before his moment of greatest success. Be cautious, don’t do anything to jeapordise the project. Blairism was this particular form of false promise, this deferral – if we are careful now, tomorrow we can do more … But tomorrow never arrives, the aim is always to be in government, the price is always the lack of any real power to change the inherited parameters of the possible. This is the formula: government without power, an increasingly unpopular populism.
The illusion of Blairism is that it was an overcoming of the defeats of the 1980s rather than their final consequence. It was a post-traumatic normalisation of catastrophe, not any sort of new dawn. Its legacy is organisational as much as ideological: a Labour Party that napalmed its grass roots (contempt for, and fear of the working class being a signature element of Blair’s rendition of populism) and which now beams down policy and PR from some rarefied Thick Of It Oxford PPE helicarrier circling miles above earth. The project remains getting into government, but without Blair’s showman-messiah charisma to cover over the vacuum beneath this aspiration. Miliband’s awkwardness stems as much from this lack of any vision as from any personal quirks. There is nothing animating the transparently choreographed moves: tack to the right on immigration, a little to the left on taxation etc. The ambition – to be the slightly lesser evil – is painfully clear to all, and can inspire no-one.
All of this is exactly what we expected… But the entry of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens into the TV debates changed the atmosphere. Suddenly, the picture the reality managers have fed us for the last few years – the three ‘big’ parties each offering a slightly different version of capitalist realism, with Farage and UKIP offering capitalist realism with even more ultra-nationalism – was interrupted, and it was possible to imagine that Britain was “headed, in its nuanced way, leftward”. In their different ways, Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett have widened the bandwidth of a media-political scene previously monopolised by the Oxbridge boys’ club. In terms of policy, there isn’t much on offer beyond a reset to social democracy (Plan B as opposed to Austerity’s Plan A), but capitalist realism is so deeply embedded that it was hard not to feel a frission when, for instance, Wood defended trade unions and the welfare state. Cameron’s refusal to appear in the BBC debate – and his banning of Clegg from doing so – was meant as a display of magisterial confidence, the only credible Prime Ministerrising above the irrelevant squabbling of lowly pretenders – but it ended up further reinforcing the sense of ennui that has attended his performances this campaign. Cameron’s appeal has always depended on his ruling class ease-in-the-world, but, in his case especially, insouciance always risks shading into an appearance of diffidence and hauteur. As for the Lib Dems – as Craig Mcvegas observed, their absence was barely even acknowledged in the last debate.
Which brings us to the photograph above, analysed so well by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. But, in addition to everything that Jones picks out, one of the most striking elements in the photograph is the empty centre. A clustering to the left, sulking Farage to the right, Cameron and Clegg – the current ‘centre’ ground – absent. Here is one picture of a post-neoliberal UK: a soft left regaining its confidence on the one hand, a glowering far right on the other, nothing where the capitalist realist ‘middle’ used to be. (Whether Farage will be the figure around which this right will coalesce is now open to serious doubt – with it looking as if he is unlikely to win South Thanet, it might be that his moment as the people’s stockbloker is already over. The ominous question is: if Farage falls, which right wing demagogue will emerge to take his place?)
The SNP-Labour coalition is far more than we could have hoped a few weeks ago, but it is far from enough. How have we settled for so little? asked an incendiary Russell Brand at the screening of his and Michael Winterbottom’s The Emperor’s New Clothes in Hackney this week. For those hipster priests who wish to keep activism a marginal pursuit, Brand’s fame and wealth automatically exclude him from being taken seriously. Yet fame, charisma and money are resources, and the left badly needs to be associated with glamour instead of moralising asceticism. Watching the film in a cinema alongside so many of those who feature in it – campaigners from the New Era estate, striking careworkers, fire-fighters – was moving, humbling, electrifying. The Free Association have been doing some interesting work on why comedy has replaced music as a political force. Now, much more than any contemporary musician, it is Brand who embodies the psychedelic-Promethean principle that any given reality is provisional, plastic, subject to transformation by collective action. I love crowds … Brand functions as a figure of identification who intensifies and links together already existing struggles, and incites us to breach the invisible thresholds that lock us into atomised impotence. We can do what we want… Having passed through what on Tuesday he memorably called the “fame paddock” of contemporary celebrity, Brand is now in a practically unique position. Instead of remaining in the condition of hedonic melancholia typical of those with unlimited access to late capitalism’s pleasure gardens, he’s come out the other side, laughing his trickster laugh, with more resources and an invaluable insider-knowledge of how the media machine constructs what counts as reality. His gleeful performance of de-subordination reminds us of the countercultural lesson: if you gain money and success, there’s only one thing to do with the hand that feeds you, and that’s bite it.
In many ways, The Emperor’s New Clothes tells us what we already know, but this is the point. How can we accept what we know, when what we know is so monstrous, so obscene, so insane? In the Q and A, Brand was asked why people care more about the X Factor than political struggles. But he argued that, rather than decrying the X Factor, its techniques – in particular those which incite emotion – need to be repurposed. “Capitalism has given us the organisms and the machines we can use to produce the revolution”. #accelerate! So the film is an exercise in affective engineering which patiently yet relentlessly dismantles capitalist realist commonsense. One of its most powerful techniques is the use of simple but devastating contrasts: cleaners at RBS earning hundreds of times less than the bosses(same physical space, different worlds); rioters jailed for stealing small items next to bankers who caused social catastrophe not only going unpunished but receiving bonuses. Mark Kermode’s accusation that the film is “simplistic” misses the point. When faced with a media machine that pushes an outrageously simplistic story of its own – it was Labour wot done it – while recounting neoliberal catechisms like Medieval Catholic priests reciting the Mass in Latin, we need an equally simple counter-narrative.
It’s hard not to have some sympathy with Brand’s disdain for voting, which is part of a widespread disillusion with the massively circumscribed conditions of electoral politics under capitalist realism, in which the best that can be hoped for is the least worst. But the problem is that popular disengagement from parliamentary politics suits the right more than us. The right doesn’t need the enthusiasm that Thatcher could call upon from certain portions of the population; it doesn’t need legitimacy. Popular disengagement, ambient despair, the sense that nothing is at stake in elections, is in the interests of capital, now that all the defaults have been set to neoliberal options. Of course, there was no golden age of parliamentary democracy any more than there was a golden age of the Labour Party; there was no point at which progressive achievements were entirely free of compromise and corruption. But the progressive function of parliamentary politics has been to put some limits on tyranny. Capitalist realism has meant the tacit but definite acceptance that corporate tyranny cannot be curbed, resulting in the democratic deficit that Aditya Chakrabortty described so vividly the other day:
democratic leaders have parted ways with their voters – literally. Membership of the main parties has dropped sharply over the past three decades, so that there are now more vegans in Britain than members of the Conservative party. What’s replaced mass democracy is big donors and a professional political elite. It no longer pays for politicians to think hard about fair growth or build more houses, because to do so would antagonise the big corporates or the big media, or deter those middle-class and retired voters who actually do turn out to the polling stations.
The phobic panic that the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition is provoking indicates that capital fears any reversal, no matter how modest, of this situation. It has grown used to having everything its own way – but this has led to a certain decadence, an exhaustion of thinking and of strategy. It is surely this exhaustion, as much as any desperation, which accounts for the ludicrous, beyond-satire poking about in Ed Miliband’s anodyne love life, or the scarcely believable attempts to discredit Nicola Sturgeon.
Sturgeon poses a threat, not merely because of her lawyerly poise in debate, not merely because she has articulated an anti-austerity position, nor even because she makes Scottish independence more likely, but more because she has a mobilised base of support behind her. In Scotland, as in Greece and Spain, new models of political organisation, new “logics of proliferation” are emerging and being experimented with. Rather than compulsively repeating the same strategies, rather than dogmatically insisting on the inherent futility of elections, these developments are part of a process of collective learning about how popular movements can be (re)connected with parliamentary politics. The potential power of such strategies is clear. The electoral impasse is not down to some semiotic failure (if only we had the right PR initiative to engage the kids!), but reflects the actual composition of forces in society. Capitalist realism is class war fought by one side only, an organised corporate elite which is very clear about what its own class interests are and what must be done to keep things aligned with those interests. Only a mobilised population can give political parties the power to challenge corporate tyranny. As Keir Milburn says in an important piece, and, as the situation in Greece is showing, you can’t vote out neoliberalism. But as Keir also argues, “[e]ven at their point of failure Plan B electoral politics can be useful if they can clarify the anti-democratic effects of neoliberalism that work against all forms of collective action.”
In the UK, this could be the most important election since 1979. Even the most sentimental pipedreamer couldn’t imagine the Labour Party will be returning to Plan B socialism in the immediate future, still less offering something more modern and radical. Yet it’s perfectly plausible that a Labour-SNP coalition could now achieve what Jeremy Gilbert and I argue that New Labour could have been expected to attempt: “make some efforts to change the strategic situation in the long-term: to rebuild the unions, to re-energise local government, to facilitate the growth of an alternative media sector”. For even this to happen, it will be necessary for those in the party who really want to break with capitalist realism – and, believe it or not, there are such people – to seize the initiative. What is the alternative for Labour? Even the lacklustre and affectless brand of politics that the party have served up under Miliband so far won’t be sustainable for much longer. Entropy might be the best fate a Labour Party which can’t grasp the new mood can hope for; the more likely scenario is a PASOK-like disintegration. In any case, there’s no way back to the pre-2008 world, no way back to capitalist realism with a joker-hysterical face. The party needs really to register that Blairites – and the residual Blairite atmosphere in a demoralised and disconnected Labour party – are as out of date now as Blair argued “Old Labour” was in 1997. Now, more than ever, there are no guarantees. The road to renewal has never seemed harder, or longer. Yet, as Margarita Tsomou said in an important intervention at the Monopol aug Morgen event in Vienna last week, limbo is now over. Are we plunging deeper into nihiliberal dystopia – the ultra-rich retreating into compounds, a vast “surplus population” abandoned to fight amongst itself, and subdued by a militarisedHunger Games-style police force? Or is a new popular leftism about to begin the escape from capitalist realism?
Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.
As a big fan of both Bowie and Chris O’Leary, it was as hard to select an extract from Rebel Rebel as it is to choose a favourite Bowie song; each song is covered in a self-contained entry, and they’re all fascinating.
In the end I chose a series of 3 posts which make chronological/conceptual sense, and shed entertaining light on Bowie’s complicated relationship with late ‘60s hippy culture. Also contains The Prettiest Star, which is far from his best track but which, for sentimental reasons, remains one of my all-time favourites.
Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) is out on March 27th, there’s a list of stockists here.
Recorded: (demo, “Lover to the Dawn,” unreleased) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road. Bowie: 12-string acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Hutchinson: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal; Christmas: 12-string acoustic guitar; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Wakeman: electric harpsichord; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft.
First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.
“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.
Extract from Phil Knight’s brilliant new book, Strangled: Identity, Status, Structure and The Stranglers, out now, investigating “the greatest punk band”, their overlooked mysticism, and their erasure from punk’s history.
Picture for a moment a world in which the most significant practitioners of every particular musical style were written out of the history of that movement. For example, imagine The Beatles being excluded from the story of the Sixties beat boom; or Charlie Parker being mysteriously passed over in retrospectives of bebop; or King Tubby being omitted from narratives on the evolution of dub reggae. Such acts of neglect might seem unthinkable, and yet there is one genre whose self-appointed custodians do ensure the marginalisation of its greatest exponents, and that genre is punk.
For The Stranglers were the greatest punk band, not just in terms of commercial success, but also artistically. Though their peers often affected to shun them, it is remarkable how the group’s bass-heavy sound and gnostic, alienated worldview percolated throughout the genre, until, a couple of years after the initial punk explosion, almost every other band had come to sound like them. The Stranglers were the eye of the hurricane, the black hole at the centre of the punk universe, a present absence without whom much of the history of punk seems inexplicable, yet is chronicled anyway.
So just why are The Stranglers marginalised in this way? The usual reasons given are the band’s predilection for violence and misogyny, their hostile attitude to writers and journalists, their age and prior existence to punk’s Year Zero, and their disinterest in attaining success in the USA. There is truth in all of these assertions, yet they only go so far. Go beyond the sexism’n’violence that marks out their early reputation and one finds that The Stranglers’ music explores a multitude of often bizarre and seemingly unrelated subjects, such as UFOs, Japanese ritual suicide, the Cold War, European integration, genetic engineering, religion, conspiracy theories, the Vikings, the automisation of production, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. What immediately becomes clear is that The Stranglers are a very difficult band to write about because they are very difficult to understand.
Some of the subject matter and issues uncovered by this investigation may prove unpalatable to some readers, especially those of a rationalist bent and/or a high social status (the two are of course related), and this will give an early clue as to why so many of our cultural guardians would like to pretend that The Stranglers had never existed.
On June 2 1973, the crypto-zoologist Frederick “Ted” Holiday partook in a strange ritual on the waters of Loch Ness. Holiday had long been interested in the folklore surrounding the monster that was alleged to reside in the depths of the Loch, and which had been increasingly sighted by both locals and tourists in the recent decades. His initial theory was that this “monster”, far from being the reptilian creature of popular imagination, was an overgrown form of tullimonstrum gregarium, a species of prehis- toric slug, but he had, during the late 1960s, become increasingly perplexed by the animal’s apparent camera-shyness.
As outlined in books such as The Dragon And The Disc, he slowly became convinced that the Loch Ness Monster, along with other denizens of what he called “the phantom menagerie” such as the Yeti, the mystery big cats of the English home counties, and extra-terrestrials, were not real creatures, but what he “thoughtforms” – manifestations of the human collective unconscious that have a tendency to form when certain highly charged locations are visited by particularly sensitive individuals. Holiday, who claimed to have seen the monster on several occasions, regarded these manifestations as being irretrievably evil, the product of the more grotesque aspect of whatever unknown power organises the universe.
Holiday enlisted a Presbyterian priest by the name of Donald Omand to accompany him out onto the water to exorcise the loch. Although the exorcism passed off without apparent incident, within a few days Holiday and his accomplices were to encounter a bewildering array of bizarre phenomena, including mysterious flashing lights and sudden tornados that would shake the walls of their homes before abating in seconds. Holiday himself would come across one of the notorious “men in black” while attempting to investigate an alleged UFO landing site nearby. It was to be a fateful meeting – he would suffer a heart attack at exactly the same spot a year later.
Holiday was to die of a second heart attack in 1979, still firmly convinced that he had been the victim of the malign synchronicity of what he had termed, in his last book, The Goblin Universe. But what was the true nature of this strange, paranormal power that he thought he had identified? And who were going to be its next victims?
The events surrounding the recording of The Stranglers’ fifth album, the conceptual The Gospel According To The Men In Black form one of the most extraordinary sagas in the history of popular music, and yet it is one that is little-known and rarely examined. It is a story that involves paradox, paranoia and the paranormal, and how these combined to derail the career of a band who, at the time, were considered to have the potential to be the most successful of their era. It is also a story of addiction, imprisonment, chronic misfortune, bizarre coincidences, and death. In order to gain some semblance of understanding of what happened, we will need to travel along some of the most neglected byways of Western thought and meet the most grotesque character in global folklore – The Trickster. Our primary guide will be the American author and parapsychologist George Hansen, who has done much to highlight how this unsavoury character, long thought to have disappeared as a primitive superstition, still operates in the margins of modern consciousness.
The Trickster archetype, whose very milieu is the marginal, the liminal, the disordered and the taboo, reveals much about the nature of The Stranglers, and particularly their singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell. Unlike peers such as Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, John Lydon and Elvis Costello, Cornwell is something of a neglected figure nowadays, rarely spoken of in the same hagiographic terms. This is strange, as The Stranglers’ frontman was once considered one of the most dangerous individuals in popular culture, being the only notable member of the punk scene that the British authorities considered worthy of imprisoning.
A similar taboo seems to surround The Stranglers themselves, who have been assiduously written out of the history of the punk and new wave movements. Thick historical volumes of the era barely reference them, except in the most curtly dismissive way. In 2013, a four-hour BBC television documentary on British punk didn’t even once mention them by name. This extreme marginalisation is usually explained “rationally” by the band’s misogyny, violence, and tendency to make influential enemies, but, in an exhausted contemporary culture that compulsively seeks to reassess and rehabilitate even the most derided music of the past, it seems reasonable to suspect something deeper amiss.
Indeed, there is something unclean about The Stranglers. Even now, to think about them conjures a certain ominous dread. Whereas the Sex Pistols and The Clash can be assimilated into healthy retrospectives of British pop, in which punk represents a mere burst of cultural vibrancy, there is something about The Stranglers that leaves the guardians of British popular culture feeling queasy. This pervasive aura of dread offers a clue both as to why they are so difficult to assimilate into accepted cultural narratives, and why they themselves became lured by the destructive chimera of the UFO phenomenon.