Down With Childhood: Pop Music and the Crisis of Innocence is out today! Check out this excellent mix by author Paul Rekret showcasing the multitude of ways in which children’s voices are used in music. And for more of this kind of thing, come along to Cafe Oto in London on 7th October for a launch party with talks, DJ sets and specially commissioned live performances. More details/tickets here.
For more info/links to buy the book, go here.
We were delighted to discover this wonderful review of John Medhurst’s No Less Than Mystic in the newsletter of Warren Ellis (graphic novelist, writer, author of Normal, Gun Machine, Transmetropolitan, Red and much more). He’s kindly given us permission to reprint the section here. You can sign up to his newsletter, Orbital Operations, here. No Less Than Mystic is out now.
I have many fine-looking books by many excellent authors waiting to be read, and I’m desperate to read them, but I have a confession. When NO LESS THAN MYSTIC by John Medhurst arrived, I dropped everything to start it. And it hasn’t let go.
It’s a history of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.
I feel like I need to yell HEAR ME OUT.
The brilliance of Medhurst’s political histories — and some of you will remember me praising his previous THAT OPTION NO LONGER EXISTS — is his sharp eye for the pivot points and the alternative routes history could have taken. Or, put another way – alternate histories are buried in his actual histories. He will lead you to fly off into fascinating could-have-beens, big ones that start with small corrected missteps or slightly different arrangements of personalities. There are wonders compressed in his books.
The additional pleasure of NO LESS THAN MYSTIC is that he looks back from a 21st Century perspective, with no interest in being chained to the previous moment. From the blurb, in fact, he:
continually examines the Leninist experiment through the lens of a 21st century, de-centralised, ecological, anti-productivist and feminist socialism. Throughout its narrative it interweaves and draws parallels with contemporary anti-capitalist struggles such as those of the Zapatistas, the Kurds, the Argentinean “Recovered Factories”, Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Indignados and Intersectional feminists, attempting to open up the past to the present and points in between.
This fills out the book in remarkable ways, and, frankly, allows Medhurst to put the boot into Lenin from a number of different angles.
(It could be usefully read in tandem with Catherine Merridale’s LENIN ON THE TRAIN, which was not nearly as soft and romantic a book as some idiot reviewers would have you believe.)
This is a big, energetic, ambitious book that deserves every success. A hell of a performance.
(Nice to see Repeater Books building out its list so skilfully, too.)
Warren Ellis is the award-winning writer of graphic novels like TRANSMETROPOLITAN, FELL, MINISTRY OF SPACE and PLANETARY, and the author of the NYT-bestselling GUN MACHINE and the “underground classic” novel CROOKED LITTLE VEIN. The movie RED is based on his graphic novel of the same name.
A new novella, NORMAL is released November 29 2016.
If Confederate statues are coming down across the US, should statues of figures like Lenin come down too, as demanded by a small group of Trump supporters this week in Seattle, dubbed the “worlds saddest right-wing protest”? No, says John Medhurst….
John Medhurst is the author of That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76. He has written for Novara Media, the Morning Star, Red Pepper, Green Left and the Journal of Contemporary European Research. He is married with two daughters and lives in Brighton, England.
This is an edited version of a talk given by Carl Neville (author of Resolution Way) at a day of lectures in tribute to Mark Fisher last Saturday, 8th July, at Spike in Berlin. You can see the full list of speakers and lectures here.
( I was asked to give a talk about some aspects of Mark Fisher’s work, so this is what I said.)
About a year or so ago I was briefly in contact with Mark about his book Acid Communism, which I’d heard rumours about, didn’t quite believe really existed and finally succumbed to the temptation to ask him about it. Anyway he sent me the introduction, which may have altered subsequently, and among the many striking observations there was one section and one phrase that particularly struck me, partly because I was thinking along similar lines and also because of what I was reading and listening to at the time.
I wanted to ask Mark lots of questions about this project and this particular phrase he’d used but it wasn’t the right moment to start burdening him with my insights so they went unasked, and so I am taking the opportunity to reconsider them now.
Mark uses a passage from Danny Baker’s autobiography to illustrate a moment that he then characterises as expressing a sense of “exorbitant sufficiency”:
I’ll think about that phrase in two dimensions, political and aesthetic, because as we are repeatedly told there is only aesthetics and political economy
First, here’s the passage from Baker’s autobiography.
“It was July 1966 and I was newly nine years old. We had holidayed on the Broads and the family had recently taken possession of the gorgeous wooden cruiser that was to be our floating home for the next fortnight. It was called The Constellation and, as my brother and I breathlessly explored the twin beds and curtained portholes in our cabin built into the boat’s bow, the prospect of what lay ahead saw the life force beaming from us like the rays of a cartoon sun. … I … made my way up to through the boat to take up position in the small area of the stern. On the way, I pick up sister Sharon’s teeny pink and white Sanyo transistor radio and switched it on. I looked up at the clear blue afternoon sky. Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ was playing and a sort of rapturous trance descended on me. From the limitless blue sky I looked down into the churning, crystal-peaked wake our boat was creating as we motored along, and at that moment, ‘River Deep’ gave way to my absolute favourite song of the period: ‘Bus Stop’ by the Hollies. As the mock flamenco guitar flourish that marks its beginning rose above the deep burble of the Constellation’s engine, I stared into the tumbling waters and said aloud, but to myself, ‘This is happening now. THIS is happening now.’ (pp 49-50)
The preconditions for this experience of exorbitant sufficiency get spelled out in the text—essentially the high point of a post-war social democracy and what Mark is keen to emphasise are the general preconditions of this particularly personal moment of rapture—in order to deflect the criticism that it only represents a nostalgic reflection on Baker’s part or a typical, halcyon moment from childhood. This is of a piece with many of Mark’s observation that the foundations for a particular continuum of working class art and music production, punk/post-punk/rave/drum and bass were based on the possibilities of a dropping out and/or going to art school, having a reasonably comfortable life on the dole, something which probably stops being possible around the mid-late 90s in the UK.
“there is something very specific about this moment, something that means it could have only happened then. We can enumerate some of the factors that made it unique: a sense of existential and social security that allowed working-class families to take holidays at all; the role that new technology such as transistor radios played in both connecting groups to an outside and enabling them to luxuriate in the moment, a moment that was somehow exorbitantly sufficient. (italics mine)”
One of the things that’s interesting in the book, or at least in its opening section, is that Mark has returned to the Sixties. In some ways the Sixties for an earlier iteration of K-Punk in its blogging heyday would have been anathema, the hippies and their tree-hugging, free-love organicist enthusiasms were everything that punk and cyberpunk stood against, and one of the main currents that has developed out of a particular strain of Mark’s thinking, a ccelerationism, is still quite openly anti-hippy in its orientation.
One of the ways in which hippie culture is/was anathema is in its focus on the child as symbol of nature and innocence and Mark was a famous early advocate of anti-natalist positions, championing No Future by Lee Edelman and so on.
So I suppose my first question here would be; while we have to be careful to make sure we are looking at the techno-economic paradigm that make these highly personal moments possible, can childhood and the experience in childhood of continuous levels of engagement and enlargement, the constant learning, the, if you like, repeated epiphanies, be a good model for acid communist or exorbitantly sufficient subjectivities? I am also thinking here little bit of a recent proposal for a National Education Service in the UK, a non-neoliberal equivalent to the market demand for life-long learning, because there is something psychedelic in the world-renewing properties of theorising and reconceptualising and that’s consonant in some ways with Mark’s interest in the notion of an outside; this space beyond current conceptions and boundaries that we constantly push into.
Can we locate a radical version of the inner child? Can we repurpose it, move it away from kind of wide-eyed avatar of some essential goodness and wonder, into a questing and adventurous, intellectually omnivorous, polymorphous subject, one that retains openness to an outside and that doesn’t ossify into a “realist” “adult” or highly individualised subjectivity?
There are several categories that Mark identifies as being essential to this sense of exorbitant sufficiency, light and space are two of them, but the most essential is perhaps time, free or unpressured time, and the sense of unpressured time comes of course from being a child, but also from a lack of anxiety about the future.
Exorbitant sufficiency has an ambiguous relationship toward the future as the space into which we project both anxiety and hope, but both those projections occur only if the present is intolerable, fallen, and will be redeemed in some way by the yet-to-come.
You might want to say that in exorbitantly sufficient moments the experience is one of time being in-joint as opposed to being out-of-joint. I’ll tentatively suggest that perhaps the time is always out-of-joint but that there are positive and negative modalities of that disjointedness. And I’d also suggest that there’s something slightly bittersweet in Baker’s passage, which is perhaps why Mark says that it could “only have happened then” as it takes place just as a shift of a certain kind is occurring, and that shift is symbolised here by the transistor radio that Baker takes up onto the bow of the boat.
One of Mark’s most influential formulations or projects was hauntology. Hauntology expressed a time out-of-jointedness in its negative mode—a certain future should have appeared, a better present should exist but has failed to come into being and the remnants of this better present are scattered around us, provoking us, reminding us of the lost possibilities.
This idea is given a certain kind of empirical base by economists like Carlota Perez, who is essentially a long wave theorist of capitalism and who argues that a shift toward a different type of post-Fordism, a production regime not based on oil, mass production and disposability should have occurred around the 1970’s but the “spatial fix”, essentially the opening up of China and the economic power of big oil to suppress alternate technologies, among other factors, have kept us trapped in an unnaturally elongated, slowly and unevenly differentiating Fordist moment.
Interestingly the subject that Perez imagines as the new consumer of this deferred future/present is very similar to the figure of the Hipster. She believes that elites lead the way culturally, so these would be moneyed connoisseur, interested in the specialised, high-quality, durable goods. interested in recycling and reclaiming and oriented toward vintage and low energy intensive forms of commodity accumulation, creativity, “up-cycling” if you like. So, to a degree, the 2000s, in which Mark formulated his hauntology, was haunted both by the remnants of the Utopian promise of an early order, modernism, intersecting with these kinds of harbingers of a Perezian future, temporally stranded and wandering around Dalston waiting for solar panels and vertical farming to arrive.
Time can also be out of joint in a “good way” however and I’d think here about Mark’s complaint that with regard to modern technology’s role in music, you can’t hear it anymore, using the example of Brian Eno’s synths and tapes and the way they irrupted into Roxy Music’s often quite standard, pastichey pop and rock tunes, inducing in the listener an exhilarating frisson of Future Shock. Here the time is out of joint because the future is forcing its way back into the present, opening a passage in space-time and allowing the ghost of the yet-to-come, more an angel than a ghost perhaps, to come floating in.
In the passage with the young Danny Baker on the boat we have a couple of key interrelations, firstly the surrounding countryside offering an image of the eternal, the pastoral and sublime, the boat and its engine, an older classical form, an established type of technology and the emergent, the future, as symbolised by the radio.
As it notes though, the radio is tiny and portable and the moment therefore captures something of an inflexion point in terms of the possibilities of Future Shock as an affect or an experience, and it’s a notion which disappears from the culture probably from the late 70s onward and is, to some extent an addiction that people of a certain generation have never been able to wean themselves off. Indeed you might want to argue that a lot of the accelerationist project both aesthetically and politically is redolent of Future Shock envy on the part of a younger generation.
For this Future Shock to occur I think the technology has to be visible in the same way as it has to be hearable in music, hence in a kind of vulgarised, or at least popularised, hauntology, and in steampunk we have a fetishisation of clunky, monolithic early versions of technology with huge, glowing cathode tubes, gramophones, vast banks of synths and so on. So as technology miniaturizes, blends in with its surroundings, becomes invisible, becomes more of a discrete frame, as architecture does too around this point, then this kind of juxtaposition, the eternal, the residual, the emergent begins to disappear. Even though cyberpunk, extropian and to some extent accelerationist fantasies focus on seamless integration, technical augmentation, the man-machine and so on, in a way a certain affect a certain dramatic temporal tension is lost with miniaturization, the future side of the relationship falls away, becomes invisible and the present feels lopsided, dislocated, out of joint.
So I suppose another question I would have there is, what’s the relationship of exorbitant sufficiency to time? Is it only possible at a given historical moment, a good out of jointedness? Is this why it can’t seem to come again?
The term exorbitant sufficiency expresses that one has enough yet that enough feels luxurious, far in excess of what’s required. So this is a paradox or an oxymoron, and this sense of completeness in the moment, this lack of orientation to the future puts me in mind of Todd McGowan’s recent work. McGowan’s a Lacanian, which makes reading him a rather forbidding prospect, at least it does for me , but essentially McGowan tries to build a politics, an anti-capitalist politics of the death drive.
To very crudely summarise his argument, we have suffered an originary loss and we try to replace this loss all through our lives by pursuing an object that will stand in for the loss, here, commodities, which promise us a sense of completeness but only lead us to experience disappointment, because what we actually want is the disappointment itself, the loss that allows us to desire again. The chase is better than the catch, as Motorhead succinctly put it.
McGowan believes ALL orientation toward the future is inherently bound up in capitalist desire, that the constant search for and repetition of failure maps onto the structure of capital accumulation, orientation toward the future as a salvationary space is caught up in the logic of the profit motive, commodity production etc. All of this is expressed through the kind of counterintuitive and paradoxical formulations of which Mark was fond, the title of his big book being “enjoying what we don’t have”. What we should stop doing for McGowan is precisely thinking about the future, seeking out boundaries and limits to overcome in the belief that beyond them there is a true satisfaction possible as we already have everything we need or possibly everything we don’t need. Or, perhaps better still, we already don’t have everything we don’t need.
There are problems with McGowan’s work in that it fails to address the body and material needs, poverty and so on. It’s hard not to be oriented toward the future and accumulation if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or you face crop failure this summer, and so there is an extent to which McGowan is really perhaps addressing, in a more rarified register, the Affluenza that bedevils his students and his peers. Either way, this refusal of the future overlaps in some ways with Marks exorbitant sufficiency; the moment burgeons into a sense of plenitude because in some ways it’s been bracketed off. The relationship with acid here might be fairly clear. Acid shuts down the memory and the sense of anticipation, the music critic Simon Reynolds likening its results to one being dazzled by the moment.
So the next question I would have asked is whether a postcapitalist desire is at odds with a demand for the future and whether an exorbitantly sufficient renunciation of the future isn’t also an option to be considered? Does the idea of exorbitant sufficiency map in some ways onto the idea of Communal Luxury more than Luxury Communism.
Thinking about exorbitant sufficiency as an aesthetic, one of the songs Mark mentions as exemplifying this is the Kinks’ Lazing On A Sunny Afternoon, free time, a certain luxuriousness of surroundings, life devoted to the ludic, but also crucially a loss or a sense of being unencumbered.
I am going to suggest a series of qualities that I think are required for a work to add it to a canon of the exorbitantly sufficient and do that on the basis of some of my interpretation of the phrase I have already outlined.
I think it should it contain a sense of the good childlike, in the sense that it must have a certain numinous quality, a sense not of breaking into new territory/overcoming boundaries but of transformation or enlargement.
It should concentrate on a concentrated moment and that moment should be, paradoxically, illuminated by the eclipse of the future
Should have a sense of ease and lassitude.
Should formally express a relation and tensions between deep time and the traditional and the defamiliarising possibilities of the technological but without aiming at the sense of the ruptural that characterised Future Shock
It should have something of the reverie and the epiphany.
I am going to nominate a song for this and that’s Estuary Bed by The Triffids from an album with the interesting title, Born Sandy Devotional.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGP6fmpIxt0[/embedyt]
The song title is also relevant. Estuaries are as much a combination of forces pulling in different directions as they are a confluence, an arresting of motion and a deepening of it, rich, teaming environments alive with growth, ancient and yet also densely populated, worked over by humans, in some ways undermined by them.
Here are the lyrics:
The children are walking back from the beach/ Sun on the sidewalk is burning their feet/Washing the salt off under the shower/And just wasting away, wasting away
The hours and hours and hours
Come on, climb over your father’s back fence/For the very last time we’ll take the shortcut/Across his lawn/Then lie together on the estuary bed/Perfectly still, perfectly warm
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
I see you still/I know not rest/Silt returns along the passage of flesh/ I hear your voice/I taste the salt/I bear the stain, it won’t wash off/I hold you not
But I see you still/What use eyesight if it should melt? What use memory covered in estuary silt?
I know your shape/Our limbs entwined/I know your name, remember mine
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
There is an emphasis on childhood, un-hurried time, sunlight, nature, the sense of rebirth, sloughing an old skin, awakening, mutual embrace, a mutual transformation. The track itself is essentially a pretty straight, folk-rock track given a particular brightness and ambient edge through the production, and as it progresses the lead vocal becomes increasingly detached from the background, swimming of into a kind of overlapping, multi tracked, oneiric drift, urging whoever the song’s addressee is, perhaps the singer themselves, to awake, to face life replenished. There is nothing but two people lying together in the sun, in a particular favourite place and yet the song implies this is everything, more than anything one could want, exorbitantly sufficient.
So, I suppose all of this would just have been a long preamble to the question, What do you think of this song, Mark? Do you like it?
To which his answer would almost certainly have been “no”.
Unlike many London left friends, who’ve been better than me at going to demonstrations, I’ve never met Jeremy Corbyn. To my shame – and perhaps because my anxiety and depression stopped me travelling from Manchester to London for the anti-war demo in February 2003 – I’d never even heard of him before he ran for Labour leader two years ago.
I had met John McDonnell though – at a People’s Parliament event that he organised with (the old) Zero Books at the House of Commons in March 2014. McDonnell explained that he put on the sessions to get different voices into Parliament, where MPs might hear them. He held monthly panels on various subjects; while many were for workers and trade unionists, he often brought in writers and activists. This time, those writers were Mark Fisher, Rhian Jones and Alex Niven – all people I’d met in London, and considered friends, after spending two years moving through writing and journalistic circles until finding the one that excited me the most, centred around Zero (now Repeater) and Verso Books. (J. D. Taylor, whom I hadn’t encountered, was the final panellist.)
McDonnell was interested in their ideas: Mark’s analysis of ‘capitalist realism’, and the need to imagine a better future despite those who insisted that “there is no alternative” and that utopian thinking was pointless; Alex’s Folk Opposition’, about the histories and possibilities of popular oppositional culture, as bewildered commentators constantly asked “what happened to political music?”; and Rhian’s Clampdown, an interrogation of the class, gender and racial politics of Britpop, which still dominated the imaginations of nostalgic New Labour hacks, and of the stultifying, conservative ‘indie’ that followed.
All of those authors argued for wide-ranging changes in the relationship between politics and culture, and the ideological climate in which they operated. I’d reached a height of despair with parliamentary politics, and especially the way the right-wing press dictated its tone, even after the Leveson Inquiry. Under Ed Miliband, the New Labour project seemed completely hollowed out, and the Parliamentary Labour Party struck me (and many others) as dominated by soulless committee thinking and surrender to the terms that the Tories, the tabloids and their backers wanted to impose on British society. (Indeed, I’d been six feet from Miliband at the New Statesman’s centenary party in 2013, when I was blogging for the NS in a desperate and ultimately doomed attempt to bring a more leftfield political and cultural perspective to its website. I decided not to bother introducing myself.) I didn’t realise Labour still housed people like McDonnell in it: I assumed they’d all left, or been purged, during the Blair years, and not been enticed back by events like the TUC anti-austerity protest in March 2011, a well-attended but weirdly lifeless trudge to see Miliband, and possibly Billy Bragg – I can’t even remember.
I enjoyed the event, but left with the same sense of melancholia I often had after going to such talks. I‘d heard some interesting provocations, but many of our conclusions had a similar feel: we identified the problems, but phrases like “We need to find a way to change the discourse” on [say] asylum seekers, benefit claimants, or public sector cuts seldom masked our sense of impotence. Without a trade union movement or political party that felt like it could ever be a vehicle for change, we were spitting in the wind: some people were listening, but not enough, and very few with influence.
Later that year, at a panel organised by think tank CLASS at the Trade Union Conference, I talked about the ‘potential for art and culture’ – discussing how the value of art now seemed to be considered only in financial terms, with grants cut for anything that might not make money, without any thought for artistic merit or how ideas that initially reach just a handful of people can be transformative for that handful, and ultimately for everyone. With a General Election looming, a friend expressed fears that “Labour now is just wonks” – unrelatable technocrats that had turned countless people away from the party. I didn’t forget McDonnell, but as far as I could see, younger MPs almost exclusively thought the existing order needed just minor tweaks, with nothing more ambitious possible, and didn’t understand that, if there was no matter on which they would not yield, they did not compromise but capitulate.
I’d known nothing but New Labour as I approached middle age: I was 33 as the 2015 General Election was held. I’d never voted Labour. In 2010, living in Brighton Pavilion, I was delighted when my vote for Caroline Lucas helped towards an unprecedented Green Party victory but knew it would never go much beyond that one seat (and that the Greens had put little time into campaigning in more working-class areas, such as. Hollingdean). Although I liked my MP, Diane Abbott, I couldn’t get behind Labour as it was. Due to a clerical error in Hackney, it took two and a half hours to vote: the polling station sent me to Hackney Town Hall, where I joined a long queue of people, livid at feeling disenfranchised. I was more depressed than anxious or angry, and eventually, I put my cross against the Communist League – a futile protest against the post-Thatcher, post-Blair hegemony of austerity, authoritarianism and the demand for anyone on the left to accept the ‘lesser evil’ of ‘centrism’. (They got 102 votes.)
The whole thing felt desperate, but worse was to come. I finished an event at Close-Up Cinema, where we’d planned to watch the BBC’s election night coverage together. Then we saw the exit poll predict a Tory majority—something I’d predicted before campaigning began, but I’d wavered as the opinion polls suggested a hung parliament or narrow Labour win—and went home. I got back to find my flatmates in stunned silence, having been crying earlier, but I just felt numb. I wanted a Labour victory—five years of Tory cuts and an ever-more authoritarian culture had exhausted me and many friends—but couldn’t feel that Miliband’s failure to become Prime Minister was any real tragedy. The lowest moment was the response of Labour grandees who insisted their defeat came because Miliband moved the party too far to the left – despite losing all of Scotland to an anti-austerity movement. As James Butler said: the tragedy for most people was not the lack of a Labour government, but that politics just carried on like this.
Once Miliband resigned and Corbyn entered the leadership contest, I dared to wonder if Labour could be something different – more exciting, drawing on the dignity and solidarity of past trade union movements and socialist achievements whilst using new media to communicate a strong demand for a ‘new kind of politics’, in contrast to his three opponents’ carefully-honed nothings, designed more for television than Twitter, trapped in a perpetual present that did not even recall the optimism of Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign, but the resignation and exhaustion of Gordon Brown’s in 2010.
It was McDonnell’s presence that excited me most. In the decade since I’d begun in journalism, I’d felt alone, supported by little more than small groups of friends. I’d finally quit the New Statesman, burnt out and bitter about how my efforts to bring in a queer, trans and socialist perspective had panned out, but glad to have disassociated myself before their anti-Corbyn propaganda went into overdrive. The Guardian was large enough to sustain a more diverse range of opinions, but its editorial stance seemed vehemently opposed to turning Labour into a left-wing, member-based movement, not sensing (like we did) that it was not just New Labour’s ideology that was finished but also its methodology.
My exhaustion began to lift. Finally, I could invest energy into something bigger than myself – and draw from it. The awkward alliances between liberals, socialists and radicals during the coalition, when it felt difficult to be tribal about Labour or the Liberal Democrats, collapsed as Corbyn’s rise made the fault lines clearer, but I didn’t care. I felt like we were on the right side of history, with the ‘centrists’ wrong. Eventually, I thought, the wider world would agree – if only Corbyn and McDonnell could get a fair hearing.
The two years since Corbyn became leader have been rocky. I was not alone in my reservations about his handling of the EU referendum. I found many criticisms disingenuous, and had long stopped listening to his mainstream media detractors, but wasn’t sure if he grasped that one major issue was not the EU itself, but the consequences of a Leave vote for immigrants, people of colour and anyone else who did not fit the profile imposed by recrudescent English nationalism, with its militarism, monarchism, and imperialist nostalgia. Often, I was frustrated at how the energy and enthusiasm of Corbyn’s record-breaking leadership campaigns dissipated after his landslide victories. I felt that much of that could be blamed on collusion between the media and his rebel MPs, but not all, and wondered if I’d been delusional to place any faith in parliamentary politics, and the Labour Party in particular.
I thought about cancelling my Labour membership, but something stopped me. Initially, it was how much I hated Corbyn’s opponents: their smug, patronising crowing about how they were right about Corbyn being ‘unelectable’ – as if this was an objective fact, as if they were mere observers of British political discourse, rather than influential agents within it. The labelling of those who backed Corbyn’s ideas for the future of the Labour Party as Trotskykist infiltrators, brick-throwing homophobes, rabid anti-Semites and IRA advocates, the British equivalent of the Donald Trump-supporting ‘alt right’. (Watching them eat humble pie, particularly in the form of their own books, has been fun.) But it wasn’t just hatred that motivated me: I never lost that memory of McDonnell, or the sense he offered that politics could be more than what MPs say in parliament, and that political parties could draw inspiration not just from think tanks, but also from academic history and philosophy, art and music, literature and poetry. I remembered how Corbyn inspired me to watch a live broadcast from the House of Commons for the first time, on 6 July 2016, when he defied Labour backbench calls to ‘sit down and shut up’ to deliver his response to the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war. I sat shaking throughout his speech, at the calm, controlled fury of his words, his refusal to talk around the imperial motivations and disastrous consequences of the invasion and occupation, and his sense of vindication that the millions worldwide who opposed the war had eventually been proved right.
So, from the moment when my friends and I at the no.w.here film lab saw the exit poll – far better than my prediction that Corbyn would ‘only’ lose by twenty or thirty seats – Thursday night felt like a vindication. Not just for our support for Corbyn, but for the ideas that those of us on the left have been exploring for the last decade, and all those talks where we tried to do some intellectual groundwork. Like many, today I’m thinking about Mark Fisher’s tragic death earlier this year, soon after Brexit and Donald Trump’s ascension, when it looked like the neoliberal orthodoxy would be toppled – by a descent into Fascism, with those of us who’d spent years planting seeds for a better future having to battle to save the institutions that had excluded, ridiculed, and fought us, with preservation of the status quo (which would then return to crushing us) seeming the best possible outcome.
I wonder what Mark would have made of this result. How Corbyn was derided as ‘unelectable’ by those clinging to old New Labour ways, before launching an astounding campaign that gave new purpose and restored Labour’s social-democratic principles; achieving the biggest opinion poll rise in living memory, which translated into the largest general election swing to Labour since 1945, which prevented a Tory majority in an election Theresa May called as she thought she could wipe out Labour, and any opposition from the left, forever.
I often think about his incredible enthusiasm for anything that might chip away at the dominant ideology, even if I didn’t always share it, or agree with the positions that resulted. I often think, too, about how many friendships I owe to him, via the blogging circle in which he was central, and his foundation of Zero and then Repeater Books, through which I met so many comrades – lots of whom, like me, were inspired to join Labour as Corbyn and McDonnell’s movement blossomed. If you look only at the numbers, then yes, we’ve lost– this time. But if you look at the wider picture, the possibilities that feel like they’ve opened up for anyone with dreams, a heart, a soul – then we’re winning. Today, I don’t feel anxious and I don’t feel depressed. I feel like we can stem the previously all-consuming rightward lurch in British culture; break the dominance of the likes of Lynton Crosby, Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch over our public discourse, and the stranglehold of self-proclaimed ‘Sensible’ Labour pundits over conversations about what left-wing politics can hope for; build the youthful energy of movements like #grime4corbyn into a reinvigorated counter-culture, far more exciting than the musically reactionary, politically retrograde carcass of Britpop. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like things can only get worse. I’m sure John McDonnell shares my optimism, and I like to think Mark would have as well.
Juliet Jacques is a writer, cultural critic and journalist. Her fiction has appeared in Five Dials, The London Magazine, 3:AM, Necessary Fiction and elsewhere. Her Transgender Journey series for the Guardian documented her gender reassignment between 2010-12 and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011. Her journalism has featured in the New Statesman, Time Out, The New Inquiry, The London Review of Books and other publications. Her book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015.
Reflections on the last few weeks in UK politics, by John Medhurst, author of the forthcoming No Less Than Mystic: A History of the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left (out August 2017).
This is a British revolution.
As I write, the last few weeks have seen:
- An apparently secure and unassailable Tory Prime Minister, Theresa May, call a General Election that looked set to produce a Tory landslide and the annihilation of the Labour Party.
- The Labour Party respond with a bold, radical manifesto that promised nationalisation of privatised services such as the Royal Mail, energy companies, the buses and railways; a 50% tax rate for the top 5% of earners allied to increased Corporation tax to fund the NHS; scrapping of student Tuition Fees, the re-introduction of Grants and the cancellation of all existing student debt; a ban on Fracking; and state-led public investment to grow the economy, including a million new homes and the capping of rent increases.
- A response from young people that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, as this historically under-registered and under-engaged group turned out to vote for Labour in record numbers.
- The belated emergence of a solidly oppositional, reactive and effective social media presence into the British political arena, so much so that where the Sun once boasted it won elections for the Tories, that same media now looks a paper tiger, shouting splenetic hate in an echo chamber.
- The visible, palpable collapse of Tory swagger and energy after losing its majority and coming within a whisker of being defeated by a confident socialist opposition.
- That same party’s desperate and unprincipled willingness to endanger the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland in order to prop itself up with a handful of votes from a fringe Unionist party renowned for vicious homophobia.
- The Brexit process thrown into utter chaos, as the government struggles to construct a coherent negotiating strategy, with a cross-party majority in the new Parliament pushing for a “soft Brexit” that retains access to the European Single Market.
- A terrible fire ripping through a local council tower block in a poor area of the richest borough in the country, Kensington and Chelsea. A fire that could have been contained had not the council and the arms-length body to which it outsourced estate management used the cheapest and most flammable material to clad the building.
- A horrific (and still rising) death toll of mostly ethnic minority, poor and disabled tenants.
- A brief visit to the scene by Theresa May in which she met senior fire and police officials but failed to meet survivors and volunteer workers, in stark contrast to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
- A tsunami of outrage and bad publicity descending on May’s head, a massive, irrecoverable political blunder that will define her and her premiership.
- Corbyn’s call for the requisitioning of the many vacant properties in the borough, left empty as investments by rich or non-domiciled residents, and wide-spread popular support for this policy.
- The cold, indifferent response from the council to survivors, leaving them for days on the floor of local churches and sports centres, failing to co-ordinate emergency collections, failing to inform those put into hotels of other relief, or provide food beyond a free breakfast.
- Massive anger sweeping the local community, resulting in the storming and occupation of Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. At the same time, a spontaneous mass march on Downing St to demand May resign and justice be done for the survivors.
- Labour calling for a million-person march to overturn a failing and bankrupt government. Labour now six points ahead in the polls, with Corbyn vastly more popular than May.
- Corbyn’s astonishing appearance at Glastonbury as thousands of festival goers chant his name and he delivers a blast of pure socialist passion, concluding with Shelley’s “Masque of Anarchy” to rapturous applause.
Even worse from the perspective of the Tories and the professional hucksters of neoliberalism, is that this is now widely perceived as the tip of an iceberg. The iceberg itself – the very history of Britain since 1979, decades of privatisation, deregulation and neglect of the social infrastructure on which working-class citizens rely – is now there for all to see, to comprehend and to condemn. The harsh, brutal truths of modern Britain are punching through into the collective consciousness, burnt into the mass mind as rapidly and spectacularly as Grenfell Tower:
- That the previous Tory Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2012 that he wished to “kill off the health and safety culture for good”.
- That 317 Tories last year voted against Labour legislation requiring all rented accommodation to be “fit for human habitation”, preventing that law; that 72 of these were private landlords with a direct vested financial interest in ensuring it did not pass.
- That Tory Mayor of London Boris Johnson, now May’s Foreign Secretary, closed ten London fire stations in 2014 with the loss of 552 firefighters’ jobs. That when challenged on this by London Authority Labour leader Andrew Dismore in the Council Chamber, Johnson told him to “get stuffed”.
- That Teresa May’s new Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell, when Minister for Housing, disregarded and side-lined recommendations of an earlier report, arising from a council block fire which killed six people, on installing sprinkler systems in tower blocks.
- That Kensington and Chelsea Council outsourced the running of the estate to KCTMO, a “not-for-profit” organization that managed to spread £650,000 a year profit around four “directors”, whilst ignoring the residents it was supposed to serve.
- That it added flammable cladding to Grenfell Tower primarily to enhance the view from nearby luxury private apartments, and that it used the cheapest, most unsafe method available.
- That the residents’ Grenfell Tower Action Group, after years of fruitless campaigning for basic safety measures, warned in a blog post of November 2016 that a fire was inevitable, and called KCTMO a “mini-mafia” unfit to run a large social housing estate.
- That immediately after spending fifteen minutes at the scene of the fire, avoiding the victims, May spent an hour at a social occasion for high-value Tory party donors.
- That two days after the fire the Tory leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council blamed Grenfell Tower residents themselves for the lack of sprinklers, claiming they had rejected them because of “disruption”.
- That the amount of money provided for the residents’ resettlement – £5 million – is pitifully inadequate, and there are no guarantees to rehouse the survivors within the borough. That despite rehousing some survivors in “luxury” flats (where they are denied the same facilities as the private residents) many more are being moved outside the borough, and at least thirty survivors forcibly relocated to Birmingham against their will.
- That the final death toll is likely to exceed 200, and the knowledge of this, from the first days after the fire, has been kept back by either D-Notice or the mainstream media’s unforced compliance with the state’s requirements.
These truths can never be expunged. Working-class people across the country have had a brutal lesson in how much our social and political elite – the ruling class and its functionaries at all levels – care about them and their lives. The political implications are as incendiary as the fire itself.
The ingredients now exist for a fundamental challenge to the structures of power and wealth in this country. A principled democratic socialist now stands in firm control of the Labour Party. All polls indicate that if the election were run now, Labour would win. Core socialist policies are now seen as viable, realistic, even vital to the salvation of a country that has failed, has turned in on itself, has let its schools, hospitals and social housing go to ruin to satisfy the acquisitive greed and cruelty of a privileged elite, has denied social and economic justice for so long it can barely remember what they are.
The Tories and their satraps have literally no idea how this has happened, or how to control it. For them, the residents of Grenfell Tower are as remote as starving Ethiopians, the fire an exotic, terrible tragedy that was, at most, worthy of personal sympathy (although one should never underestimate how cold and shriveled the Tory soul really is, clutching only to its lifestyle and privileges, barely able to fake empathy let alone experience it). But ordinary people – the mass of working-class and decent middle-class people who retain older and more collective values, whose lives intersect with those less fortunate, or who came from poorer beginnings and have not forgotten it—can and do understand it. They understand it viscerally, emotionally, in their blood and bones.
Times come in the history of nations when social revolution, however defined, becomes possible, real, tangible, desired. It usually takes disaster and tragedy and injustice to bring it about. In 1940, when Britain’s ruling class had led the country to near terminal disaster, and as Nazi bombs devastated the East End, George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn that England (by which he meant England, Scotland and Wales), would resist, would win, and on the ruins would build a better, fairer and more democratic society. “But England has got to be true to herself”, he wrote. “It is not being true while refugees who have sought our shores are locked up in concentration camps and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax.”
With the Brexit vote, the murder of Jo Cox, the upsurge in hate crimes, the retreat into provincial nationalism, many British leftists, progressives and internationalists had despaired of any political advance, let alone a radical, transformative one. But these are astonishing times. Concluding Lion, Orwell wrote of the English Socialist revolution he wished to see, “We must add to our heritage or lose it; we must grow greater or grow less; we must go forward or backward”. At this moment – surprisingly, incredibly, inspiringly, on the back of terrible tragedy, corporate crime and the political errors of our ruling elite–England is going forward. The election was the first seismic shock. The fire the second. What had seemed deep-frozen is thawing. The ground is shifting under our feet. The momentum–and the Momentum–is from the left.
Our ruling class will do anything to prevent this. No moral, political or constitutional scruple will apply. May’s casual indifference to the Good Friday Agreement, with the possibility that the Troubles could resume, vividly demonstrates that. The Mail’s attempts to scapegoat immigrants, or environmental standards, for the fire, while the dead were still being counted, demonstrates it again. The cancellation of next years’ Queen’s Speech, the biggest and most important event on the Parliamentary calendar and the means by which a British government proves its legitimacy, demonstrates it beyond doubt.
It is impossible to predict where this is going. May could be gone soon. But all alternatives are equally problematic for the Tories. Boris Johnson is a buffoon with many skeletons in his closet. Amber Rudd has a tiny majority in her local constituency, and is not guaranteed to be re-elected in the next General Election. David Davis is a Hard Brexiter, when the majority of the country wants a soft Brexit. The Tories are likes rats in a trap, with options narrowing.
None of the professional commentariat, on left and right, saw this coming. Like the shocked firefighter when he first saw the towering inferno of Grenfell on the horizon – immediately aware that tall modern residential blocks should not burn like that – they are reeling, asking “How the fuck is that even possible?” It is a question that hangs over modern Britain, with its Brexit crisis, election earthquake and political dysfunction. It is a question asked by Tories whose fear is now palpable.
And while they fear, we hope. Hope, and organise. As Mark Fisher wrote in the conclusion of Capitalist Realism (and if only that prescient and tragic writer could have lived long enough to see these times), “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again”.
John Medhurst is the author of That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76 (Zero, 2014) and No Less Than Mystic: A History of theRussian Revolution for a 21st Century Left, forthcoming from Repeater in August 2017 .
In a sense, Theresa May has done the left a great service by calling an early election. Had she not done so, and had the war of attrition between Corbyn’s enclave and the overwhelmingly hostile Labour right had continued until 2020, momentum, and indeed Momentum, would have dissipated, Corbyn would have got old and fatigued, another leadership election would have been on the cards and we would have ended up with a compromise candidate, an Owen Smith light, if such insubstantiality were even attainable in physical form. The popularity, or otherwise, of Corbyn and a manifesto that could only have been drawn up from the left of the party, only emerged through a Momentum/Corbyn/McDonnell axis, would never have been publically tried. We would never have had a surge in young people registering to vote, never have had the opportunity for a broadly social democratic project to have access to the media or tour the country holding rallies, we wouldn’t have had a groundswell of grassroots’ participation. Most importantly, perhaps, the general public wouldn’t have had any kind of unmediated access to Corbyn himself.
Something evident in both leadership campaigns was that this is where Corbyn thrives. The opportunity to go out and meet the public delights him, even across the course of this campaign he appears to have become physically more robust and energetic, looks better, seems to have grown younger, in marked contrast to May, who appears more grim, grizzled, brittle and embattled the longer it goes on. Where the agent of capital is a veritable Grey Vampire surrounded by wizened acolytes, repeating the same diminished incantations over and over in airless rooms, Corbyn feeds off democratic energies, amplifying them and returning them to the crowd. His charisma derives from this, it is in a sense borrowed charisma, the democratic charisma that results from being a conduit, a listener, a collaborator, a leader in a different mode, one who helps to articulate a common set of struggles, oppositions and needs . As a vessel for others, he is restored, replenished, it’s not energy taken, dim parcels of fear and resignation grudgingly extruded, but energy freely given and it lends Corbyn his saintly air—he is also elevated by this process, takes on something beatific, joyful; this is what we mean when we say a man of the people.
Corbyn’s standing for Labour leader, then, was an enormous serendipity, one that his supporters have understood and wisely refused to allow the centrists to crush. Finding any adequate substitute will be hard and, come what may on Thursday, any move to replace him has to be resisted,. A Corbynism without Corbyn may be possible but it won’t be attained by a focus-group obsessed soundbiter in a nice suit; the era of the professional PPE parachuted-in politician is definitively over, because the era of the Goldilocks economy, in which they rolled up their shirt sleeves once every five years to give the economy a little tweak up or down a degree no longer exists, nor is it coming back.
Win or lose this time, the future is forming and it belongs to the left.
Carl Neville is the author of Resolution Way (Repeater, 2016)
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
“For the future, not the past. For the many, not the few. For trust, not betrayal. For the age of achievement, not the age of decline.” – Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 1996.
“I think if we win the election, the greatest burden on Tony Blair and the rest of us will not be delivering on the economy so much as the huge expectation that we will somehow be the agents of a different ethical order.” – Jack Straw, 1996.
In 1996, the Labour Party were regularly commanding leads of over 30 in opinion polls against the Tories. The party was in a unique position. In the past, it could only hope to achieve power when the incumbent Conservatives had made a hash of the economy, or plunged the country into darkness through their industrial relations incompetence. In 1996, however, this was not the case. Mortgage interest rates had dropped from double figures in the 1990s to under 7%. John Major’s administration had put the brakes on some of the worst, conspicuous excesses and injustices of Thatcherism. There was already a feelgood factor in the air. As the Guardian airily put it,
Unemployment is down, people are shopping more (car sales are up more than 10%), house prices are rising, the London Evening Standard says ‘Suddenly, Britain is feeling really good’, building societies are soon to create millions of new shareholders
And yet, fewer and fewer people felt good about the Tories. A series of allegations of sleaze involving Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, amongst others, spoke of a party who had done themselves too well and for too long at the political high table. Major himself cut a greying, weary, beleaguered figure. His risible, high profile Cones Hotline, in which members of the public could report apparently unnecessary traffic cones, had been quietly closed in 1995, having fielded fewer than 20,000 calls in its three- year life (a figure that frankly seems remarkably high). Major’s wistful visions of a Britain of warm beer and “old maids cycling to church in the morning mist” seemed to belong to the credits of some Sunday evening middlebrow period drama rather than a Britain whose heartbeat was pounding assertively with the delirium of the End of History. This was a dead man talking.
What’s more, the social liberalism regarded as loony in the 1980s had now become mainstream, with even Richard Branson looking to join in on the victory lap. 1996 was the year Virgin Vodka would introduce an ad featuring two men kissing. As for the Tories, Michael Portillo was obdurately upholding a ban on gays in the armed services.
Thing is, the country was not falling to pieces. It felt buoyant. There was simply a crying need for new faces at the helm, to displace an old guard who felt disassociated with the sense of self-confidence and triumphalism of Cool Britannia. “Things can only get better”, the refrain on which Labour would surf to victory in a year’s time, implied that the country was at rock bottom – but it was not. The feeling was more like: “Things are good – but they could be even better”. It was into this breach that Tony Blair stepped, a saviour for a country that did not particularly need saving – or certainly did not require the salvation he had in mind. It was as if he were being gifted the Premiership.
In 1996, Tony Blair was presented with the opportunity to present David Bowie with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits. You sense it was a slightly invidious task; as Chris Evans introduces him to the stage with customary half-wit (“foot-tapping, pop-loving, he’s got nice hair, Tony Blair”), the sound system strikes up facetiously with Bowie’s “Fashion”, as he descends the stairs in an estate agent’s suit and orange polka dot tie, his hairstyle, like Glenn Hoddle’s, having weighed anchor somewhere in 1978 and receded ever since. The half-soused crowd greet him with no great enthusiasm; there’s a low, mocking drone as he takes to the podium which he tries to ignore in that rictus way of his that would later become more pronounced when facing angry members of the Women’s Institute. And then, as if addressing the CBI rather than some of the dimmer bulbs of the Britpop alumni, he speaks:
It’s been a great year for British music. A year of creativity, vitality, energy; British bands storming the charts, British music once again back at its rightful place at the top of the world.” He talks of how new bands are able to draw inspiration from “the bands of my generation – the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks – and the later generation, the Clash, the Smiths, Stone Roses.
It could well be that Tony Blair, former guitarist with Ugly Rumours, was sincere in this tribute. But, coated in a politician’s unctuousness, the words seem today to proceed from his mouth in an utterly stilted fashion, all the more so because when he actually took office, he was far too busy waging global warfare to monitor and extol the health of British music. It’s probable that this was the very last time he uttered the words “Stone Roses”. The list encapsulates far more shamelessly, loudly and clearly than any mumbling, equivocal frontperson corralled under its banner the guiding principle of Britpop; the history of music in the UK as a retrospective series of white lines down a grey, established road, a tribute to British heritage, enterprise and industry. Interesting who is missing from the list: Joy Division (too despondent – they were on the other side of the sun of the 1990s), the Sex Pistols (too anarchic, despite the fact that they removed the sting from their legacy by reforming for purely financial reasons in 1996), and, strangely, Oasis, despite their own, fulsome praise for Blair.
It wasn’t the only effusive comment Tony Blair made about British pop during 1996, as he brazenly sought to associate his forty-two year-old self with the crest of the Britpop wave in a way the late John Smith could never have done, and John Major never hope to do. Blair was all over pop in 1996, as energetic as a ligger in his attendance of awards ceremonies, always ready to talk up the energy of British pop, as if to imply, by osmosis, that he was a key generator of the broader energy it represented. “Rock’n’roll is not just an important part of our culture, it’s an important part of our everyday life”, he claimed, as if rock’n’roll were as vital to his daily routine as cleaning his teeth and saying his prayers. He wasn’t always selective in his upbeat praise; he described Morrissey as being part of our “vibrant” culture – Morrissey, with the possible exception of Alan Bennett, probably the least vibrant human being on earth, then as now. And, killing three birds with one stone, he sought to conflate rhetorically the rise of lad comedy, the England team of Euro ’96 and the trad indie du jour by alluding to the “Three Lions” anthem thus: “Seventeen years of hurt / Never stopped us dreaming / Labour’s coming home.”
Embarrassingly, however, Blair dazzled in 1996. This extended to to vast swathes of the electorate, including many who would marvel that they hadn’t known better. The lefty tanktops pooh-poohed him, but then, those malodorous malingers would, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile the Tories hired Charles Saatchi to rework his 1979 magic with their “New Labour, New Danger” posters, in which a grinning Blair was depicted as red-eyed and demonic once you peeled back a strip from his plausible veneer. They convinced absolutely no one of the Red Terror he represented; they might as well have waved garlic at him. For many of us sceptical about Britpop, we were affected by the New Sanguine of which Blair felt a part; he blazed white like the blinding light in a doorway to an uncertain future – an exit point at least. And he mentioned the Stone Roses. My God, a future Prime Minister mentioned the Stone Roses! This was surely something worth clutching at.
The prospect of finally ridding the country of the Tories intoxicated even some the most hard bitten. Noel Gallagher was the most conspicuous example, as:
There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country. That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!
He later sheepishly confessed he’d been “off his head” when he bellowed this pronouncement, in which the Oasis members effectively amounted to a shadow cabinet in waiting, but he wasn’t the only one. In co-opting the English Euro 96 anthem he wasn’t just piggybacking on a pop moment, he was tapping into the snarling sense of frustration still festering from the 1992 disappointment, when, despite leaning about as far to the right as seemed feasible without toppling over, Neil Kinnock still lost to John Major. Next time, anything would do. An ugly tap-in, a penalty shoot out, a Blair administration, so long as we won.
I was among those who had suspended my leftist qualms and joined in the chant for Blair, another who should have known better but found the urge to back this gift horse irresistible. Or was he a Trojan horse? Suppose, I told myself, Blair had dropped Clause IV, was cosying up to Murdoch by having Labour’s front bench trade and industry team abandon its support for a tough regulatory regime on the ownership of newspapers and television broadcasting in favour of a freer market, simply so as to deceive the public, business and the media that the party was deliberately forfeiting its leftist teeth, that it was the party that would no longer bite? And then, once in power, use his overwhelming mandate to exercise a full-blooded, socialist transformation of the UK? Be the New Danger the Tory posters depicted him as for real, after all? In any case, wasn’t that what Margaret Thatcher had done prior to her election in 1979? She certainly hadn’t frightened the British public by detailing the full extent of the right-wing programme with which her name would become synonymous. Might Blair have a similar trick in mind?
There was no excuse for such inebriated, wishful thinking. One had only to read, if one could be bothered, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle’s The Blair Revolution, published in 1996, which set out in no uncertain terms what kind of “revolution” New Labour were planning, one that certainly would not involve hordes of cloth-capped proletariats storming the gates of Downing Street à la the Winter Palace in 1917. No – what would be really revolutionary about the Blair Revolution is that it would be entirely non-revolutionary, making it the most revolutionary revolution of all. A revolution no one need fear, least of all our latterday Tsars.
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
Film and Television’s methods for hinting or alluding to the non-conforming private life, to the ‘deviant’ inner world, reveal an intrinsic sexism. There is, generally, a gross inequality in terms of deviance from the conformist norm. A character doing something appalling usually conveys a male psychopath’s ‘bad side’: Hannibal’s cannibalism or Underwood’s canicide, for example. But female psychopaths’ tells are less extreme.
A trope of depicting female psychopathy is to show a woman doing something considered traditionally ‘male’; like being sexually independent and going to a bar to pick up a partner. The Last Seduction (1994, Dahl) is a great example of this. Bridget Gregory, a telemarketing manager (played by Linda Fiorentino), leaves her husband Clay (played by Bill Pullman). Bridget takes a large sum of cash that Clay made that day by selling pharmaceutical cocaine to drug dealers. She essentially dupes her husband, promising him sex before taking off with the cash whilst he is in the shower. Previously Clay, when returning with the money, physically abuses his wife. Bridget’s opportunistic thieving and fleeing is bold but understandable. After some driving her car runs out of fuel and she finds herself in Beston, near Buffalo. Bridget Gregory is by no-means a fulltime charming psychopath. She deceives and cheats, but only does so with charm and social niceties – only conforms to expectations of being a vulnerable and demure young woman – when it will immediately advantage her.
When she walks into a local bar in Beston, filled mostly by local blue-collar worker type males, she asks for her Manhattan without chit-chat, social prelude or manners: ‘Gimme a Manhattan’ she says flatly. The barman, Ray, ignores her. ‘I know you hear me, pal.’ She presses. The barman then begins checking if anyone wants a drink, feigning obliviousness to Bridget. ‘Jesus Christ. Who’s a girl gotta suck around here to get a drink?’ despairs Bridget before asking again, ‘Gimme a Manhattan!’ At this point Mike, taking his chance to save this out of town damsel in need of a Manhattan, steps in.
Ray, a Manhattan for the lady please.
What – that’s the game? I gotta say please?
Er, yes, it helps.
You’re not from around here?
Of course, after this brief encounter, Mike follows Bridget back to a booth hankering for attention like a once fed stray. At first Bridget is dismissive, but even when she changes her mind her too-direct frankness feels sociopathic. She doesn’t play the role of the to-be-wooed nice-little-lady, instead she takes the advantage. ‘Could you leave? Please.’ She asks…
Well I haven’t finished charming you yet.
You haven’t started.
Give me a chance.
Go find yourself a nice little cow-girl, make nice little cow-babies and leave me alone.
I’m er, I’m hung like a horse. Think about it.
Mister Ed, let’s see.
Bridget checks Mike is as equine-good as his word, and that he has his own place, and that it is clean and has indoor plumbing. Mike, a little taken aback, confirms all of these. Bridget then finishes her drink and tells him to meet her outside.
But let’s switch the gender roles round, suppose a young out of town male went into a local bar. Suppose he ordered a drink and picked up a partner for the night. Would this scene tell the viewer there is something deeply manipulative, conning, narcissistic or ‘cold’ about the character? If a male walked into a bar and picked up a partner for some casual sex he would just be another ‘red-blooded’ male – but not necessarily a psychopath, to be that the man would have to do something much worse (like killing a dog or cannibalism, to recall the previous examples). It seems that the tells directors opt for to tell viewers a character is psychopathic are murderous and criminal for men, but merely a case of over independence or confident sexuality for women. For male psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is always undeniably bad. Yet for female psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is subtle – it is often merely a case of not conforming to traditional expectations of female characters: or, to put it another way, being a bit too ‘male’, being too equal to the heteronormative male equivalent.
Saga Noren, a vaguely autistic sociopath type (like a Replicant in dire need of a social protocol systems update), is another example. In The Bridge (2011, Rosenfeldt) the private-life scenes that tell the viewer Saga is different are, again, based around picking up partners for casual sex in bars. The scenes play out in much the same way as Bridget’s in The Last Seduction. Saga is all too frank and single-minded – to the point of being blunt and rude at times. Saga is not interested in finding a nice man to marry; she wants ‘just sex’ as she orders, more than once. Her attitude intimidates and baffles the nameless male characters from the bars. This is a 2011 series from a liberal European country. Why is a women’s freedom to independently pursue casual sex presupposed as being outré, significantly outré enough reveal the character as socially ‘deviant’ to the viewer? What sort of archaic gender role assumptions are being presupposed in this choice of ‘tell’ scene?
There is an additional facet of intrinsic sexism at play in depictions of female psychopathic characters. There is the resurgence of the femme-fatale in ‘men’s-rights films’. Not only are independent women demonised as being manipulative or psychopathic – by being ‘too male’ (i.e. equal), but in a cruel double bind their very femininity (adherence to a feminine ideal) is pitched as being manipulative. When women are being too independent they are demonised for not being placid good-girls, yet when they play up to the good-girl role it is taken as being manipulative, conniving and disingenuous.
To Die For (1995, Van Sant), Knock Knock (2015, Roth) and Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) all tow this double-double standard for women. In To Die For, Suzanne Stone-Maretto, played by Nicole Kidman, is too career driven in a man’s world. She is too ruthless, too goal oriented and single minded and not ready to fulfil the traditional role expected of her: ‘housewife’. However, Suzanne also plays on the heteronormative assumptions of her gender role. She flirts and utilizes the construct of her femininity (much like Bridget in The Last Seduction at times) – but, and this is what is supposedly wrong, for her own personal gain.
In Knock Knock, two young women appear at the door of a family man, Evan Webber (‘played’ by Keanu Reeves). They ask to use his phone, they are cold and wet, then over the course of the evening, after escalating favours reminiscent of Haneke’s Funny Games, begin flirting, then sleeping with, then torturing and blackmailing Evan. The average viewer might suppose that Evan has been duped, he has fallen for the womens’ feminine wiles. But at each turn in the first hour of the film Evan has choices, he doesn’t need to entertain them with his DJing skills. He doesn’t need to engage in lengthy conversations that lead to flirting and banter – but he does. This leads up to consensual sex, before Evan’s regret, before his being held hostage, before blackmail. The viewer’s sympathy is supposed to be with Evan, the poor old affluent and physically stronger man who has been unlucky enough to fall for these temptresses.
The opening line of Gone Girl is a husband’s sadistic fantasy of dispelling the mysteries of what lurks behind his wife’s, Amy’s, pretty face:
When I think of my wife…
…I always think of her head.
I picture cracking her lovely skull…
Unspooling her brains…
Trying to get answers.
The primal questions of any marriage.
“What are you thinking?”
“How are you feeling?”
This is, albeit violent, the ponderance of an epistemological blind spot. How to know for sure if others feel and think like oneself – the anxiety about empathy in others, of other’s capacity for iso-experiential connection – the sharing of the same feeling. Gone Girl tells the story of Amy Elliot Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike, and how she, after staging her own disappearance, leaves her unfaithful husband framed for her suspected murder. Whilst on the run, she stays with an ex-boyfriend, Desi, whom she frames as her rapist and captor – but not before murdering him. When Amy utilizes the heteronormative assumptions others hold for her it is manipulative and conniving – in a domestic correlate of our CCTV’d and selfie’d online existence she uses the surveillance of Desi’s luxury home to her advantage: knowing where the cameras are she performs the aftermath of a rape. Bridget, in The Last Seduction, also leads others to believe she was at risk of being raped. Her husband’s (black) private detective catches up with her and forces her to drive them back to her place where the money is. After noticing that the vehicle is driver-side airbag only, Bridget pesters the man into confirming the old myth about penis size. At this point she accelerates and steers the car into a lamppost. The detective is thrown through the windscreen. Later, in hospital, Bridget leverages small-town racism to her advantage:
There’s only one more question I need to ask. I don’t mean to pry…the man with you appeared to be not entirely in his pants at the time of impact. Can you tell me what happened just before you went off the road?
Well, like I told you before he tried to get me to contact my husband and… I refused of course. Well he became… you know, ‘motherfucker’ this, ‘motherfucker’ that…
Like in the movies?
Exactly. Next thing I knew… I only remember bits and pieces of it but he… the jist of it was that he was going to…impale me with his…big…
The prevalence of supposed female psychopaths making false accusations or framing male characters is notable. But the mode of framing or accusation is always an ultra-reflexive return to the damsel in distress role. The opposite of the woman’s, all too equal, too independent, ‘sociopathic’ and ‘deviant’ tell scenes. This is the cruel double bind for women protagonists in films that have a whiff of men’s rights propaganda about them. When acting the girl they are manipulative, conniving types, temptresses – yet when refusing to conform to a gender stereotype they are framed as sociopathic deviants.
When Amy or Bridget refuse to kowtow to dated expectations of gender it is within sociopathic tell scenes – directorially presupposed as divulging there is something sinister about their character, something amiss. Yet, on the other hand, when they do adhere to heteronormative expectations of subservience and neediness, it is manipulative, conning – psychopathic. Amy and Bridget are psychopathic by virtue of both hamming it up, playing on patriarchal gender expectations, and by virtue of refusing to conform to such asymmetrical expectations and value sets.
The term psychopath is frequently employed in commentary about these three films, to refer to and describe these, at once, too independent and manipulatively feminine characters. The limbo of too feminine to too equal is the double bind. The former temptress facet of the narratives is one informed by a history of femme-fatales in film and television. However, the too equal facet, the case of being psychopathic solely by doing/behaving in a way that is traditionally reserved for men has correlates in how the sciences, particularly criminal psychology, attempt to define female psychopathy through physical traits. Many studies effectively seek to equate female maleness with psychopathy and/or criminality.
An above average testosterone level in women is frequently posited via correlation and comparison with psychopathic, sociopathic and criminal behaviour proclivities. Here we meet the political reductions and warped logics of ‘science’ that seeks to find physical traits in an individual for ‘their’ social failures (criminality). Of course, this assumption between testosterone (or the physical traits associated with the hormone) is not right on a number of levels. Testosterone has, at a stretch, only a semi-firm relation to aggression and confrontation in males, however, much of this data is mostly gleaned from an atypical – read incarcerated – set of subjects (as is the case with most clinical data regarding psychopathy).
However, for women, there is even less cause for such a connection. Even in incarcerated females little connection between testosterone and aggression is found – yet increased testosterone in females with an anti-social personality disorder is pervasive myth. A similar lack of causation holds true for many other hormones and neurochemicals. Nonetheless, studies and cultural commentary exist that seek to equate the physical traits of testosterone with masculine characteristics before retrofitting the fiction into a correlation of say, below average hip-waist ratios, laryngeal prominence, clitoris size and chin/jaw profile with psychopathic character traits in women. Cultural conservatism and politicization of science thrive in the penumbra between etiology and fictioneering (Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference is a case in point – the thesis being that there is a genetic essentialism behind the differences in gendered adult brains: ‘from page 1: The female brain is “predominantly hard-wired for empathy” and the male brain “hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”’ – let’s not let the wealth of research into gender qua social construct or epigenetics or neural-plasticity get in the way of a popular science hit.) Less creative than mythopoeisthesizing, this is the crude jerry-rigging of traditional constructs into biases of causal scope. The tale wagging the dog.
Testosterone is not the sole cause of maleness in terms of behaviour. Acting masculine is not solely due to chemicals or genes but a kaleidoscope of developmental, social, personal and political experiences and histories. This is not to say that gender is a personality, but that the characteristics (with varying degrees of validity) of physical and behavioural gender are as subject to historic environments as any empirically based proclivity (be it chemical or genetic) within individual. Plasticity and epigenetics are of more relevance here than the out-dated yet stubbornly continuing click-bait simplicity of simple correlations and the reductive determinism of ‘hard-wiring’. The politicized and essentialist mode of much criminal psychology that seeks to equate female criminal psychopathy with subjects being too male or not quite feminine enough are examples of how the ASPD variant of psychopathy is a gendered concept with ultra-conservative social undertones.
The diagnostic criteria for psychopathy are deeply political and conservative. Cleckley and Hare (the two major checklists for the personality disorder) both list sexual behaviours and proclivities as characteristics. ‘Promiscuous sexual behaviour’ is one of Hare’s criteria, as is ‘Parasitic lifestyle’ and ‘Many short-term marital relationships’. Cleckley lists ‘Sex-life impersonal, trivial and poorly integrated.’ Cleckley’s conservative bias out to be regarded with more tolerance than Hare’s – the former’s ground-breaking work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, was published in 1941 whereas Hare’s Without Conscience, in 1993. Each list paradoxical criteria; psychopathy is a subset of anti-social personality disorder, yet so many of the criteria seem pro-social. Hare’s and Cleckley’s flip-flopping from anti-social to seemingly social personality facets is the same mode of oscillation we see in the television shows and films mentioned previously. The dynamic of shifting from seemingly charming, intelligent, empathetic and social character to deviance and anti-social behaviour is the privilege of a narrative structure.
Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity spends a great deal of time analysing works of fiction (e.g. characters in the works of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Faulkner…). Hare’s Without Conscience utilizes many examples from True Crime literature and newspaper reports. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that the established psychopathic checklists read like impossible fictional narratives (where we see a character behave both perfectly socially and grossly anti-socially) rather than objective arrays of consistent observations. It is this fictionalized mode of character definition that allows cultural bias into the concept of female psychopathy. Just as the catch-22 of psychiatric evaluation renders those who say they are not mad to be regarded as mad, the same double bind operates for women in the examples cited – even when the characters are seen as a the ideal heteronormative cis-gendered feminine they are just as suspect as the sociopathic antithesis. (Precisely this issue is found in the damned either way injustic Amanda Knox, explicated in the eponymous 2016 Netflix film. Mongibello via Perugia; Knox’s lack of upset was cited as evidencing her guilt, yet when she was upset this was regarded as histrionics, conning, performance and manipulation).
The intrinsic sexism of screen portrayals of female psychopathy share much in common with clinical approaches of criminal psychology and other ‘sciences’. The reinforcing of gender inequality and the demonization of at once femininity and non-feminine equality are prevalent in each (conformity is just as suspect as deviance). However, perhaps the more troubling parallel is the utilization of narrative strategies for telling a story about the differences between the sexes that serves to impose asymmetrical values and inequality for women. Akin to how the problematically masculine threads of Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres don’t let explicit sexism get in the way of the good story, neither does these character portraits of psychopathy both on screen and in textbook. Sadly, the non-fiction popular science shelves contain as much creative story telling for the purpose of reinforcing gender constructs as the DVD library. See: http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/2003/Extreme_Problems_with_Essential_Differences/
The origin of the luminous phrase ‘killing moon’ is obscure (at least it is to me). Google throws up no reference other than the 1984 Echo and the Bunnymen tune, and a 1994 video game called Under a Killing Moon, ‘the largest of its era’ according to Wikipedia. Elsewhere, there are stray hints. An early draft version of Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ begins:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Changeless and deathless; above the murdering moon …
For Yeats the moon had an occult symbolism, which we can fit into a broader Romantic tradition of viewing the moon as a source of terrible beauty. This was, more or less, the lunar worship famously avowed in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948), which argued that the Romantics—and indeed poets going back into prehistory—celebrated the moon because it preserved memories of an ancient matriarchal society. In Graves’s account, prior to the arrival of male sun gods (Apollo, Christ) European societies paid tribute to a female deity associated with the moon: a ‘White Goddess’ at once ‘terrible, beautiful, inspiring, and destroying’. For Graves, all true poetry must pay homage to the Goddess and her ultimate dominion over the creative soul:
The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess … whose embrace is death.
Graves’s theory was highly influential, and for better or worse we can see it impacting on post-forties poetry in all kinds of ways (the life and work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, both of whom were White Goddess devotees, is a notable example).
While I doubt that Ian McCulloch had Graves in mind when he sat down to write ‘The Killing Moon’, it seems clear that the wider, ancient poetic tendency of exalting the moon’s dark majesty and sway over human fate is somewhere behind the lyrics of this incredible piece of music:
In starlit nights I saw you
So cruelly you kissed me
Your lips a magic world
Your sky all hung with jewels
The killing moon
Will come too soon …
I’m not trying to shoehorn this pop lyric into an orthodox study of literary influence. All lyrics set to music (from Campion to Beyoncé) are different in texture from non-musical poetry—they are less dense and allusive, and so do not lend themselves to the techniques of close reading established over the last century or so of literary discourse. But I think we can probably agree that this sort of writing is nonetheless something unique and lovely. Like the best pop lyrics, it emerges from the moment when adolescent simplicity and sincerity are perfected with a sudden flash of mature self-awareness—a Bildungsroman in a nanosecond.
More concretely, as mentioned, we can see literary presences filtering through here to a work of art that is not self-consciously literary. Even if McCulloch was not as versed in the poetic canon as someone like Ted Hughes, he was writing in the early 1980s at a high watermark of popular literacy: a time when certain historical conditions (generously funded higher education, a strong counterculture, widespread intellectualism, no internet) meant that literary pop songs happened as a matter of course, growing organically out of the social-democratic soil, as it were. ‘The Killing Moon’ with its evocative title and lyrics—not to mention its sophisticated melody and arrangement—is one of the greatest and most successful translations of the Romantic literary aesthetic into the medium of the late-twentieth-century pop song. And it manages the feat without even trying.
But what, after all, is the song about? The arresting chorus hook (‘Fate / Up against your will / Through the thick and thin’) doesn’t need much decoding. Indeed—and again, note the effortlessness—apparently this fragment came to McCulloch full-fledged in a dream, just as the melody of ‘Yesterday’ was magically gifted to another Scouse Romantic back in 1964. We don’t need to follow McCulloch’s claim that the lyric arrived direct from God to appreciate the simple profundity of lines like this: will and fate in an endless tug of war, with the earth of life churned by the footfall.
Of course, this is at bottom a song about a death wish, or perhaps just death (remember the White Goddess, her embrace):
Under a blue moon I saw you
So soon you’ll take me
Up in your arms
Too late to beg you or cancel it
Though I know it must be the killing time…
Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I move from the critical to the personal to attempt to understand the power of these lines. I don’t know why, but since (belatedly) discovering this song for the first time over the last month or so, I haven’t been able to break its dark spell. In echo of its composition, I’ve woken up many times in the middle of the night with the chorus hook ringing round my brain. Life for me is good right now, perhaps better than ever. But there is something not quite right in the night sky.
I cannot work out what is meant by the final couplet of the chorus of ‘The Killing Moon’, a song released in the year I was born: ‘He will wait until / You give yourself to him’. Does God, or the Goddess, wait mercifully for us to decide we have given up on life? And being so overshadowed by death, how are we to muster will, hope, energy in the meantime? Perhaps we are living in the killing time, sliding passively towards decay, with ingenious lovely things disappearing around us every second. Like so many others, I am finding it difficult to see a way forward right now. Political options have narrowed, the counterculture is gone, and the wisest man I knew took his own life at the start of the year. I can acknowledge the light of the morning, and savour how it makes my baby son smile. But you must believe me when I say that lately I have felt haunted by the killing moon.
Alex Niven is a Repeater editor, writer and lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University. He is the author of Folk Opposition, The Last Tape and Definitely Maybe (33 1/3), and is currently editing a book of Basil Bunting’s letters for OUP. He blogs at http://thefantastichope.blogspot.co.uk.