Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football is unconvinced by English football’s occupation of any moral high ground vs FIFA Corruption
“I’m incredibly disappointed with the timing of what the BBC seem to be proposing with Panorama. To do it the week before the vote—I don’t think it’s patriotic.” —Andy Anson, Director England World Cup 2018 Bid, November 2010
That’s right, on the eve of England’s doomed bid to host World Cup 2018, the bid director took time out to lambast the BBC for investigating FIFA corruption. Five years later, with FIFA headquarters raided by police and arrests made, the smell of English football’s hypocrisy in adopting the role of the game’s moral guardian should border on the overpowering. But most of this context is lost in the soft-target discourse of Blatter-bashing.
Even a cursory look at England’s bid reveals the lows it was willing to sink to. Not all England friendlies are pointless, but an early summer trip to play Trinidad and Tobago for a match certainly was. The sole purpose—to buy up the island FA’s valuable executive vote, the notorious Jack Warner. The sheer awfulness of this kind of practice was cruelly exposed when the planned friendly in Thailand was cancelled after Thailand failed to vote for England’s bid. No vote? No game. A transaction as corrupt as they come.
I’m no fan of the Royal Family or the Tories, but when Cameron and Prince William were joined by David Beckham to do some some serious last-minute lobbying the days before the 2018 vote, we were asking a future king, the Prime Minster and a former England Captain to play footsie with some of the most corrupt individuals in world football. Just how low would England sink in the process of scrambling around for votes? As low as required.
One of my favourite memories of South Africa’s World Cup 2010 was the South African fans chant ‘FICK FUFA’. Africa’s first World Cup, a showcase for post-apartheid South Africa left a nation fleeced to the limit by FIFA tax breaks, profiteering and sponsorship spivs. ‘FICK FUFA’ is the default position of football fans the world over. Another footballing memory: the Women’s Football Gold Medal match at London 2012. Sepp Blatter’s face appears on the big screen as he prepares to walk out to present the medals, prompting near universal boos all around Wembley. He looked shocked, shaken…don’t these people know what he’s done for world football? Yes, we do. Thats why we booed. He didn’t bother coming back to do the medal presentation for the Men’s football Olympic Final.
Football has grown enormously since the England team’s one golden moment, winning the World Cup in ‘66 (49 years ago this July). It’s gone global, but that international spread has been overwhelmingly shaped by a corporate model of globalisation. Taking the World Cup to the USA, Japan and Korea and South Africa; seeing the rise of the game in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East; newly formed nations post ‘89 finding their identity on a football pitch—all of these are essential goods of human liberation. But those positives have been squandered by the drive to turn territories into markets, commercialising the goodness of the game out of existence, stitching up inter-continental TV and branding rights to enrich those who run the game in their own interest and nobody else’s.
The earlier period of European imperial patronage that once ran world football has been replaced in the post-modern era by a nakedly-monetised patronage. Football’s governing class is now almost exclusively drawn from the world of commerce, and even when individuals don’t fit that particular background, their values and ambitions are still entirely dictated by the commercial imperative. Of course, modern football is an increasingly expensive enterprise, though we might well ask why costs are ever rising with no obvious benefits to the supporters who follow the game, the non-elite players who form its cultural and sporting backdrop, or the development of children and youth players to create a future for the sport. Where are the supporters’ voices and experiences in this organisational culture? Where are the coaches and players providing any kind of meaningful input to how the game is run? How are those who staff the game at its base (mainly voluntarily) to provide the breadth of participation—though this is in headlong decline—provided with the channels to influence the future of football?
That’s the problem, a universal one. Football’s bosses simply don’t reflect any kind of image of the game of this sort. Blatter the soft target—however legitimate our utter contempt for the man—symbolises the ugly inside of what was once proud to be not only the beautiful but also the people’s game. Simple rules, no expensive kit required, playable on almost any surface, played by any shape of the human body, male or female, and, for the lucky few, a professionalised route out of poverty the world over. No marketing plan was needed to create football’s global appeal, its these values and traditions that provided it with an entire planet of fans and players. FIFA has lost all touch with this most basic appeal of football but then so has the entire sport. Cry no tears for Blatter and his cronies—they deserve every bit of ignominy we would wish upon them. But the power brokers most likely to usher Blatter out the back door are the corporates, the sponsors, the suits who see their careers and cash cow threatened, diminished by his illicit actions. These are no saviours of any remnant of the game because they remain people with next to no understanding of its popular beauty .
Mired in hypocrisy football won’t be cleaning up its act any time soon. We need to turn the game upside down to do that, governed by its grassroots, internationalism replacing patronage. A first step would be the England team, and English club sides too, touring Africa in the pre-season not to flog shirts or hoover up FIFA Executive votes but because this continent has given the world game so much and been rewarded with next to nothing in return. For ninety minutes the world of football is at loggerheads with one another, its the same all over, but the essence of FIFA should be what unites us once the final whistle has been blown. The love of the game, a loyalty to what it represents, which no transfer fee on earth can buy, is an emotion that few who run modern football have any kind of recognition for, any understanding of, any affection because it stands in total opposition to the monetisation of our sport, our fandom, that they crave. While enjoying Blatter’s and FIFA’s tribulationsand hopefully trial—we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that football’s problems won’t be solved until this salient fact begins to be addressed.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. 66 And All That, the book he is editing on the 50th anniversary of England’s World Cup victory, will be published by Repeater in 2016. .
We co-hosted an event with Pluto Press – Music, Curationism and the End of the Avant-Garde – at Brilliant Corners on 2nd May 2015. Audio is now available to stream via NTS Radio on their Mixcloud
The event marked the launch of David Balzer’s excellent new book, Curationism. The other participants were: Frances Morgan, deputy editor of The Wire; artist, writer and academic Salomé Voegelin; and music critic and musicologist Adam Harper.
Huge thanks to Brilliant Corners for hosting the event, Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura + NTS Radio for recording and making the audio available, and also to Artists and Engineers, Ben Lyford, Jake Williams, Jose Ortega and Dan Griffis for last minute loans of mics, mixers etc and tech support that allowed us to record the talk at short notice after the enormous response to the Facebook event!
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 ….
The Austin Psych Fest was last weekend, but in the UK we were fully focused on the elections and associated depression/stoicism/recriminations/reinvigoration (delete as appropriate). So in belated celebration of the festival and the 13th Floor Elevators 50th anniversary reunion show (review/photos/video here), here’s an extract from Ben Graham’s new book on Texan psych, A Gathering of Promises (out in June from Zer0). There’s also an interview with Ben about writing the book on the Brighton Noise blog. – TS
On an outdoor stage on the banks of the Colorado River, a 63-year-old man is leading his band through a set of churning, rhythmic, hard-edged blues rock. His grey hair cut short and neat, George Emerson Kinney looks every inch the respectable Texas rancher, dressed smart but casual in pressed blue jeans and white shirt. Yet something in the intensity of his performance gives him away. With the sun starting to set behind him, he lets his electric guitar swing round onto his hip and clutches the microphone stand fiercely with both hands. “There comes a time of starvation, and it is true,” he howls. “If you believe in elevation it will happen to you.”
George Kinney has endured the time of starvation, in terms of appreciation and recognition at least. He wrote and first sang this song, Starvation, with his band the Golden Dawn some 47 years ago, long before many in the audience at this, the 2014 Austin Psych Fest, had even been born. Yet it is also true to say that Kinney never stopped believing in elevation; that is, the potential of the entire human race to ascend to a higher level of psychic understanding and spiritual evolution, a belief that inspired both the name and the songs of the Golden Dawn when they formed in Austin in 1967. It was a belief that the Golden Dawn shared with their close comrades, the 13th Floor Elevators (who Kinney is of course also acknowledging in the lyric), and it would appear that in the 21st Century, long after the original incarnations of both bands disintegrated under pressure and recrimination, things are indeed finally happening, both for them and for many of their psychedelic Texan contemporaries.
The seventh annual Austin Psych Fest is the largest yet, with over 6000 people from all over the world filling the campsite and attending the three day event, as well as enjoying pre-festival warm-up events in Austin’s clubs and bars. The music line-up is as international as the audience, with a broad definition of psychedelic music taking in acts from across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Japan. In 2014, the festival’s superlative reputation attracted the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Dandy Warhols, Acid Mothers Temple, Loop, the Horrors, Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Jacco Gardner, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Terakraft and more than 80 other artists including co-organizers the Black Angels, who more than any other band revived Austin’s reputation as a center for psychedelic rock in the 21st Century. The festival also drew music journalists from all over the globe, and reportedly Hedi Slimane, creative director of fashion house Saint Laurent, diligently photographing audience and bands alike while researching his firm’s latest line, 2014’s ‘Psych Rock’ collection.
On the surface it might seem surprising that the upsurge in interest in psychedelic music, new and old, should be focused not on San Francisco or London or even Berlin (with the concurrent and related krautrock revival), but Austin, Texas. Yet the location of the world’s premiere psych festival is no accident, and the organizers, the bands and the audience are all well aware of the city’s rich and noble psychedelic history. What some may be less aware of is the extent to which the Austin establishment of the 1960s despised and persecuted pioneering psychedelic bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn, and how by the beginning of the 1970s the Texan psychedelic scene was considered dead and buried, an embarrassment to those who were a part of it, and a flash in the pan misfire before the era of progressive outlaw country that first put Austin on the map, and established its reputation as “the live music capital of the world.” For decades it was Willy Nelson, not Roky Erickson, who was the beloved face of the Austin music scene.
“If the Black Angels could go back in time, they couldn’t get a gig to save their lives!” laughs Billy Miller, a 13th Floor Elevators fan from the mid-sixties on. “They’d probably get run out of town on a rail by the music scene itself. So things have really changed; they are the music scene there now, and I’m glad to see it.”
Though all native Texans, the Black Angels deliberately moved to Austin in order to start a psychedelic rock band, attracted as much by the city’s heritage as by its reputation as a major contemporary music center. “When we first started there weren’t tons of people doing that kind of sound,” recalls singer Alex Maas. “You can’t really touch the 13th Floor Elevators. You can get close; I hear a lot of bands now that I’m like, man, that really sounds like the 13th Floor Elevators, it’s really good. But it’s like saying someone’s as good as the Beatles, you know, it’s not ever going to happen.”
When they co-founded the Reverberation Appreciation Society, the Black Angels began their transition to arguably the most important, powerful and influential band on the Austin scene. Set up to promote shows and release records by like-minded acts, the Society organizes not only the Austin Psych Fest but similar events around the world.
“The Reverberation Appreciation Society is me, Rob Fitzpatrick, Christian Bland and Oswald James,” says Maas. “We started this organization and gave it this weird long name to do stuff like the festival, and we wanted to be able to help our friends if they didn’t have an outlet for their music. We’ve met tons of great musicians over the course of our career, and tons that just don’t have an outlet, and that was kind of why the society was created. It was to keep the music going, the music that we believed in. So we’ll help them find outlets, whether it be stores that will sell their music or a presence online, or just developing the sound of a band.”
This helping hand would also soon extend to the older bands that influenced the Black Angels, like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn. “It only makes sense and it’s only fair to give back to that community and that ball of energy that we were inspired from originally. Whether that be Roky Erickson or the Seeds or the Moving Sidewalks or Simeon from the Silver Apples.”
Maas also has his own theories about why Texas was such a nexus for first generation psychedelic rock music. “It seems like with any action there’s always an equal and opposite reaction,” he says. “So if you have a conservative culture you will have a very liberal underground, whether it’s powerful or whether it’s modest in its approach to how it wants to grow. Austin’s always been a kind of liberal town, and I think the conservative culture in Texas has naturally bred this interesting art escape, this opposite effect to escape from that.”
Initially however the establishment response to the appearance of drugs, long hair, youth rebellion and talk of peace and love in Austin was far from liberal. The psychedelic freaks in Texas had to fight much harder just to survive than their brethren in California, London or New York, and this is perhaps what gives Texan psychedelia its distinctive punk edge. Unlike many of the Californian bands to whom the term was first applied, like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, psychedelic rock out of Texas is characterized by an aggressive urgency and desperation that has actually helped it to age far better than its more mellow West Coast equivalent.
Christian conservatism and repressive drug laws were countered by a strong belief in the freedom of the individual and a frontier spirit that could apply to mind expansion as much as lighting out for open land. There is much to be said though for the big skies and the sense of space to be found in the Texan desert and hill country, not to mention the visionary qualities of the native peyote plant, used as a shamanic sacrament by generations of native tribes and curious adepts. The active compound in peyote is mescaline, referred to as “Texas Medicine” by Bob Dylan; mescaline was also the drug taken by Aldous Huxley in his celebrated account The Doors of Perception, and was used by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley in his proto-psychedelic Rites of Eleusis performance of 1910. Though LSD became as popular in Texas as anywhere else, an initial grounding in natural psychedelics like peyote helped distinguish the Texan scene from its Californian equivalent, as George Kinney points out.
“LSD can be a very helpful psychedelic experience, but when all is said and done it is an artificial substance,” he says. “When one starts to really get ‘high’ in the psychedelic sense, one begins to distrust such contrived substances. Psilocybin mushrooms and peyote are natural plants and have a long tradition of being used to enhance the awareness of humans. There is a sense of authority and security in ingesting these medicinal plants that is absent from taking LSD. The result is an experience that is both transcendent and natural simultaneously. One can experience the divine aspects of one’s nature and still remained meaningfully connected to Mother Nature. The outlook and behavior, especially the music, expressed this distinction. That’s why even the most psychedelic voyagers from Texas remained so down home. The main benefit, to me, of psychedelic music was to combine the transcendent elements of intellectual thought with a very physically moving rhythm and sound.
“Texas itself is a very powerful geographic location. The land and the history there is very unique. Texas used to be its own nation and the fierce independence of the citizens is a tangible ambience that pervades all areas of social and community life.”
That “fierce independence” is crucial. Despite the often draconian enforcement of law and order, Texan mythology has also always idealized the rebel, the outlaw and the hard-bitten underdog fighting against the greater power. Nowhere is this last case more obviously exemplified than in the Battle of the Alamo, surely the most powerful archetype and central myth in the collective Texan psyche. Perhaps the brave heroes of the Texas Revolution, who died defending the Alamo Mission in San Antonio against impossible odds, set a precedent that Texas’s 1960s psychedelic revolutionaries were already unconsciously following. And if Lubbock’s martyred icon of early rock n’ roll, Buddy Holly, had already captured the essence of the psychedelic experience in his song Slippin’ and Slidin’ (as Jason Pierce of Spiritualized has suggested), then perhaps his El Paso contemporary Bobby Fuller had already written the whole story of Texan rock, psychedelic or otherwise, when he penned his classic I Fought The Law (And The Law Won), shortly before his own premature and still-mysterious demise.
Certainly, Texas’s outlaw tradition and proximity to the Mexican border gave it a certain primacy in the American marijuana trade, which in turn meant that Texans had a greater connection and interaction with their fellow heads on both coasts that did any other southern state. Unlike in New York and San Francisco though, Texan psychedelia developed from first principles, and in this sense was truly gnostic, stemming from direct personal experience of acid and peyote rather than being filtered through the media or fashion. Also, Texan psychedelic bands were under far less pressure to temper their vision and make it commercial; being so far from the major centers of the music industry, chances are they were never going to make it anyway. Almost all of the records discussed in this book were released on small local independent labels, that didn’t have a clue about this strange new music, but the kids seemed to dig it so what the hell, they thought, let’s put it out anyway and hope it will sell.
And ultimately perhaps, the simple truth is that Texans just don’t do things by half measures. If they’re going to rock, they’re going to rock hard; if they’re going to drop acid, they might just take enough acid to kill a buffalo. And if they’re going to make weird and freaky music, then it’s going to be the weirdest and freakiest music you ever heard in your life. Enjoy.
When 18-year-old Rayward Powell St John arrived in Austin in the fall of 1959 as a freshman at the University of Texas, the city was almost unrecognizable as the high-tech metropolis it would one day become. The computing and dot com boom that would transform Austin’s fortunes during the eighties and nineties was still the stuff of pulp science fiction, and the city that would come to describe itself as “the live music capital of the world” was still a relatively quiet, conservative community with a population of roughly 180,000; 20,000 of which were students.
“Austin was a beautiful city, a big town,” Powell remembers. “And I was right in the middle of it, enrolled in a major university and living on my own. The living on my own part was the best part of all.”
Powell St John had been born in nearby Houston in 1940, but had grown up in Laredo, close to the Mexican border. His father had owned a farm, and his earliest memories were of exploring the territory, roaming in the desert and along the banks of the Rio Grande River. When Powell was ten years old his father sold the farm and returned to his original career of teaching; the family moved to town, and Powell began attending Laredo’s Martin High School, where his father now taught English and Algebra.
While some high schools gain prestige for their academic scores and others are known for the success of their sports teams, Martin’s claim to fame was its first-rate school band, and potential players were recruited early. Although he had no experience as a musician, and didn’t come from a particularly musical family, Powell had grown up avidly listening to the country music played constantly on the radio in rural Texas during the 1940s; Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, whose 78 single Jambalaya was the first record he owned. Once he’d got used to living in town the idea of playing music himself began to appeal, and when the Martin band director came to his grade school with a selection of instruments for the kids to try out on, Powell immediately put himself forward, settling on the flute. After about a year in the Martin school band however, Powell was forced to give up his first instrument when he began to suffer from horrendous ear infections that left him writhing on the floor, screaming in agony. It was discovered that he had unusually large Eustachian tubes, and doctors theorized that playing the flute was actually blasting the infection out of his throat and up into his ears. Powell quit the school band and the flute, but he was determined to keep on playing music.
Given his condition and the doctors’ diagnosis, it’s perhaps unusual that Powell selected another wind instrument to replace the flute, but it was one that would remain his axe of choice throughout his life; the harmonica. He bought his first harp from the Laredo Woolworth’s, having spotted it in the shop window on the way back from the Saturday morning picture show. On the back seat of the bus home, he mastered the Stephen Foster tune Uncle Ned, and with no apparent aggravation to his ears either, although those of the other passengers may not have been so lucky.
Powell soon convinced his parents to upgrade his dime store mouth organ for a chromatic harmonica that had all the notes on it, and set to learning his chops with a vengeance. But there were few accessible influences or inspirations for a lonely young harmonica player to turn to; on the radio, his role models were more or less limited to ensemble players the Harmonicats, or the likes of John Sebastian (father of the future folk-rocker and singer-songwriter of the same name, himself no mean blues harpist) and Larry Adler, who played backed by a full symphony orchestra. Powell turned instead to jazz musicians for ideas, gamely attempting to apply to his harmonica the innovations that players like Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins were bringing to the saxophone. Unaware at the time of pioneering blues harmonica players like Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, Powell mostly resigned himself to simply wandering around his backyard, blowing Ruby to accompany his dreams.
Powell had no thought of becoming a musician when he first arrived in Austin; enrolled in the Art Department and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he had vague hopes of becoming a painter or of pursuing a career in the army. But although Austin was still relatively small, compared to Laredo it seemed like the big city, and Powell soon found that his horizons were being widened by life at the University of Texas, generally known as UT.
“Laredo was a border town of about 6500, known as the Gateway to Mexico,” he says. “Coming from that environment I was very callow and clueless. Austin seemed big to me then.”
Austin of course was also the state capital, and as such was a hotbed of lawyers, politicians and campaigners, best captured in local author Billy Lee Brammer’s classic 1961 novel, The Gay Place. One of the first radicalizing influences on Powell was the student Civil Rights movement, or more specifically, the staunch resistance it encountered from the authorities and the establishment.
“For my part I was very naïve, and coming from a community where I was a member of a minority group the correctness of the Civil Rights Movement seemed like a no-brainer,” he says. “Therefore I was taken aback by the controversy swirling around the issue. That was my introduction to Austin conservatism, and it was an eye opener.”
Although UT was one of the first southern universities to admit blacks, albeit as recently as 1956, in 1960 its dorms were still segregated, and its 200 African-American students were excluded from varsity athletics, drama productions, student employment and the University Long Horn Band, among other activities. Powell would soon realize that this casually institutionalized racism was typical of a pervading atmosphere of repressive conservatism and paranoia.
“While I felt free and liberated, the town was a very conservative place,” he says. “The University tried to make up for the lack of parental control by providing a strongly paternal atmosphere and closely monitoring the activities of the student body.” According to Powell, the University’s conservatism was at least partly down to its reliance on certain Dallas billionaires for endowments. “They were very concerned about the Civil Rights Movement for one thing, lest it be a destabilizing influence. And when drugs came to Austin the reaction of the authorities was nothing short of hysterical, and the tension ratcheted up dramatically.”
Nevertheless, Austin’s reputation as a beacon of free-thinking liberalism compared to the rest of Texas was already in existence, though at this stage it was based on a small minority of left-wing students, artists, folk musicians and bohemian holdovers from a previous era. “UT was a major university and there were forward thinking individuals and cutting edge work going on there,” Powell admits. “It seemed to me that there was a tension between new attitudes, social movements and outside ideas, and the conventional and conservative ideas of the establishment.”
Powell’s introduction to Austin’s limited counter-culture came via Ramsey Wiggins, his roommate when he was finally able to live off campus at the beginning of his second year. Up to this point Powell had been working hard and trying to fit in, but had remained socially isolated; Ramsey was an equally scholarly young man, but also a member of the Austin Unitarian Youth Group. He began inviting Powell to some of the group’s social functions and parties.
Unlikely as it may seem, Austin’s Unitarian Youth Group were considered by some to be the hip kids in town. They were young intellectuals and aesthetes with strongly held left-wing beliefs, the sons and daughters of liberal Democrats and veterans of the Labor Movement who had been brought up to believe in peace, social justice and equality. They also held a passion for art and music, and folk music in particular.
At the very beginning of the 1960s the folk music revival, which would soon claim Bob Dylan as its Messiah and then its Judas, was in full hootenanny swing. It had yet to really penetrate the mainstream however, and remained largely the preserve of the socially-concerned, college-educated elite. While their younger brothers and sisters were listening to Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, these liberal folkniks upheld a sometimes spurious but always well-meant cult of authenticity, and sought out the unsung originators of the blues and folk music the more celebrated rock n’ rollers expanded upon, or commercially exploited and diluted, depending on your point of view. The more committed and thoughtful would also risk their educations, careers and in many cases their lives to support the African-American struggle for equal rights, as well as workers’ rights and the peace movement. They spoke out against the spiraling nuclear arms race, were environmentally concerned, and were generally the originators of what would become known as the 1960s counter-culture. For these young people folk music was inextricably bound up with notions of political struggle and the voices of oppressed people around the world, and Texas and the other southern states were on the front-line of the battle for Civil Rights. Though already an instinctive egalitarian, Powell was relieved of much of his small-town naivety by the Unitarians and their liberal allies.
“These people showed me a lot about life, and the way things work in the real world,” he recalled to the website It’s Psychedelic Baby in 2011. “Whereas a year before I had been a spit and polish ROTC cadet passing in review every Thursday, I was now marching in a protest line trying to bring racial integration to the movie houses just across the street from the UT campus.” As a result of the protests, the State and Paramount movie theaters both agreed to integrate in September 1961, and University housing was finally integrated in 1964. However, as late as the fall of 1963 Austin’s 24,413 African-American residents were still barred from over half of the city’s white-owned restaurants, hotels, motels, business schools and bowling alleys, and discrimination in housing and employment was sadly commonplace.
Simultaneous with Powell’s political awakening was his introduction to folk music. Ramsey Wiggins’ teenage younger brother, Lanny, was an accomplished singer, guitarist and banjo player, who scoffed when Powell told him that he didn’t know any folk songs. “Do you know The Ballad of Jesse James?” he asked, almost rhetorically as the song was a part of most every Texan childhood. “Sure,” said Powell, for whom it also held a special personal resonance, as he was brought up with the cherished and oft-repeated legend that his family was actually related to the famous outlaw. “Well, that’s folk music,” Lanny replied, and began playing the song, encouraging Powell to join in on harmonica. Powell had found his métier, and the two became a folk duo: the Waller Creek Boys.
The Waller Creek Boys were named after an urban watershed that meanders through downtown Austin and makes its way towards the university, becoming an area of shady, wooded parkland where students would traditionally gather to relax before or after classes. In 1969 it would be the scene of violent confrontation between student protesters and the authorities, when 40 trees were cut down to make way for an expansion of the University Football Stadium, and later fell into disrepair. In 1961 however the name still evoked a laid-back, urban-pastoral vibe, and associated the duo with a particular social scene among the students.
The Waller Creek Boys performed at student parties, summer picnics and anywhere that people were prepared to listen; one regular haunt was the weekly Folk Sing held every Wednesday evening in the UT Student Union, organized by Stephanie Chernikowski. Starting in early 1962, this was an informal gathering where anyone could get up and sing or play a song to their peers. Though small and unambitious to begin with, the Folk Sing would prove a vital cultural catalyst, and as the folk scene became increasingly hip and received attention in the mainstream press attendance snowballed. Starting with an initial group of a dozen or so amateur musicians, at its peak the Folk Sing would see nearly a hundred music fans and general non-conformists, including many younger kids who were members of the Folk Music Club at Austin High School, crammed into the student cafeteria, known as the Chuck Wagon. A more selective and low-key hangout was the backyard of a rundown apartment complex where a number of older artists, musicians and leftover beatniks lived, a building that Powell soon nicknamed the Ghetto.
The Ghetto was former officers’ quarters, built during World War II and, like many such buildings, sold to the public once the war was over. A two story structure that had been converted into apartments, it was located at the end of a gravel drive somewhat off the street and behind another house, hence its unconventional address: 2812 ½ Nueces Street. Through the late fifties and into the sixties, this building was home to a collection of poets, writers and artists who made up Austin’s somewhat belated Beat Generation.
“Let me stress, these were not sumptuous accommodations,” says Powell, who says that when he later moved into the building he paid sixty dollars a month, utilities included; cheap even for 1962 (other accounts put the monthly rent as low as thirty dollars). Because of both the low rent and the privacy afforded by being off the street, the building attracted individuals from throughout Austin’s small but active bohemian community, and a younger crowd soon moved in as the beats moved on. It also became a place where like-minded spirits knew they could hang out and socialize without being threatened or ostracized by the straight majority.
“It was an island of hipness in a sea of conformity,” Powell remembers. “Being poor and feeling marginalized and under-appreciated by the dominant paradigm, we tended to hang together, fearing that if we didn’t we would hang separately. For that reason the place was called the Ghetto, in reference to the Warsaw Ghetto where another group of people had been brutalized.”
Though the Austin authorities were convinced that the Ghetto was a viper’s nest of subversive intentions, in reality it was just a rundown party space, where individuals of a liberal and pacifist bent would gather to drink beer and play music. There were two apartments on the ground floor and three above, one of which was a small studio apartment over a garage. This was taken by the first of Powell’s circle to move into the building, long before he gave it its distinctive nickname; a musician named John Clay.
Though not widely known, Clay was a hugely influential figure in the early Austin music scene. A singer-songwriter and banjo player, he was often known as John the Dishwasher, from his job at a North Austin coffee house. Long and lean with close-cropped blonde hair, Clay was also a Linguistics student and a familiar sight around the UT campus, always dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt (before such a look became the unremarkable norm) and carrying a banjo.
“The first time I became aware of John was one day when I was in line at the cafeteria in the UT Student Union,” Powell recalls. “A rather unusual individual was in line behind me, pushing a food tray with one hand and clutching a banjo with the other. It was early for dinner and some of the dinner offerings had not yet emerged from the kitchen. As we approached the cashiers’ station and I was paying for my food this person leaned over and addressed the lady taking the money. Stabbing with his finger, gesticulating and struggling to form his question and get the words out he said, ‘How, how, how long for the hamburger?’ That was my first experience of John Clay.”
Clay’s stammer mirrored a corresponding lack of physical co-ordination, which hampered his banjo playing and made many see him as a gawky clown. The banjo was not taken seriously as an instrument anyway, unless one could play with showboating, rapid-fire dexterity like Earl Scruggs. “Many times when he would attempt to play a song he would get into it about halfway then make a mistake and stop,” Powell remembers of Clay. “He would then start the song again from the beginning. As one can imagine, this made it very frustrating for an audience to listen to John’s performances.”
Clay’s major gift though was as a narrative poet and songwriter, capable of crafting song lyrics that were by turns droll and amusing or thoughtful and sensitive. Many told long stories packed with historic and social detail. “I credit two individuals with giving me the idea that I could write songs,” Powell states; “John Clay and Bob Dylan.”
Dylan of course was in the ascendant nationally, his first few albums proving that it was possible to write new songs within the folk tradition, and with a unique individual voice that seemed both ancient and modern. But Clay was proof that one could be a songwriter closer to home too. “He was much further along in his study of traditional music than I was, and his study was more detailed,” Powell admits. But nevertheless, Clay’s songwriting was something that Powell could aspire to, and soon Powell’s own original compositions began appearing in the Waller Creek Boys’ sets, alongside Lanny Wiggins’ vast store of traditional material.
Alongside the Civil Rights crowd, the art students and the folk music aficionados, another group that contributed to the small but lively counter-culture in Austin at this time was centered on the alternative student magazine, the Texas Ranger. In stark contrast to the straight-laced official campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, the Texas Ranger was satirical and irreverent in its intent, and was renowned beyond the university campus, winning several national awards for best college humor magazine. The unpaid staff and hangers-on around the magazine were a hip and hard-drinking bunch who styled themselves ‘the Rangeroos,’ and included some of the future founders of the 1960s underground comix phenomenon. Artist Jack Jackson (AKA Jaxon) and writer Dave Moriarty shared an apartment above Powell St John at the Ghetto, and from 1962 the Texas Ranger was edited by a rangy 22-year-old graduate student and cartoonist named Gilbert Shelton. Shelton’s most important contribution to the magazine was the ground-breaking superhero parody Wonder Wart-Hog, which began that year and would soon gain fame and notoriety around the world. The strip’s vicious parodies and deconstructions of everything crew-cut America held to be right and true, along with its visceral, grungy and apparently careless art style, set the tone not only for the tiny Austin underground but for the wave of street hippy and even punk culture to come.
These people were the natural audience for the Waller Creek Boys, an anti-establishment, post- beatnik social circle that valued honesty and authenticity above all else, and were quick to ridicule anything that reeked of humbug, pretension or hypocrisy. They were angry about injustice, in love with art and music, and in unqualified revolt against the bland, status-seeking conformity they’d been all but smothered by all their lives. But although they had the attitude down, the Waller Creek Boys were nothing particularly special musically, as Powell would be the first to admit. All this would change however when they recruited a new singer; a first year UT student by the name of Janis Joplin.
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).