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Thursday, 20 October 2011


Children of the Revolution we may have been, but for the grizzled soixante-huitards among us, it seems that for much of our political lives we have been fighting bitter rearguard actions. It was the late 1970s when the employers and the ruling class began in earnest their drive to weaken the UK working class through attacking the trade unions, using the freedom this gave to impose an ever freer market. For those on the revolutionary left, the hopes and excitement of 1968 turned, in the 80s and 90s, to a grim determination to hold things together in difficult circumstances.

Significant victories, like the toppling of Thatcher and, on an international level, the ending of apartheid, were the exception rather than the rule. And even when we managed to rid ourselves of the vile Tories we found ourselves saddled with the poisonous Thatcherite authoritarianism of New Labour, intensely relaxed about the filthy rich and eager to crawl even further up the arse of a newly active US imperialism.

Then from 2007 onwards economic crisis went into the mix...”The left has shot its bolt,” crowed rightwing commentators, pointing to the absence of struggle or of any alternative left programme, the timidity and feebleness of the traditional social democratic parties, and the rise of the corporate-funded deranged Tea Party movement in the US...

But then things started to change...

Those of us who are still here, still revolutionary socialist and still determined to forge a different sort of society were always sustained by an awareness of three things. First: the system is untenable and carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Second: the masses of people are eventually forced to fight back, whether they want to, particularly, or not. This is not to do with individual psychology or pathology: it is part of the dynamic of capitalism. Third: due to factors we still do not fully understand, when conditions are right, fightback goes global: 1848, 1919, 1968...And then things can really change...

What first convinced me of the absolute necessity of socialism was the realisation that not only was the system unjust and alienating, but that, to cap all that, it had a tendency to bloody destroy itself. Which, given its omnipresence, meant destroying everything else. The destruction was economic, political, environmental, and meant, at the last, the physical destruction of war.

But the contradictions of capitalism also undermine it. The very dynamic that pumps its lifeblood and causes its heart to beat causes it to self-destruct. The very inequality it loves creates a situation where, ultimately, the person down at the bottom of society, the worker/consumer, cannot afford to live. Or to consume, which to the capitalist amounts to the same thing.

Marx showed how, under capitalism, technology and rising levels of productivity increase the wealth in society while simultaneously diminishing the economic value of this wealth. This creates a permanent long-term tendency for a decline in the rate of profit. This firstly means that the capitalists are constantly driven to attack workers to sustain profit margins. It also means constant crises of overproduction in the midst of general underconsumption. In more forthright words, poverty is created in the midst of plenty. This was what the ‘sub-prime’ scandal of 2007 was all about.

The whole point of the neoliberal turn taken by capitalism in the late 1970s was to increase profits for the tiny layer of people that actually own and run the world. In this it was wonderfully successful. In fact, after neutralising the unions, neoliberal capitalism was so good at exerting downward pressure on wages and accumulating ever huger quantities of capital that increasing numbers of ordinary people were only able to bridge the gap between what they needed and what they earned by using credit. Getting into debt in other words. As this happened many basic things like access to a reasonable home and shelter slid out of the financial reach of many.

Capitalism is a dynamic system – it is driven by its need to always find new markets. So with the freeing up of credit and finance capital the financial institutions thought they’d try a new line: they’d start selling things to people with no money. Makes sense, right? The US subprime housing market concentrated on selling homes to people who would never be able to afford them. If this was not actually illegal it should surely have been. The mortgage companies basically targeted poor and financially vulnerable people who had bad credit ratings and looked as if they would default, then they saddled them with crippling loans, on initially enticing teaser rates that suddenly rocketed, so that they defaulted. The companies knew that when this happened they would repossess. Win-win. For the companies. For the customers, it was lose-lose. Homelessness beckoned. For millions...

This blatant exploitative confidence-trick was sustained by a web of arcane and incomprehensible financial instruments – derivatives, credit-default thingummies, etc etc – high-tech names for deliberately over-complex things all designed to obscure their real function which was to make obscene amounts of cash for the companies while financially screwing the customers into the ground. Let’s not get dewy-eyed and sentimental about this, friends. The system is not designed to meet human needs. It is there to make profits.

The ancient Greeks had a word for this sort of contempt and arrogance, which their present-day descendents are now also familiar with, and have recognised in the eyes of their government ministers and IMF officials– hubris. Hubris: a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of their own competence and capabilities by the rich and powerful.

This next bit we know. The implosion of the subprime market triggered the greatest recession since the 1930s which is the reason why, as I write, the second day of a Greek general strike is starting up, protestors have been fighting the police in Rome, even in Britain there have been riots and the biggest strike since 1926 is brewing while young people worldwide are occupying city squares in protest against capitalism.

The other great confidence-trick was, after the bank bailouts, the deflection of attention away from the financial institutions and the governments that allowed them to do the sort of thing I’ve just described. Suddenly, rather than decisions being made about disciplining and regulating the obscenely super-rich banks, making the scumbags at least accountable to some sort of democratic control to stop them fucking it all up all over again, instead there was a sudden focus on this big amount of money we’d handed over. Suddenly there was this problem of ‘the deficit.’ By that they meant “money you used to have but which we have now given to the bankers.”

But that only has consequences for us. It has no consequences for the bankers. For the bankers it means bigger bonuses and some more champagne at the wine bar, maybe a few more lines of coke, a new car, a new extension. For us it means the dismantling and destruction of the so-called ‘welfare state’ and the plunging of ordinary people deeper into poverty, indebtedness, homelessness and destitution.

It’s as if the dismantling and destruction of Dale Farm I’ve just been watching on BBC News 24 is a physical depiction – a premonition almost – of the future for all of us if we don’t fight now. What Basildon council, the police and bailiffs are doing to Dale Farm is what the Tories and their Lib-Dem patsies want to do to all our lives, to the NHS, to the benefits system, to education and all the rest of it.

First they came for the Travellers and I did not speak out for I was not a Traveller, and then when they came for me there was nobody there to speak out for me... And by the way, we can see writ large in places like Greece that if this bit doesn’t work there is no plan B. If pouring all your money into the pockets of the bankers doesn’t work, the only plan is to keep pouring.

How the media has continued to play down resistance! Even after the student revolt of November 2010 and the sacking of Millbank and the illegal kettling of thousands of school and college students, the Guardian ran a piece saying that everything had gone quiet after that. The political apathy of students and young people in general has been a constant trope in the media for years. You know the sort of thing: “Richard would rather go on his Xbox 360 or check his share options than go on a demo.” And even when teenagers riot, the Independent will moan that it’s not like the political riots of the old days.

The BBC, although you obviously defend a publicly-funded system, has been as appalling as you’d expect. It still continues to deny anything but the most cursory coverage to the Occupy the World movement, while putting on instead wall-to-wall re-runs of celebrity culture, anything to do with the royals, reality TV and quiz shows. I looked at al-Jazeera the other night and it was hosting an intelligent studio analysis of the uprisings breaking out across the world. I went to Russia Today for an interview about the economic crisis with an author and academic. Then I turned to BBC News 24 to find an apparently serious discussion about why more and more people are wearing amulets.

We should never underestimate the ability of events to go to the right as well as to the left. That was the message of the 1930s. Even in the 1970s, instead of going from strength to strength after the industrial victories of ‘72 and ’74, and really sticking it to the system, we got Thatcher, downturn and the defeat of the miners. 1973 in Chile was the starkest indication of how advances by the left can be reversed.

Can the resistance succeed? Yes. Will it succeed? It’s far too early to say. And anyway what do you mean by success? In a sense it’s the wrong question. At the moment, just the fact that anti-capitalist momentum appears to be building is a real cause for hope. To be honest, the very fact that it’s happening at all feels like a major victory. As Socialist Worker pointed out, the mass demonstrations of 15 October were the biggest globally co-ordinated action since the 15 February 2003 protests against the Iraq war. It’s really important that this is an international movement, given the danger that economic crisis and collapse can help build nationalistic movements of the far right.

The ruling class will use all its power to split us up, to divide us and to turn us against each other. Divide and rule is still a hugely effective tool. So, those in work are told that benefit cheats threaten them. Indigenous workers are told immigrants threaten them. Or Muslims are demonised. Or asylum seekers. Or Travellers. Or gays. Or old people. Or young people. Somebody like David Starkey will pop up and try to make new forms of racism respectable. The EDL will try to persuade people that their vile ideas are an answer their problems. And as well as fraud, there will be force. The ruling class will use its police and sometimes its army to enforce law and order. The return of the Greek junta? One solution for the Greek ruling class? Who knows?

But the fact that struggle seems to be generalising has to be good. In Britain the weaknesses are obvious, in terms of working-class organisation, especially in rebuilding a rank and file movement in the trade unions.

So the tasks for socialists are obvious. We need to bring the spirit of the Occupy protests into the organised working class in the process of building the 30 November strike into the biggest anti-government protest this country has seen for decades. A mass movement which demonstrates that there are forces moving which won’t wait for Labour and the pathetic Milliband to catch up, which are about more than who performs best in Prime Minister’s Question Time. There is something happening which is to do with much more than the question of which despised and pampered MPs get to misrepresent people for the next 5 years. This is a movement which is interested in something different...A movement that is interested in changing the world...

Whether we win or lose is in the balance but now at least it feels like we’re going in with a fighting chance...

When the rulers can’t go on ruling in the old way, and the people refuse to go on in the old way...

If not us, who?

If not now, when?

Monday, 3 October 2011

ADORNO & JAZZ (Part 2)

This is the second extract from a piece I wrote on Adorno and Jazz, part of a longer article in which I analyse, from a socialist perspective, Adorno's critique of the genre...

Adorno's critique of the commodification of culture extends to classical music insofar as it is fragmented by commercial pressures, and "served up" to the masses in a form which, in tearing it out of context, renders it aesthetically meaningless. The process of commodification tears the heart and meaning out of classical music just as surely as it does "pop" music. As he says: "The difference in the reception of official "classical" music and light music no longer have any real significance. They are only still manipulated for reasons of marketability."

However, he is particularly abrasive about jazz and its associated musical forms, presumably since it has no cultural pre-history outside the context of modern capitalism and commercial mass consumption. Among Adorno's examples of types of "temple slave" he specifically singles out the "jazz enthusiast who legitimizes himself by having knowledge about what is in any case inescapable." For Adorno, jazz (and by implication everything that fed into it, including the blues) seems to embodify the worst aspects of cultural commodification and fetishization, and since its internal laws are radically different from those of the European classical musical tradition, he views it as somehow a defective, inferior form of culture which is utterly, irrevocably debased. Both classical and "pop" music are disintegrated by commodity fetishization, but in this process it is "pop" music which is tested to destruction. As he says: "If atomized listening means progressive decomposition for the higher music, there is nothing more to decompose in the lower music."

He goes on to argue that since jazz is rigidly formulaic and totally standardized "the charms which (the listeners) enjoy must be of an approved type." Of dissonance in jazz - the so-called "blue notes" - he argues that although "even techniques of intentional misplaying have appearance of harmlessness accompanies all these customs". He further argues that every "extravagant sonority" in jazz must be produced in such a way that the consumer hears it "as a substitute for a "normal" one." He argues that the characteristic elements of jazz are presented in a fragmented, dissociated way, so that "all that is realised is what the spotlight falls on - striking melodic intervals, unsettling modulations, intentional or unintentional mistakes, or whatever condenses itself into a formula." He draws a parallel between the way jazz is listened to and Walter Benjamin's notion of the state of distraction which is the condition in which people view a cinema film. "Deconcentrated listening", he argues, "makes the perception of a whole impossible."

Adorno's analysis of the impact of commodification upon popular culture is striking, as is his description of the fragmenting, atomising effect of the new technology of the time both on the cultural forms and the individual consumers upon which it impacted. However, the conditions under which he was writing (about which I shall say more later) meant that he adopted an overly pessimistic view of what the likely effects of the commercially-driven new technology would be. This pessimism led him to see "the masses" as being completely passive in the face of the mass commodification of culture which he described so vividly and hated so utterly.

He also had no cultural yardsticks against which to measure the new music except those of European "high" culture. Although he recognised that the roots of jazz and blues were in the music of slaves, he had no real sense of the black oral tradition from which American popular music had sprung. He does not acknowledge the music's specific history, its distinct value-systems, its function in black society, and in particular its role as a psychological and ideological barrier, a communal weapon against the racist conditions under which it developed. All these qualities gave the blues and jazz its enormous strength and vitality, and accounted in large part for their popularity not just in the black communities, but across ethnic boundaries, both nationally and internationally.

Although the conditions under which Adorno wrote may explain the particular quality of his antagonism towards the new music, I believe his violent antipathy repays study, since it crystallizes and puts into a specific ideological context much that was expressed at the time, and is still felt (though less often expressed), from a "high cultural" standpoint, about popular music. Although Adorno's critique of popular culture was rooted in a Marxist analysis of commodity fetishization, which gives it its particular strength, in his attitude towards "the usual commercial jazz" he was not so dissimilar from this moralistic voice, heard twenty years earlier, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (20 June 1918): "Why is the jass music and, therefore, the jass band? As well ask why is the dime novel or the grease-dripping doughnut. All are manifestations of a low streak in man's tastes that has not yet come out in civilization's wash."(2) Or this portentous passage from a 1921 edition of the Ladies' Home Journal, written by Rabbi Stephen T. Wise: "...when America regains its soul, jazz will go - not before - that is to say it will be relegated to the dark and scarlet haunts whence it came and whither, unwept, it will return after America's soul is reborn."(3) Adorno, like the Times-Picayune, saw jazz as part of a wider social degeneration into an inferior and debased popular culture, and, like the good Rabbi, regarded its effects on its listeners as utterly deleterious. In the next section I shall go on to look at the historical and ideological forces which shaped Adorno's views of popular music.

Adorno was writing at a time when he was, both literally and in cultural terms, not at home. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he had come to America in 1938, and had found that society, and its much more high-profile and pervasive popular culture, not to his liking. His extreme alienation from American popular music, especially what he categorized as "the usual commercial jazz", comes through quite clearly in this essay. He calls it "trash," "a drug," "unreal," "silly," "nonsensical," "vulgarized," "dreadful," "debased." He regards the instruments used, such as the guitar, banjo and accordian, as "infantile," "intended for players who cannot read the notes," and as much inferior to the piano.

Significantly, he reserves his special scorn for the people who listen to the music, the "fans," regarding them as "victims" of a "sadomasochistic" mass culture. He talks of "the tired businessman (who) can clap arranged classics on the shoulder and fondle the progeny of their muse," who is "confirmed in (his) neurotic stupidity" by feeling that by listening to popular music he is somehow "involved in Mr Know-Nothing's enterprises." Several times Adorno compares those who listen to jazz with children. "Regressive listeners behave like children", he says; they are like "a child (who) imitates the teacher"; their involvement with popular music makes them like a "child with a sweet the candy store." Their listening is "infantile listening." They are "childish; their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded." Adorno expresses an unbridled disgust for these new primitives, trapped in an "infantile milieu" of masochistic alienation, who "wrench open a great formless mouth with shining teeth in a voracious smile, while the tired eyes are wretched and lost above."

Later, he talks of the jazz dancers, the "jitterbugs," who "behave as if they were electrified by syncopation", but for them the "weak flesh punishes the lies of the willing spirit; the gestural ecstasy of the infantile listener misfires in the face of the ecstatic gesture." The music, he says, promises freedom, passion, eroticism and ecstatic liberation from the mundane, but these are precisely the things which it can never deliver, since under the atomising impact of contemporary capitalism and commodity fetishism the cultural form has disappeared into meaningless fragments, and can now objectively only serve to further enslave its listeners in the frenzied pursuit of "pseudoactivity."

Adorno scorns the "jitterbugs", who, he says, have adopted the name "as if they simultaneously wanted to affirm and mock their loss of individuality, their transformation into beetles whirring around in fascination." But, he says, "Their ecstasy is without content...It is stylized like the ecstasies savages go into in beating the war drums (my italics). It has convulsive aspects reminiscent of St Vitus' dance or the reflexes of mutilated animals." This passage is not only remarkable in its visceral revulsion at the music and its adherents, it also expresses a very real sense of the baffled collision between two utterly different cultural codes - European "high culture" and the black oral culture out of which both jazz and the blues grew - a collision whose reverberations still echo today. The passage contains clear evidence of the ingrained racism and paternalism of a white European culture which was regarded as implicitly superior, in its references to "savages" and "war drums", and also in the vivid description of the "great formless mouth with shining teeth in a voracious smile", which seems, in its oblique invocation of racial stereotypes, to evoke an almost Freudian sense of the fear of the (ethnic) other.