Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory (17)

Summer reading for a radical revival
Wednesday, 09 August 2017 14:52

Summer reading for a radical revival

Written by

Mark Perryman recommends some radical summer reading, to help us grapple with interesting times.

The audacity of hope versus the mendacity of the weak ’n wobbly. 20 years ago it took until the early hours before that ‘were you still up for Portillo?’ moment established the sheer scale of the Tories’ meltdown. Two decades on this was different. Firstly, the indicator, the exit poll, came a whole lot earlier, leaving viewers with hour after hour of ‘surprise’ results to look forward to. Secondly, Labour’s triumph, despite missing the overall majority, was both unexpected by the mainstream media and clearly based on a radical appeal. 

Of course nothing stands still in politics. Yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s consensus while new issues arise to challenge us to change pre-ordained positions. Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth were both published prior to 8th June – now they are both required summer reading for Labour politicians and activists who might mistakenly believe that ‘one more heave’ will be sufficient to dislodge the Tories and effect progressive change.

Naomi Klein’s latest, No Is Not Enough sets the necessity for an evolving, always more radical, project in the context of how being against things is never, ever, sufficient – we need to be for something, too.  This is one of our brightest thinkers, writing at her very best.

Rules for Revolutionaries has a similar US bias to Naomi’s book, but is no less necessary to read. Co-authors Becky Bond and Zack Exley draw lessons – what they call ‘big organising’ – from their hands-on experience in the Bernie Sanders campaign. No serious Labour activist can afford to ignore these lessons if a decent second place in the key 66 marginals is to be turned into a runaway victory next time.

MP Thatcherite Offensive cover

The Thatcherite Offensive by Alexander Gallas is an important new contribution from an older perspective – the work of Nicos Poulantzas – towards an analysis of an era most of us would prefer to forget. Taking an admirably internationalist look at the  potential to challenge neoliberalism, the edited collection The Left, the people, populism ranges over a wide range of subjects and European countries, a vital antidote to the parochialism of the English Left.   

Of course such inwardness does get punctured from time to time, recently the #blacklivesmatter movement in the USA has been one such source of inspiration. Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All is the riveting tale of how this movement exploded on the US political terrain and helped begin to shift the boundaries worldwide of debates on race, class and policing to good effect. 

Jess Phillips is best known perhaps for her explosive interventions to burst the Westminster Bubble. Too easily pigeon-holed simply as an arch anti-Corbynite, her book Everywoman reveals instead a grassroots activist-feminist turned MP who more than anything else wants to upset the status quo, whoever or whatever is defending it.

Jamie Bartlett would certainly recognise the necessity of such an opening-up. In Radicals he provides a hugely original account of how outsiders across the globe, not easily placed on the traditional left to right spectrum, are forcing changes on the mainstream.

Leon Rosselson’s short memoir That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority provides a sense of one such source of this radicalism, an important rejoinder to the current febrile debate over what is, and is not, anti-semitic.  But of course outsiders, radicals, can originate from all variety of sources. The English Defence League for a period posed a real challenge to what it was assumed were settled notions of a multicultural and diverse society, fomenting an unapologetic racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration into a street-fighting weekend army.  Loud and Proud by Hilary Pilkington, is a vital study of the EDL in preparation for any revival of a similar type of movement.    

In contrast what might frame an enduring revival on our side? Most would argue that this will depend on the continuing popularisation of the anti-austerity message. Few books will do this better than Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Dismembered, a fact-filled polemical description of the scale and depth of our public services’ starvation of resources.

Housing was a hugely important issue to many of the millennials who cast their vote in such numbers for Corbyn. Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj combines an analysis of the growth of the private rental market and alternatives which would put the needs of tenants first and the profit margins of greedy landlords second. 

There is nothing worse than failing to look back to the past for lessons for today’s and tomorrow’s Left.  Unfortunately, looking to the past often becomes a recipe of being trapped by yesteryear’s models. Don Watson’s Squatting in Britain 1945-1955 is a textbook avoidance of that trait, and it also deserves a wide reading post-Grenfell. Another book useful for those reflecting on Grenfell is Justice Denied, a powerful reminder that righting wrongs is never anything less than a battle – Orgreave and Hillsborough are more than enough testament to that.

MP SwordsInTheHandsOfChildren CVF 1

Gregor Gall’s Bob Crow, Socialist, Leader, Fighter is described as a ‘political biography’ which neatly sums up its appeal. The story of not just a forceful personality who fought his way to the top of his trade union, but the values he sought to protect and promote via the campaigns he helped lead. A very different story is Jonathan Lerner’s autobiographical Swords in the Hands of Children . This is the era of ’68, all that hope, liberation and revolt and when all of that came to nothing, the self-destruction that came next.

Twentieth Century Communism is an uncanny read for those interested in rediscovering the range, content and meaning of perhaps the most important radical tradition of the past century. The latest edition is a special issue dedicated to the literature of communism.

But of course it is 1917 which is attracting the most attention in the Russian Revolution’s centenary year. The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali is not a hagiography, yet the message of the enduring case for revolution shines through, whatever the changes in circumstances. 

MP thumbnail dave sherry 51 37 24 19

For a short and very readable account of the movements that produced the Russian Revolution, read Dave Sherry’s Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed.  Written with a style few other authors would even attempt to match, October by China Miéville is novel, yet politically compelling, a book to appeal to those who remain drawn to the romance of the revolutionary ideal.

For an insight into the culture the Revolution helped produce and then propel on to a world stage 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dalyuk, is the perfect accompaniment.

Over the decades a culture of resistance has taken many forms, the latest #grime4corbyn being too recent to have very much written about it yet. Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps trace the English tradition of folk music in their book Performing Englishness. Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers is a magnificent account of skiffle which along the way Billy claims helped change the world.

MP Punk

Two books that cover more recent collisions of music and politics are Fightback: Punk, Politics and Resistance edited by The Subcultures Network, and the collection edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher called Post Punk: Then and Now. Dave Randall’s Sound System: The Political Power of Music is an unforgiving call to guitars, drums, keyboards, sax, by any instruments necessary to change the world. 

Of course no summer would be complete without the joys of salads, picnics, barbecues with ice-cold chilled drinks on the side. Be overwhelmed with ideas to sparkle the appetite – and without a sniff of meat in sight – in Sam Murphy’s superb Beautifully Real Food.

MP Mike Rosen

And the other treat no summer would be complete without is of course a decent thriller. Chris Brookmyre’s latest Want You Gone certainly won’t disappoint with his customary mix of dramatic plot turns, rich humour and tartan noir. Nor should the grown-ups be allowed to have all the reading fun either. Michael Rosen’s latest creation, Uncle Gobb, reappears in  Uncle Gobb and the Green Heads, hours of fun for young readers. Adults can ponder if this Gobb character is really the living embodiment of the marketisation of our chidren’s education.

Making sense of 2017’s political surprises requires both an understanding of the present and the ability to connect this to a theoretical framework. The reissue of Perry Anderson’ s  The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci with a very substantial new preface is a superb sign post towards such an intellectual journey. Unarguably the most significant populariser of Gramsci, and one of the founders of the modern academic discipline of Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall, has been treated to a recent spate of well-deserved books of late. His partial autobiography Familiar Stranger has been published posthumously with the help of his long-time collaborator Bill Schwarz.  

David Scott’s Stuart Hall’s Voice consists of a wonderfully original format, a series of letters written to Hall after his death exploring the significance of his legacy to so many contemporary intellectuals who remain enthralled by his influence. And Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, edited by Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, is also relevant and more than welcome.

MP SH

And it is Stuart Hall who post-election provides us with our book of the summer too. Wherever we spend the summer relaxing and recovering, the collection Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and other Political Essays is both a timely and enjoyable read.

Both as a speaker and on the page, Stuart Hall brought the analysis of politics alive in a way which is sorely missed in 2017. These essays show a sharpness of intellect and a warm embrace of marxist analysis that are a positive joy to read.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. His own book, the edited collection The Corbyn Effect is out from Lawrence & Wishart in mid September.

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times
Thursday, 22 June 2017 20:13

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times

Written by

Sandy Grant proposes that in times like these, it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all. Her article is followed by a poem by Chris Norris.

‘Tell us that line again, the thing about the dark times’. So begins the most recent of many ‘dark times’ poems written since Bertolt Brecht uttered the words. His poem ‘To Those Born Later’ was written from exile during the early years of the Third Reich. And he used the metaphor ‘dark times’ to evoke a problem about speaking when obscuring language abounds. It is a language that conceals, and by which people acquiesce in injustice. And it need not be by lies, but also by the mundane ways of talking used in everyday life. ‘Dark times’ subsequently became a recurring metaphor. But what does a poet do by using it?

This latest use of the phrase comes from Marilyn Hacker in ‘Ghazal: The Dark Times’, but a month ago. She begins as though recounting a familiar tale, repeating the now customary recourse to such speech at times like these. But nothing about the poem comes off as reassuring. Indeed there is a bitter ennui to it. Perhaps you can hear it in her recognition of some stolid, time-worn figures of speech:

The traditional fears, the habitual tropes of exclusion

Like ominous menhirs, close into their ring about the dark times

Like ‘menhirs’, which are standing-stones, the idiom of the past returns to the fore.  But it is almost as though the words ‘dark times’ might be impotent, become exhausted in their iteration down the years.

This alone is worthy of notice, for poets are those alert to the complacent use of words. What then of these ones? For even the most pithy of phrases can become platitudes, bandied about until dull and spoken heedlessly. ‘Dark times’ could be one such, a worn-out metaphor. So can these words, ‘dark times’, still do something amid the obscuring language of our day?

The question invites us to consider what kind of speech acts poems accomplish. This is to propose that poetic speech is ‘performative’, that the poet utters words by which she does something. And it is to take on the philosopher J.L. Austin. In How to Do Things with Words he notoriously claimed that poetry cannot be ‘serious.’ There is a somewhat weak species of reply to him, which holds that actually some poetry can be serious. Such an approach tries to make poetic speech conform to Austin’s picture of how users of ordinary speech achieve that mundane way of doing things with words.

But this kind of response to Austin rather eviscerates the provocation of poetry, and belies its special way with words. So is it possible to say something more audacious? I think so. Perhaps in times like these we can see that poetry is where the action is, and this by the making of extraordinary speech acts. For if poets do something with words, they do so in some special way. They use extraordinary speech. About that Austin was right. But he erred in thinking that the special nature of poetic speech means that it cannot accomplish speech acts.

Brecht’s poem is a cracking example. For in saying ‘Truly, I live in dark times’, Brecht is doing something. But what is it? What does he do? The very first word, ‘truly’, emphatically marks the commitment to attempt serious speaking. And it is immediately followed by a metaphorical assertion, ‘I live in dark times.’ And Brecht does not merely back up that assertion, but raises the stakes of making it. If you can excuse for a moment my own rather dull prose, I will explain my view that he is both asserting, and questioning whether he can assert.

What I take Brecht to be doing is this: he sees that what speech there is, is darkening, and refuses to repeat it, but worries that speaking otherwise cannot be heard. So he tells us that he declines the old shibboleths, those uttered in order to lay claim to virtue despite the suffering of others. ‘I would gladly be wise’, he says, living a life of indifferent virtue. But this he cannot do. ‘I cannot heed this’, he says. He is asserting that he lives amid obscuring language, and that he- at least- will not acquiesce in it.

But this is not all that his words do. In virtue of its title, ‘To Those Born Later’, Brecht addresses us, and others in posterity. He says that in his time to speak as he does is folly, and so he must speak to those yet unborn. The subsequent ‘dark times’ poems make these kind of metaphorical assertions about the obscurity of everyday speech, and question whether they can be heard as doing so. And, as I have mentioned, they do this by an extraordinary way with words. These poems call attention to their constituent speech acts, using words by which their speakers do something and ask us to attend to it. To put it bluntly, there is both asserting and questioning whether one can assert anything.

Poetry seems an apt way to pose that quandary, for poetic speech is a way of using words that draws attention to itself as such. And it is precisely in this manner that the poet undertakes a commitment to the use of serious speech. This may be seen in Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem ‘Keine Delikatessen’ (No Delicacies). In this, her last poem, Bachmann declares her refusal to use beautiful adornment, to ‘dress a metaphor with an almond blossom’, or ‘crucify syntax on a trick of light’. Instead we are shown a struggle within speaking, as she stretches out across the page words ordinarily left unspoken:

‘hunger

                                    disgrace

                                                                        tears

and

                                                                                                            darkness’

The eyes must rove all the way across the page before they can reach that last word, ‘darkness.’ It is a long, long way down, there right at the edge of the speaking. And the depth of the metaphor, ‘darkness’, does not preclude the force of the utterance, its power to both assert and to question whether one can assert. Instead, it heightens it. It stands out against the obscure speech that she is contending with. It calls for attention, and in a remarkable way. So the poet does something differently, something rather extraordinary, when she speaks in metaphors and references ‘dark times.’ She is struggling to break out of her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

But the use of metaphoric utterances also invites hearers to see that they too are participants in the work done by words. This feature of what is done by ‘dark times’ poems is crucial. For the poet is trying to speak in a way that can be heard as serious by others. The special usages of poetic speech have some special power to ask hearers to recognise themselves as the addressees of these speech acts. For hearers are involved with the poet in the possibility of achieving serious speech. So yes, what is done in speech acts is done in an extraordinary way. But, contra Austin, this does not provide that no speech act is accomplished through poetry.

If the poet speaking of ‘dark times’ does something extraordinary, she also something strikingly serious. Suppose that our mundane acts of speaking foreclose attention to what we are doing in our use of words, that they obscure to us the very form of talk that we are using as we go about our everyday life. This would be a carelessness in talking, as to how one is talking. Suppose that it routinely happens in ordinary speech, although we don’t see that we are doing it. A good example would be parroting speech, in which a person merely repeats what is said, rather than making assertions that are genuinely their own. Glaring examples might be parroting political or advertising slogans. But suppose that we see parroting more generally in everyday speech.

The obscuring character of parroting comes from how it merely apes speech acts of assertion. What you do in asserting something is to put yourself behind what you say, to sort of personally guarantee its truth and ask the hearer to accept what you say on the basis of your say-so. In parroting however, you don’t do that. You just repeat what is being said.  Speaking thus would involve an indifference as to one’s proper role as backer of one’s assertions. They would be uttered because they are what is said, and not because one believes them. Suppose then that as indifferent utterances, others don’t hear them as genuinely our own, or believe them on that basis. But nevertheless they repeat them, for after all they are what is said, what ‘everybody’ in one’s group is saying. So you get utterances that look like assertions, but do assert. Instead, they merely parrot. In fine, our everyday talk would be an irresponsible way of using words.

Such a way of speaking would not be ‘serious’ in Austin’s sense of that word, but spoken anyway, and as a matter of course. In claiming that it is poetic speech that is not serious, Austin said that performatives, utterances that constitute acts, are ‘hollow or void’ if introduced in a poem. But what if it is ordinary speech that is ‘hollow or void’, and poetry that is deadly serious? Perhaps it is in everyday living that we find speech like that deemed non-serious by Austin. And perhaps it is the poets who are the serious ones.

And perhaps it takes poems, with their extraordinary ways of speaking that call attention to themselves as speech acts, to confront us with this? For poets can expose these hollow ways of using language. Consider Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Poem’, from The Speed of Darkness. There is the opening assertion about one’s own times. This is followed by the evocation of an irresponsible way of speaking, which the poet wishes to oppose:

I lived in the first century of world wars

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen…

And here comes the appeal to absent addressees again:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn…

Rukeyser juxtaposes her use of speech to the ‘careless’ words that issue from the authorized ‘devices’. But she also writes of her struggle to grasp her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

..We would try by

any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

In that last line, a personal struggle is evoked by ‘these wars’. And it is one, it seems, that is germane to the world wars amid which she lives.

By the kind of speech acts that they venture these poems do not inform, report or describe. They assert, and they question. ‘I am trying to say this… can you hear me?’ They involve struggles to speak other than irresponsibly. And they evince a quest to be heard, for a speech act does not succeed absent uptake from its hearers. The hearers must attend to the speech act, actively taking notice of it. And they must comprehend it as the kind of speech act that it is. They needn’t agree with what is being said. But they must attend to it, and grasp what the speaker is trying to do: to assert, and to question whether such an act is even possible now.

Perhaps it is this possibility, of reaching those who might notice and comprehend, of finding co-participants in serious speech, that arises amid such poems? Consider then ‘What Kind of Times Are These’, from Dark Fields of the Republic. In that poem Adrienne Rich asks ‘why do I tell you anything?’ And her only answer is ‘because you still listen’. But perhaps the conjunction, ‘because’, is a sort of summons to be attentive. In any case, to understand what it is that these poems do we can see them as efforts on the part of poets to speak responsibly. But beyond the speaker’s commitment we might also see them as a call to listen. In this sense they issue a request to participate in the accomplishment of serious speech.

Achieving serious speech in these times is raised as a possibility, but a fraught and risky one, in these poems. And the extraordinary character of poetic speech lends this a piquant urgency. For here the poets are those who plumb the prospects of serious speech. Contra Austin’s claim that in poetry we see only ‘the etiolations of language’, the effort to undertake serious speech acts is heightened in these poems. But they utter, and quite properly, something of a faltering appeal. The poets, like the rest of us, are mired in the difficulties of undertaking serious speech. So perhaps in times like these it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all.

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The Provocations of Philosophy: Bert Brecht’s message for the age of Trump

by Christopher Norris

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This tutelage is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment. - Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in political events. He doesn’t know that the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of shoes and of medicine, all depend on political decisions . . . . From his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupt flunky of the national and multinational companies - Bertolt Brecht

Before it happened you were in no doubt.
'Unthinkable' you said, and then,
Lest they suspect you'd not quite ruled it out,
'Just inconceivable', again.

'Again', I wrote, but let's not be too quick:
Those words 'think' and 'conceive' don't mean
The same thing, and we're apt to miss a trick
By suturing the gap between.

Of course you'll say it's just semantic stuff,
All this, and the last thing we need
When you've real-world catastrophes enough
For 'act, then think' to be your creed.

Yet ask yourself: which line's the one to take
When those wise-after-the-event
Types say: 'It's happened, so you'd better make
Think-room for how things really went'.

Well, you can either field it with a flat
Though feeble apologia: 'got
Things wrong that time, alas!', or try to bat
It back with a semantic shot.

Then you might say: yes, sure enough, 'conceive'
Trump president I can and must
Since it's a claim that's true, that I believe,
And that has duly earned my trust.

That's knowledge as it figures on the view
Proposed with sundry minor tweaks
From Plato down, though lately just a few
Have differed with the ancient Greek’s

Account of it. Still, you lot have no choice
But to conceive the man as now
Your sworn-in president despite the voice
Inside you that just won't allow

The thought. For thinking brings a sharpened sense
Of that rock-bottom line below
Which politics can't sink lest it dispense
With all the semblances that go

To keep the folk on board. That's why I say
You needn't feel the wise-guy's won
Or pipe down when the hindsight-seers play
Their cynic games by making fun

Of you for thinking it 'unthinkable' that such
A bunch of rogues and fools should come
To occupy high office. There's a much
More hopeful way than acting dumb

And that's to say that lots of things we thought
Or think could never happen did
Or do, which means reality falls short
Or fails to match our starting bid

By throwing up some Bullingdon buffoon
As Foreign Secretary, or fool
Like Donald Trump as fittest to fine-tune
The harmony of states. Then you'll

Do best to keep in mind the point that 'think'
And 'know' are words that come apart
Most truth-revealingly when any link
Between them's always apt to start

A thought-rebellion as it twists and snaps
Under the strain. If you apply
Yourself you’ll find out the truth-value gaps
That show up where the facts defy

All presentations that would have them square
With thought’s demand, or all the best
State-sponsored tricks and ruses to repair
Those tell-tale cracks. Then every test

For truth that's thinkable as well as borne
Out by appealing to some fact
Or other is the surest way to warn
The populace that what they've lacked

Thus far is means or motive to enquire
Why crooks and fools so often reach
High office. Then they'll see how things conspire
So often as if meant to teach

A crash-course in the need for you to steer
Not only by the guiding lights
Of factual truth but by what first comes clear
When knowledge of that sort unites

With thought's refusal ever to accept
A bad reality as all
There is of truth. It's by that lie we're kept
From seeing how far short they fall,

Those villains of this latter age whose sole
Distinction is to far surpass
All previous contenders for the role
Of most corrupt or else outclass

The Borgias and the Krays in every vice
That flesh is heir to. Still they tend
To fester worst, as Trump and Co. suffice
To show, most often through the blend

Of those twin motives, greed for power and lust
For all its cash-back benefits,
That make the turn to politics a must
For any billionaire whose fortune hits

A satisfaction-ceiling. Then he feels
A growing need to exercise
The kind of power that brooks no vain appeals
To business-law but just relies

On getting cronies into place who’ll fix
The rules through a Supreme Court that’s
Itself so packed with cronies (politics
And wealth checked out: all plutocrats)

That your incumbent Pres need entertain
No fear that rule of law might thwart
His family business in its plans to gain
More wealth with their confirmed support.

Just think of this, then think how much it hurts,
That sense of a reality at odds
Not only with what counts as ‘just deserts’
Or once was deemed to please the gods

But with each latest thought-affront that tells
Us, in reflective mode, that there’s
More to reality than that which spells
Out what’s the case yet hardly bears

Such dwelling on. For if it once became
Your habit to keep well in mind
And each time thinkingly review what shame
Those home-truths of a factual kind

Had brought upon you citizens who let
The perpetrators bring it off,
That veritable coup d'état, and get
Themselves safely in place to scoff

At you poor suckers then the chances are
The thought would either drive you mad
With the injustice of it all or jar
On any remnant faith you had

In their ‘democracy’. Then you’d resolve
To pass from thought to act and strive
To square the two, although this might involve
No end of failures to arrive

At other life-goals that required no loss
Of those life-chances premised on
Your up-to-now unwillingness to cross
A certain line. So you’d have gone

Along with conscience and its sudden urge
To strive at last against the old
Conformist drive that recommends we merge
Our purposes with what we’re sold

As virtue by some gang of thieves installed
In the White House or other seats
Of power world-wide. Time, then, to do what’s called
Thought-crime by them and say it meets

The needs of truth and justice only if
Its counter-push against the pull
Of habit and self-interest’s not a tiff
In thought alone but takes the bull

Straight by the horns and vows to overturn
All those unthinkably bad states
Of factual circumstance. From which you learn
What kind of action best translates

Your outrage into something Marx would count
As truly setting out to change
The world, not spinning ideas that amount
To just one tick-box in the range

Of world-interpretations. These then serve
Most usefully to help deflect
More thought-brigades from working up the nerve
To think with practical effect,

Reject the given, emphasize the rift
Between plain fact and thought’s demand,
And so bring better times within the gift
Of you who seek to understand

More adequately how you’ve all been screwed
By those in power. It’s this that made
So many give up fighting and conclude
That there’s too high a price that’s paid,

By their sort mostly, when the facts confront
A counterfactual realm of hope
Renewed. Let’s grant, you’d better make a blunt
Assessment of how far its scope

For action’s always subject to the check
Of a shrewd reckoning that takes
Due stock of stubborn facts that might just wreck
Its long-term project. Where the stakes

Are highest is where commonsense insists
Most loudly, since with all the force
Of thought repressed, that only fabulists
Or crazed ideologues endorse

The notion that mere mindfulness might bring
A switch of some world-aspect as
It strikes the thinker, then new hopes that spring
In quick response, and then what has

The power of energizing thought and will
To act in their pursuit. So don't
Give up that word 'unthinkable', or drill
Yourself in fact-routines that won't,

Since close-patrolled, allow for thought's revolt
Against contingent evils. Keep
In mind how thinkers sometimes need a jolt
To wake them from the placid sleep

Of reason or of propositions framed
In forms that perfectly accord
With logic’s rule. Thus Aristotle named
Them ‘practical’, those smorgasbord-

Type syllogisms that were rightly classed
Among the licit kinds despite
Their purely formal defects since they passed,
In rational if not in tight-

Linked logical array, from certain facts
About the world to certain ways
In which to view and justify such acts
As follow when we reappraise

The case more thoughtfully. Again, this goes
To make my point: that facts which rank
Below what’s thinkable – concerning those,
Let’s say, who ultimately bank

On moneyed interest and on sheer extent
Of public ignorance to hide
Their guilt – are facts that amplify dissent,
Or should, until the rising tide

Of outrage brings the barrage to a head
Of pressure fit to blow the top
Clean off their lie-machine. If what I’ve said
Strikes you as misconceived, just stop

And think: what might it take to power the jump
Of thought that comes to find it down-
Right flat unthinkable, the fact of Trump
As president, or such a clown,

Crook, liar, narcissist, and imbecile
As placed to launch the nukes and wipe
Us all out should he some day wake and feel
That way inclined. If you’re the type

Who says ‘That’s how things are – just learn to live
With it’, then I’ve no further bone
To pick with you or argument to give,
Beyond what I’ve already shown,

As ample grounds for rising up against
This monster and his entourage
Of conspecifics. But if you’re incensed
To think of it, then let this charge

Your anger-levels up until the stress
Arrives at breaking-point and thus
Makes way for actions that alone express
Thoughts once too painful to discuss.

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 18 May 2017 14:21

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital

Written by

Mike Quille traces the links between corporate sponsorship and the distortion of history and art, in two recent exhibitions.

How do the ruling classes manipulate art and culture to secure political consent for oppression and exploitation? Two exhibitions on the 1917 Revolution in Russia go some way to providing an answer.

Most historians of Russian history in 1917 accept that both the February and October Revolutions in 1917 were both clear improvements on the Tsarist autocracy that preceded them.

Most cultural historians also recognise the explosion of creativity and the widespread democratisation of culture which followed the October Revolution. Art and cultural activities suddenly became exciting, accessible and relevant to many ordinary Russians.

But these are uncomfortable facts for our current rulers, who must crush any hopes for political or cultural progress if they are to stay on top. And there are two ways they can undermine those facts and hopes. One is to construct a biased and misleading narrative which ignores historical evidence and downplays artists’ support for the Revolution. This is the strategy which was followed in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, in its openly one-sided and distorted presentation of the politics and art of the Revolution.

The second way is to create a monumental fudge which obscures the real historical and cultural achievements of 1917, through a kind of chaotic eclecticism. This is the strategy followed by the British Library in its current exhibition of ‘a wide range of objects’ and in the mistaken, banal and often meaningless ‘guided tour’ offered by its curator in the Morning Star recently.

Let me take three examples from the curator’s article. The first is this statement:

‘Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world.’

How on earth anyone can write this in the middle of an election campaign in which the Labour Party are quite clearly trying to address the faults of a capitalist society which concern us all, is beyond belief.

The second is the individualistic focus on the ‘personal stories’ of those involved, and reliance on the ‘individual interpretations’ of visitors to the exhibition, rather than providing a broader historically-based understanding of Russian history, which is left for ‘academics to analyse’. Frankly, this is a cop-out, because curatorial practice, including the type of contextual and supporting material supplied, is bound to influence visitors’ perceptions.

It is also disingenuous, because the curators do have a message. They believe that the exhibition ‘can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response’. This is sloppy and simplistic thinking.

History is full of instances where individuals and classes have violently seized control of commonly held resources, and have been unwilling to give them up peacefully. They have had to be challenged, defeated and restrained by force as well as by peaceful argument, in order that most people can have a fair share of the earth’s resources. Of course peaceful persuasion is best, but what alternative is there to force if that doesn’t work to end exploitation? Would slaves, peasants and serfs have ever been freed without their violent, illegal rebellions?

The ‘violence breeds violence’ message conceals a defeatist political agenda. When the law itself is nothing more than a codification of unjust and oppressive social and economic relationships, it has to be challenged and changed by every means at our disposal.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – both exhibitions have been sponsored by the Blavatnik Foundation. This foundation is the beneficiary of Britain’s second richest man, Leonard Blavatnik, who made a huge fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying legalised robbery by private individuals and corporations of the wealth built up by the Russian people since 1917.

So money stolen from the Russian people is used to fund cultural exhibitions which – guess what? – distort the truth about Russian history. That is how dominant classes manipulate art and culture to secure consent for exploitation and oppression.

Have there ever been more obvious examples of the increasing corruption of our cultural institutions by corporate capital, masquerading as philanthropic or charitable foundations? A key demand of any progressive arts and culture policy must now be the complete abolition of private sponsorship of our common culture and heritage.

This article is also published in the Morning Star.

Proletkult banner
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:23

'Culture is not a luxury!': the Proletkult in revolutionary Russia

Written by

 Lynn Mally tells the story of Proletkult, the experimental Soviet artistic institution which was in the vanguard of Russia's cultural revolution in 1917.

Two years after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Petrograd, home of the revolution, was a devastated city.  Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population.  A general opposing the new regime began an assault on the city, bringing his troops to the suburbs.  But this did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations.  At the same time, the Proletkult theatre was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution written by a Red Army soldier.

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Members of the Petrograd drama studio performing a collective reading of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Europe,” in 1918.

Revolutions invariably challenge the cultural foundations of society, whether the participants consciously acknowledge this or not. Many Russian revolutionaries, like their Jacobin predecessors, welcomed the challenge.  They were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and social order.  They hoped to create a new cultural order as well.  But how?  All the key elements were open to dispute—the meaning of culture, the revolution’s power to change it, and the consequences that such change would have for the new social order taking shape.

In the early years of the revolution, the Proletkult (an acronym for Proletarian cultural-educational organizations) stood at the center of these debates.  It began just before the October Revolution of 1917, starting as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers’ theaters, and educational societies.  By 1918 it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a uniquely proletarian culture that would inform and inspire the new society.  At its peak in 1920 the national leadership claimed some four hundred thousand members, organized in three hundred groups distributed all across Soviet territory. 

The Proletkult’s vocal advocates believed that rapid and radical cultural transformation was crucial to the survival of the revolution.  The leadership also insisted that the state support independent artist, scientific, and social programs that would express the values and principles of the victorious working class.  While skilled artists and intellectuals could help in the process, one of the organization’s core values was autonomous creation.  The ideas about art, science, and daily life should emerge from workers themselves.  Another bedrock principle was institutional autonomy, a demand that would soon put the organization on a collision course with the Communist Party.

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First Presidium of the national Proletkult organization, 1918. The poster in the background says “Proletkult.”

Although created by the revolution, the Proletkult drew on preexisting programs designed to educate and inspire the Russian working classes. The most radical was articulated by the Bolshevik intellectual, Alexander Bogdanov, who had been an outspoken opponent of Lenin after the revolution of 1905. He believed that it was essential to educate a proletarian intelligentsia that would be prepared to take over a guiding role once the socialist revolution came.  Bogdanov and his allies formed several small exile schools in Western Europe where they trained gifted workers in science and cultural history.  Several of these students became national Proletkult leaders after the revolution.

Factory committees and unions formed another faction with a large stake in the new organization.  Legalized in the wake of the Revolution of 1905, these workers’ groups quickly became involved in cultural activities.  They sponsored clubs, lecture series, artistic classes, and small theatres.  They also opened up libraries stocked with the Russian classics and socialist literature.  Newspapers and fliers came out of this milieu, where aspiring writers published their first poems filled with imagery about life in the factory.  Groups like these formed a natural base for the new organization.

Participants in adult education classes and open universities also flocked to the Proletkult.  Founded by charity groups and educational societies long before the revolution, these groups offered literacy courses and lectures in science and the arts for a broad audience.  They were staffed by artists and intellectuals sympathetic to mass educational projects.  For them, the Proletkult appeared to be a continuation of their original goals.

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Created for the first celebration of the October Revolution, the banner reads “Proletkult—Proletarian Creation Guarantees the World Commune.”

The first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment (or Minister of Culture) was Anatolii Lunacharskii, an ally of Bogdanov.  He gave the Proletkult an independent budget to begin work.  That money went first to the national organization, which set up a rudimentary bureaucracy and started a journal called Proletarian Culture (Proletarskaia kul’tura).  As the new government took over the possessions of the old ruling class, the Proletkult claimed part of the spoils.  When the Soviet government moved to Moscow, the central Proletkult took over a large mansion on the city’s main boulevard.  This process was repeated in the provinces, where local circles occupied public buildings and manor houses for their operations. 

During the years of the Russian Civil War, from 1918-1920, the Proletkult expanded in a chaotic fashion across the country.  Bolshevik power was tenuous, and the shape of the new state hardly fixed.  This contributed to a kind of free-for-all, where local participants decided who would join and what their group would do.  Proletkult organizations drew in seasoned workers, peasants, and office employees. Some directed outreach programs to housewives. The Tula organization even opened a short-lived children’s group, led by a teenager, whose stated aim was to free children from the petty-bourgeois family structure. In its early years the Proletkult was more plebeian than proletarian. 

The organization’s activities were as diverse as the membership.  Several circles were simply renamed people’s universities, where the same teachers continued their classes with little interruption. While some art studios made posters to support the Bolshevik cause in the Civil War, others focused on color theory.  In many literature workshops, participants tried their hands at worker-centered poems and stories, recounting their experiences in the factory.  In others, they learned to recite the Russian classics.  While most music groups attempted to put new, revolutionary words to familiar melodies, a Moscow circle became attached to the musical avant-garde and began to experiment with a seventeen note scale.  Rather than serving as a catalyst for a new revolutionary culture, the Proletkult was a mirror reflecting the heterogeneous cultural world of the early Soviet years. 

This period of exuberant expansion came to an end with the conclusion of the Russian Civil War. With the Bolsheviks now firmly in charge, the central government began a sober evaluation of how best to spend its scarce funds.  The Proletkult was particularly vulnerable. Associated with an opponent of Lenin, it appeared to have oppositional tendencies. Its initial demand for complete independence underscored that view.  Lenin personally took on the organization, denouncing its leadership and its goals.  He chose to focus on the very small part of the organization’s work that tended toward the experimental and avant-garde. All of this was petty bourgeois nonsense, Lenin claimed.

The attack on the Proletkult was part of a massive policy shift by the Communist Party.  The working class was always a small minority in Russia, and the government now had to find a way to reach out to the peasant majority.  The new state program begun in 1921, the New Economic Policy, was designed to do just that.  Organizations like the Proletkult that aimed (at least in theory) to serve the proletariat alone were out of step with the changing direction.  The government slashed the Proletkult’s budget. Any activities that could be accomplished through regular educational channels disappeared from the curriculum.  Groups that operated in areas where there were few or no industrial workers closed. Very quickly the network of hundreds shrunk to a handful.

The Proletkult now had to strike a new direction.  It turned to work in clubs, and focused especially theatrical work as a way of instilling pro-Soviet messages. Ironically some groups that survived tended towards avant-garde experimentation.  That was particularly the case in Moscow, where film director Sergei Eisenstein led theater workshops in Moscow.  The group there also took part in musical experiments, like a concert of factory whistles.  Art circles gave up easel painting and began designing posters, book jackets, and union emblems.  Many other more visible associations claiming to articulate a distinctly proletarian culture sprang up during the 1920s.  They used Lenin’s critique to elbow the Proletkult to the sidelines.

In its reduced form, the Proletkult lasted until 1932.  In that year the government disbanded all independent cultural organizations, particularly those that claimed to represent the proletariat.  Instead it planned large cultural unions and began to formulate an official Soviet aesthetic, “socialist realism.” The new aesthetic was presented as the expressions of a more advanced state of historical development, a move toward a classless society.  The state’s adoption of this new direction turned proletarian culture, supposedly the harbinger of the future, into the culture of the past. Through these new organizations the doctrine of socialist realism would take shape.

“Culture is not a luxury” might serve as the motto of the Proletkult organization.  Participants’ ideas on cultural creation were expansive and participatory, different from the emerging Soviet state program favoring basic education and labor discipline. The Proletkult embodied the euphoric optimism of the early years of the revolution, an optimism that fostered the belief that any cook could run the state, any union could manage the economy, and any worker could write a sonnet. 

Currently, the U.S. government is preparing to rescind funding from local theatres, orchestras, and news outlets that are trying to formulate their own paths to cultural participation. In the UK, the Tory government’s policy of austerity economics, combined with the massively unequal funding for arts and culture in the London area compared to the rest of the country, continue to make the arts and culture generally more and more inaccessible to most of the population. In these reactionary times, Proletkult is a brave and shining example of participatory and emancipatory cultural democracy for working people.

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 12 December 2016 16:07

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism

Written by

Nick Wright reviews Neoliberal Culture, edited by Jeremy Gilbert, a challenging collection of essays which exposes the ideological and cultural project behind neoliberalism.

Capitalist realism is a useful concept. It allows an investigation of the ways in which the dominant ideas in contemporary capitalist society possess the power to order the actions and thoughts of working people, even as life and work compels a rejection of those ideas. In exploring this terrain, Neoliberal Culture assembles essays that trace connections between neoliberalism as specific set of ideological and social practices and discrete areas of social life — literary texts and technology, ideologies of consumption and food journalism and pornography and the projection of modes of sexual activity expressive of neoliberal culture. Valuable stuff, and other sections takes us some way towards a fuller critique of contemporary capitalism.

Editor Jeremy Gilbert interrogates Mark Fisher, author of the influential text Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? to map out the ground on which an Anglophone array of cultural theorists consider the relationship between the distinctive features of contemporary capitalism and the cultural practices that characterise it. “The hegemonic field which capitalist realism secures and intensifies is one in which politics has been ‘disappeared’,” Fisher argues. “What capitalist realism consolidates is the idea that we are in the era of the post-political, that the big ideological conflicts are over, and the issues that remain largely concern who is to administer the new consensus.”

The highly provisional nature of such insights is illustrated by the speed at which the politics of capitalist crisis has moved. His suggestion — that the notion of the post-political isn’t just an ideological ruse and that membership of political parties really is declining — is a conclusion subverted by the rapid rise of the new political formations that have emerged in contexts as far apart as the Sanders/Trump polarity in the US, Podemos and its alliance with United Left in Spain and, in Britain, the massive irruption of new forces into Labour politics.

Nevertheless, the problems he identifies must concern the working-class movement and Fisher draws on the experience of Blairism as the paradigmatic example of a “formerly left-wing party surrendering to capitalist realism.” This, he argues, isn’t a wholehearted embrace of neoliberal ideology but rather the acceptance that this is the way of the world, that there is no alternative.

We can argue with some of the terms in which this argument is pitched. Class collaboration, rather than representing a latter-day capitulation to capitalist realism, is itself in the political DNA of social democracy and is, historically, what has distinguished its theoretical apparatus and political practice from an explicitly socialist approach. Indeed, it is precisely social democracy’s failure to challenge the neoliberal narrative — exemplified by Labour’s failure to contest the trope that Britain’s present crisis is due to profligate public spending rather than the salvage of the banking system — that underpins the pervasiveness of the neoliberal mindset.

Cultural studies, as an academic discipline, has gained a reputation for harbouring the notion that the connection between transformations in the economic base of society have nothing but a highly attenuated relationship with developments in the cultural superstructure. In a departure from this tradition, the virtue of this book lies in its scope and in the well-grounded nature of its studies. Paul Gilroy’s examination of the ways in which the aspirational discourses of black entrepreneurship work to capture the imagination is characteristically rich in concrete examples which refer back to religious traditions, transatlantic experiences, musical genres and notions of masculinity.

Paul Patton finds both convergences and ruptures in Foucault’s “critique” of neoliberalism and the liberal and social-democratic theories of US philosopher John Rawls. What emerges is the utility of notions, to preserve monopoly capitalism’s ideological project, of individualised competition in a market economy as the default mechanism for managing and regulating human society.

In a piece given extra relevance by the discourses around Hillary Clinton’s candidature for US president, Angela McRobbie examines the strategies employed by neoliberalism to accommodate the aspirations of contemporary feminism. Another contribution by Jo Littler looks at the ways in which notions of meritocracy serve to obscure economic and social inequalities, while Neal Curtis examines how government, as well as knowledge-producing systems like universities and the media, failed to relate the 2008 market failure of finance capital to the system’s sustaining ideologies.

The value of this collection lies in the attention it pays to concrete manifestations of neoliberalism. The weakness, which cannot solely be placed at the door of cultural studies as a discipline, lies in the inadequacy of critiques of actually existing state monopoly capitalism which do not posit a compelling alternative. Political economy is weakened if it does not enrich our understanding of the cultural and ideological superstructure. The discipline of cultural studies is impoverished if it proceeds without an adequate analysis of the economic formation.

Neoliberal Culture is published by Lawrence and Wishart, £18. This review is also published in the Morning Star.

 

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 12 December 2016 14:36

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship

Written by

Nick Wright reviews Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla.

The diverse appropriations of Walter Benjamin – the cultural theorist and critic — of his life and work, inevitably bear the marks of Cold War polarities. Liberal sentiment regards his intimacy with Bertolt Brecht as a Stalinist disfiguring of his sensibility. Gerschom Scholem's account has Benjamin more rooted in Jewish metaphysics. The not-so-New Left privileges his connections with the Frankfurt School.

Against these accounts, the great strengths of Erdmut Wizisla’s Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship rest on his exquisitely detailed scholarship and his irrefutable demonstration that the relationship between the two was not only reciprocal and creative but that it was grounded in a shared world view.

Brecht’s reputation for an unwavering political realism and his unshakable Bolshevism of a distinctive German temper is tamper-proof. Incontestably, it is marxism which anchors his aesthetic.

But Benjamin, who died on the French Spanish border by his own hand — caught between the Nazi tide and the refusal by the Spanish authorities to allow him passage to Lisbon and thus to refuge in the USA - has had the integrity of his ideological standpoint assailed from many directions.

Had Benjamin survived to join Brecht, who returned from exile in the USA to help construct the socialist order, the creative life of the German Democratic Republic would have been further enriched.

Erdmut Wizisla’s studies commenced in the GDR, he gained his doctorate with a study which is the foundation of this intricate and clear-sighted book. He heads the Bertolt Brecht Archive and since 2004 the Walter Benjamin Archives at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and is an honorary professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The book puts a decisive end to the disputed discourse that marks our understanding of the relationship between the two giants of German culture. Its title bluntly refutes the analysis which derives from the earlier Story of a Friendship by Gershom Scholem. Whereas Scholem rooted his account in what are inevitably subjective reminiscences of his friendship with Benjamin Wizisla contests his view with a detailed account of Brecht and Benjamin’s collaboration which grounds Benjamin’s thinking in their shared politics and materialism as much as their friendship.

Thus, in notes on his Commentary on Poems by Bertolt Brecht Benjamin writes:
“The tradition of the oppressed is of concern to Brecht (Questions from a Worker Who Reads) The tradition of the oppressed is also the decisive factor in his vision of the banned poets. Brecht emphasises the basis, the background, against which ‘great princes of intellect emerge'. In bourgeois representation this background tends to be a uniform grey.”

Benjamin’s writing is marked by an exceptionally wide compass — from a deep engagement with German literature, both high culture and the popular culture of the lower orders — but also the religious and metaphysical elements in Jewish culture, fragmentary features of modern life, dialectics, the effect of montage technique and famously, the impact of mechanical reproduction on art.

The core of the book is a section which sets Benjamin’s eleven essays on Brecht’s work against the political conditions of Germany in the interwar years, drawing strongly on the cultural politics of the German left. More fragmentary evidence is available in the passages which give insights into Brecht’s attitude to Benjamin’s work. It is clear that Brecht gave practical support to Benjamin while their personal relations were deepened by shared exile in Paris and by Brecht’s hospitality in the summers of 1934, 1936 and 1938 at Skovsbostrand in Denmark. Many of the photographs that depict the two men show them playing chess during their shared sojourns.

Wizisla cites both Hannah Arendt and Adorno to support the view that Brecht regarded Benjamin both as “the most important critic of the time” and that he was Brecht’s “best critic”.

The book ends with an assembly of surviving documents that illustrate the exceptionally fruitful collaboration between Benjamin and Brecht with the participation of, among others the film and theatre critic Herbert Ihrering, philosopher Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács in preparing the ultimately abortive project for a journal Krise und Kritik.(Crisis and criticism).

Wizisla speculates, drawing on recollections by Bloch, that the stimulus for this project may have lain in the formation of the Nazi Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Struggle League for German Culture). Bloch’s account has as the prospective title Journal of Cultural Bolshevism.

For the specialist Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship marks a new stage in the evaluation of both the period and the personalities and the passages which bring out the intensity and fraternity entailed in their collaboration are where Wizisla’s method is most fruitful.

Wizisla calculates that in that dangerous period after the German bourgeoisie handed power to Hitler Brecht and Benjamin spent ‘a total of more than eleven months living and working in direct proximity to each other’ — a good part of it in Brecht’s house in Denmark.

This is demanding stuff. Wizisla includes the minutes of their discussions around Krise und Kritik., a valuable source and one which demonstrates the ideological convergences and synergies that result from their collaboration as well as the extraordinarily fertile character of this period in which the changes in political direction entailed in the Communist International’s highly creative response to the realisation that the Nazi regime was no passing phenomenon were reflected and refracted through prism of their shared critical thought.

While marxism’s claim to be a general theory makes it especially attractive to people working in a wide range of specialisms it is sometimes true that specialists tend towards revisionism in relation to their own discipline and dogmatism in relation to the over arching theory. It is here that both what might be termed New Left assumptions about their relationship, and more particularly Scholem’s account, which seem to suggest that Brecht’s ideological fortitude positioned Benjamin as a subject, are subverted.

Because Benjamin’s writings are so fruitful for contemporary cultural theorists — especially those engaged in a critical encounter with modern visual culture and mass media — there is a tendency to read him against contemporary political configurations rather than see him in the context of the thirties. But both Benjamin and Brecht were politically active revolutionary intellectuals in a period when the strategic turn of the world communist movement was critical for the eventual defeat of fascism — and because they were partisans of this strategic reorientation their encounter, and their collaboration, can only be read as symptomatic of their shared politics.

Benjamin’s unwavering realism: "A total absence of illusion about the age and... an unlimited commitment to it" and Brecht’s characteristic fusion of political analysis with dramatic effect both illustrate their shared commitment to the idea, as Benjamin puts it, that': ‘the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency’.

Such partisanship in cultural production and criticism is unpalatable to some.

For the general reader or for a partisan of the left it is an exemplary demonstration of the dialectical method in biography mobilising, as it does, both a deep understanding of the conjectural factors — political and cultural — that conditioned this friendship and the interplay of their cultural production.

The book draws on a rich assembly of writings, correspondence, texts, ephemera, documentary evidence and recollections. Clarity could be lost in this rich miscellany without Wizisla’s rigorous method — dialectical materialism at work.

The translation, by Elizabeth Shuttleworth, is of great elegance and clarity — not always the case in translations from the German.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla, ISBN: 9781784781125 Verso £16.99

An end to humbugism
Friday, 09 December 2016 17:03

An end to humbugism

Written by

Mark Perryman provides a seasonal round-up of the best books to cheer up the radical spirit in us all and give us food for Blake's 'mental fight'.

From chaotic Brexit to the triumph of Trump via the summertime Labour coup, 2016 will be a year to forget for many who cling on to an optimism that a better tomorrow remains not only necessary but possible too. The toxicity of racism, the brutal closure of the Calais refugee camp, the political murder of Jo Cox, the human disaster unfolding in Syria and ever-increasing landmass temperatures signalling the onward march of climate change - more than enough to have us all digging into our pockets for the humbugs while giving the holly and the ivy this year a miss. But there’s another side to all of that, for every setback there’s a fightback and in and amongst the mix more than enough to keep at least a semblance of belief in a radically different future. There’s always next year after all!

In Britain, across Europe, and in the USA, progressives are now up against a populist Right, which requires a populist Left in response. The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis is a richly analytical account of the similarities and differences of what this year emerged as a global phenomenon of racist reaction while Europe in Revolt edited by Catarina Príncipe and Bhaskar Sunkara reveal the resources of hope an insurgent European left provides. For the prospects of ‘what might have been’ read Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders and imagine what a President Trump-free 2017 might have looked like.

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Such an alternative right now however remains at a very low ebb. Books that begin to map out the beginnings of a journey back are needed more than ever. Fortunately 2016 began to provide a good variety of such handy volumes. Now out in paperback Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism remains for many the best of the bunch and for those who don’t have it already a must-have for any Christmas radical reads shopping list. A personal favourite for the combination of design, format and writing is ABCs of Socialism edited by Bhaskar Sunkara. A book to bring the optimist back to earth is The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing, pioneer of the ‘precariat’ analysis, who continues his well-studied research to reveal the transformation of work being effected via the rentier economy. An updated edition of the trailblazing Inventing the Future from Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams provides a manifesto of change to counter the miserable terms and conditions Standing’s ‘precariart’ are forced to endure. But of course these conditions aren’t created simply by the world of work. Edited by Jeremy Gilbert Neoliberal Culture provides a much-needed breadth of critique that takes our understanding of the neoliberalism beyond any tendency to cling on to a workerist model of explanation. Taking a similarly broad scope is author Mark Greif, the title of whose new book rather gives this away, Against Everything, the perfect seasonal gift for oppositionalists everywhere, not that they will appreciate the gesture, being against such fripperies after all.

CM nunns thecandidate

After that little lot the season of not enough goodwill and too little peace may require a bit of cheer-me-up. The Candidate by Alex Nunns should do precisely that for the convinced Corbynite, with an account in riveting detail of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power which reads more like a thriller than a chronicle, and that’s a compliment by the way! And for the year ahead, those plotting the downfall of Corbyn’s opposition from the Labour Right have the perfect Christmas present in the way of David Osland’s rewrite of the activist classic How to Select or Reselect Your MP. The annual Socialist Register 2017 edition is entitled Rethinking Revolution with a range of fresh thinking on a great theme ranging from Corbynism, the European Left and South Africa’s ANC to radical change in Bolivia plus a range of essays questioning the legacy of 1917’s revolutionary model.

Of course in 2017 there’ll be no escaping the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Get ready to make it a revolutionary New Year with the classic dissident account, Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution. Or for a wholly original approach, treat yourself to the brilliant comic-strip style approach of 1917: Russia’s Red Year by Tim Sanders and John Newsinger. Quite the quirkiest account of 1917 I’ve read though, and all the better for it is Catherine Merridale’s incredibly original Lenin on the Train which describes Lenin’s journey to the revolution as a kind of communist version of great rail journeys: superb! The latest edition of my favourite journal Twentieth Century Communism has a particular interest in communist nostalgia, ranging over instances of this perhaps not very quaint phenomenon in Romania, Italy Greece and elsewhere. Without decrying the historical significance of the Russian Revolution there are plenty of other starting points for the revolutionary impulse. The Leveller Revolution from John Rees expertly and passionately describes the tumultuous times of the 1640s English Civil War as one such starting point. Not exactly a year of revolution but one of change nevertheless David Stubbs in 1996 & The End Of History chooses the year of Blur, Oasis, Three Lions and the eve of Blair as PM to entertainingly conclude that those particular twelve months were a kind of start for what became postmodern Britain.

To understand the evolution of an historical tradition of thought and action there’s no better collection than the recently re-issued Antonio Gramsci Reader. This peerless thinker and revolutionary’s writings from1916 to1935 remain the single most important application of 1917 to the world after WWI and the rise of interwar fascism; moreover they have stood the test of time better than most. A new collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on Latin America Viva La Revolucion is a wonderful way to explore how interpreting the world can enable us to change the world, to kind of misquote Marx. Today such a philosophy, what was once called praxis, finds many different expressions in varied locations and situations. One example is activist-photography on the frontline between the state of Israel and Palestinian resistance, which is the subject of Activestills edited by Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum.

In 2016, as in 2015 and 2014, too the pivot of radical change on this island remains Scotland. Scotland voted against #ToryBrexit, for a social-democratic and green majority in favour of Scottish independence, led by the most impressive by far of all domestic party leaders. It is no surprise then that writing on Scotland and its politics produces some of the most thoughtful insights either north of, or all points south, of the border. Neil Davidson’s latest collection of richly intellectual essays Nation-States reinforces his reputation as the most creative author currently writing out of the Marxist tradition on the theories and intersections of a nationalist politics. Davidson’s writing combines critical analysis with a grand global overview. Scotland the Bold by Gerry Hassan is focussed more specifically on Scotland yet this liberates rather than restricts Gerry’s radical imaginary which he brilliantly applies to the present and future of this most turbulent of nations.

The dark side of versions of nationalism rooted not in liberation but blood and soil are covered in two powerfully critical memoirs. Gaby Weiner’s Tales of Loving and Leaving deserves to become a modern classic. This is a book that expertly yet effortlessly weaves family and generation into two of the most epic events of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution and Hitler coming to power, while linking both to a consequence that we continue to live with in the 21st, century - mass migration. Fascist in the Family is the kind of title to get the reader to sit up and take notice before they’ve even started thumbing through the pages. Left-wing writer Francis Beckett retells the story of his father: elected as Labour’s youngest MP at the 1924 General Election, he became one of Oswald Mosley’s key allies in the British Union of Fascists, until he found even this lot not Nazi enough and helped found the National Socialist League. Told with a brutal honesty, it is a book of horrific tragedy.

To add some fiction over the holiday break, try Andrew Smith’s The Speech. Taking as its starting point the real-life Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ tirade, Smith engages with themes of culture and community to reveal a fictional plot rooted in reality and hope. Originally published in the wake of Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 the novel We Want Everything by Nanni Balestrini is both framed by this period of revolutionary youth culture but not trapped by it. As such, this is a novel of enduring inspiration as well as a riveting portrayal of revolt. Europe today is a very different place to ’69 and for a chunk of the British electorate they can’t leave the continent quick enough. Bruno Vincent’s pastiche Enid Blyton story Five on Brexit Island is the near perfect stocking-filler for politicos, remainers or leavers alike.

But why should the grown-ups have all the best books? A new Michael Rosen is the highlight of almost any Christmas for younger readers and his latest Jelly Boots, Smelly Boots will do anything but disappoint. Newly translated, An Elephantasy by Argentine children’s author María Elena Walsh combines surrealism and humour via an adventure that is every bit as revealing as it is funny.

CM The Elephantasy

Even post Bake Off sell-off, Christmas is arguably more than almost anything else a culinary event. For those looking to go past the Delias and Jamies, there are three cookery books to expand any chef’s horizons. Ideas to make a break with the traditonal yuletide fare, or simply spice up mealtimes the whole year round, are aplenty in Meera Sodha’s new book Fresh India. Looking beyond Christmas the latest Leon book Happy Salads by Jane Baxter and John Vincent will have any wannabe chef eagerly awaiting Spring to try out the vast range of recipes offered for warmer days. Substantially updated and entirely redesigned, the second edition of Laila Ed-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s The Gaza Kitchen is internationalism as you eat. History, politics and delicious recipes for those who like to cook up some solidarity.

And the perfect gift to put under the tree for the activist who is anti-consumerist until he, or she, realises that means no prezzies? The new edition of Verso’s Book Of Dissent will have ‘em whooping with revolutionary delight not just on the 25th but for the next twelve months too. Or if a different kind of inspiration is required, one from Michael Rosen for all from young adults to fully fledged grown-ups, What is Poetry? It's an easy-to-follow guide to both reading and writing poems, perfect for those with the secret ambition of releasing the inner rhyming couplet. Though our favourite gift is another from Verso, their 2017 Radical Diary destined to resurrect the annual Big Red Diary that some of a certain political age will remember with fondness. Luxurious design, historical dates and details, quotes, illustrated throughout, it has enough to turn the most dogged pessimist into an optimist for the year ahead.

MP walls come tumbling cover

And our book of the seasonal quarter, our number one for Santa’s red list? Well we have not one but two, because we’ve chosen a theme and there is a pair of such outstanding titles it has proved impossible to separate them - so we recommend splashing out and getting both. Trump, Farage the #brexit fallout, has seen a revival of a right wing populism built round a naked racism, and with Le Pen 2017 could be worse still. What we desperately need is a popular anti-racism, not talking to each other to confirm our own opinions but to reach out, not pandering to the haters and the misinformed but conversing and where required challenging too. Daniel Rachel’s superb Walls Come Tumbling Down chronicles one such effort, via music, from Rock against Racism via 2-Tone to Red Wedge. A period when pop and politics, including Labour, learned how to work together towards what both understood in different ways as the common good. But no such effort would have been remotely possible without the singular experience of Rocking against Racism, a story now retold via Reminiscences of RAR edited by two men who set it all up, Red Saunders and Roger Huddle. This a book full of such sublime enthusiasm and vision it can only leave the reader wondering why nothing remotely like it has come again and what we can do in 2017 to make that happen. Daniel Rachel’s book will help convince us of the pitfalls of simply recreating the past, Roger and Red’s that despite this, when culture and politics click anything is possible.

Culture Matters indeed! 

MP RAR

Note: no links in this review to Amazon: if you can avoid buying from tax dodgers, please do so. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution
Tuesday, 08 November 2016 15:39

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution

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Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt traces the contours of cultural policy in Cuba since the Revolution.

On 26 July 1953, a group of young Cubans attacked two of the army barracks maintained by General Fulgencio Batista, who had retaken the country by force the previous year having earlier served as its elected president. The barracks assault ended in disaster, with many of the insurgents being killed, captured and tortured.

In his defence speech at the trial for his part in the failed attacks, Fidel Castro outlined a political programme which became something of a manifesto for the nascent 26 July Movement. This detailed five revolutionary laws and made reference to massive reforms in land, health and education, underwritten by social justice and an end to corruption. By the time of the first formal manifesto issued by the 26 July Movement in 1955, while Fidel was in exile in Mexico, education had become inextricably bound up with culture, in advocating the ‘Extension of culture, preceded by reform of all methods of teaching, to the furthest corner of the country in such a way that every Cuban has the possibility of developing their mental and physical aptitudes’. At the end of 1956, 82 men set sail for Cuba to wage an armed struggle against Batista’s dictatorship, from the Sierra Maestra mountains, which would last a little over two years.

In the early hours of 1959, Batista boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic and Fidel and his comandantes marched triumphantly upon Havana. Almost immediately, army barracks were turned into schools and those from the peasant population who had fought in the revolutionary war were taught to read and write. Before long, attention began to be paid to culture in the sense of the arts and literature, with a few early ideas coalescing that continue to determine cultural policy in Cuba to this day. The basis of the revolutionary approach is that culture:

• Belongs to everyone (as both spectators and creators) rather than being limited to an elite minority

• Should be detached from the market economy (copyright was revoked from 1967 to 1975, in a bid to provide access to the best of the world’s literature, and grants for artists were implemented from 1961)

• Is a form of social production (with humanity’s happiness as its end product)

• Stimulates not only social but also economic development (by increasing the cultural levels of the population in a country emerging from underdevelopment)

• Promotes revolutionary (and hence critical) thinking

One month after the Revolution triumphed, the National Museum of Fine Arts was reorganised, with a grant for its restoration being made a few months later. Museums and galleries were opened in every municipality, exhibiting artefacts and artworks that had previously been reserved for an elite audience.

Film was understood as an art form in its own right, partly as the result of a close connection between the revolutionary leadership and an influential group of filmmakers. The commissioning of film was initially centred on documentaries that attempted to mediate the pace of change, explaining land and housing reforms. Such educational documentaries soon gave way to more elliptical narrative adventures under the auspices of the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Arts and Industries (ICAIC). The film institute was founded just two months after revolutionary victory on the basis of ideas drawn up in 1954 by Cuba’s filmmakers, including Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García Espinosa and Alfredo Guevara Valdés, the latter of whom would serve as director of ICAIC until his retirement in 2000 (with a hiatus from 1980 to 1991 while he worked for UNESCO).

ICAIC was set up not only to commission films but also to disseminate them, via 616 cinemas, 480 of which were built and restored in fixed locations, the rest of which formed part of a mobile cinema programme, being pulled by lorry, boat or beast around the island, as part of the extension of culture to its furthest corner. Consistent with the idea that culture belongs to everyone, the profit motive has been removed from the film industry, attendance costs have been kept deliberately low and going to the cinema nowadays costs roughly the same price as an egg. At the same time, silk-screen posters, which have consistently been used to promote films, capture their essence in witty and colourful visual aphorisms. In this way, the glamour and reverence that typifies Hollywood film posters has been subverted in the same way as the market economy.

Throughout these formative years, Cuba was the subject of growing hostility from across the Florida Straits. Washington inevitably reacted badly to Cuba nationalising industries in which Americans had a stake, and, in 1960, the US imposed an economic embargo which remains in place. In anticipation of the ideological blockade that was about to fall over the island, Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado – who had taken part in the 1953 barracks attacks – was charged with creating a pan-American cultural house, which became known as Casa de las Américas [House of the Americas]. The idea underwriting this institution was that not everyone on the American continent shared the ideological imperatives of the United States, and Casa de las Américas quickly became a nexus for cultural visitors from throughout Latin America and beyond, many of whom came to serve as jurors on its prestigious literary prize. Visual artists also visited from outside Cuba, donating works to the growing collection and making work in situ.

It is important to mention that cultural policy – the operational principles laid down for culture by the state – did not begin to be formulated in Cuba until after the key cultural institutions had been established. This is typically unconventional, and it is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it meant that the institutions were initially guided only by the general ideas which had been established for culture (listed above), rather than being beholden to any overarching administrative authority. Secondly, the delay in forming cultural policy meant that, when this did happen, there was scope for a more discursive approach.

A key moment for this was the First National Congress of Writers and Artists in August 1961, which, as the name suggests, was organised by the country’s writers and artists rather than being a top-down affair. The commemorative publication for this event featured a slogan that had been devised by writers and artists the previous year, firmly implicating their work in the social justice aims of the Revolution – To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture.

At the 1961 congress, an artists’ and writers’ union was formed, and a system of grants was set up to provide living and material costs for artists. In the same year, a literacy campaign was launched which saw quarter of a million mainly young people going into the countryside to teach the peasant population to read and write (ironing out some of the inequalities that persisted between urban and rural areas, which the Revolution was committed to overcoming). Rumour has it that, a few years later, Fidel and Che Guevara were playing golf at a requisitioned country club on the outskirts of Havana, discussing how the momentum of the literacy campaign could be carried over into the cultural field more broadly, and they hit upon the idea of building a world-renowned art school that could provide a creative education to scholarship students from Africa, Asia and Latin America. This led to the construction of the pioneering National Art Schools.

While the National Art Schools provided education to hundreds of professional artists, something even more ambitious was attempted at an amateur level. Tens of thousands of arts teachers, many of whom had taken part in the literacy campaign, were trained to disseminate creative skills to farms, factories and workplaces throughout the island, responding to what Fidel called the transition from spectators to creators. At the heyday of this programme, an estimated one million amateur artists were operating within a population of around six million. This programme continues today, centred on the Casas de Cultura [Houses of Culture] that exist in every town, and anyone can request time off work to attend the National Art Schools for a week of professional training.

The discursive, internationalist ethos of the Revolution reached its peak at the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968, which brought more than 600 intellectuals together to discuss their role in relation to imperialism and underdevelopment. From the UK, such notable figures as CLR James, Herbert Read, Arnold Wesker and Ralph Miliband travelled to Havana to take part in these discussions, and, in some cases, found themselves lagging behind the revolutionary attitudes towards culture that were being developed there. To take just one example, CLR James argued for the abolition of the category of ‘intellectual’ at the same time as Cuba was working towards the democratisation of education and culture in a bid to ensure that everyone had the right to engage in intellectual labour. More generally, the 1968 congress provided a forum for defining the role of artists and writers in revolutionary situations, positioning intellectual work as the ideological corollary of armed struggle and situating artists and writers as the bridge between the political vanguard and the people.

A few months after the Cultural Congress of Havana, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and the story darkens. Relations between Moscow and Havana had been gradually improving since the missile crisis of 1962 revealed Cuba to be little more than a pawn in the game between the two superpowers. As Cuba was by now officially part of the international communist movement, the revolutionary government could not publicly oppose the invasion, which caused the loss of many international friends.

So far, this account has discussed the ways in which cultural institutions were set up and policy became practice, but it has said little about the various factions that had been united under the revolutionary banner. While the insurrection was being fought in the Sierra Maestra, the commitment of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) to the mass movement caused it to oppose armed struggle until three months before the triumph of the Revolution. But, although the party played a negligible part in the insurrection, it had been developing ideas throughout the 1950s, with the leading artists, musicians and filmmakers of the day, which sowed the seeds for later cultural policy (notably the film institute).

This meant that, when the Revolution triumphed, it seemed logical to place culture in the hands of the PSP, and, in January 1961, their members were charged with running a new National Council of Culture (CNC), set up to implement the cultural policy of the revolutionary government. This created more than a little consternation in the cultural field, especially among the anti-communist factions of the avant-garde, and gave rise to some very public disputes, most memorably around the cultural supplement Lunes de Revolución, which ceased publication in November 1961.

In 1963–4, a series of heated debates took place around the kind of culture that could and should be made under the auspices of the Revolution. Generalising massively, more orthodox members of the PSP argued against films like La Dolce Vita and in favour of socialist realism while more culturally active party members and non-partisan artists and filmmakers advocated a situation in which all aesthetic tendencies could be pursued within a dialectical process of acceptance and critique. Ultimately, the latter perspective prevailed, but not before considerable disruption.

Returning to the period after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Cuba’s diminished standing in the international community, we find tensions simmering around a Cuban poet called Heberto Padilla, whose disillusionment with Soviet-derived forms of socialism was reflected in his work. In 1971, Padilla and his wife were arrested on counterrevolutionary grounds. This prompted a letter to Fidel from many foreign intellectuals, including those, such as Jean Paul Sartre, who had previously been supportive of the Revolution. A National Congress of Education, which had been planned for April 1971, hastily had culture added to its remit, and Fidel took the opportunity of his closing speech to castigate the small minority of intellectual traitors who had criticised the Revolution from the comfortable capitals of Paris, London and Rome.

The following five years and more are universally derided – within Cuba and beyond – as the grey period. During this time, intellectuals were persecuted and deprived of money and status. Responsibility for the worst atrocities may be attributed to Luis Pavón Tamayo, a former army officer and lesser poet, who was appointed director of the CNC. In 2001, an attempt to rehabilitate Luis Pavón and his cronies on television triggered a deluge of analysis of the grey years. Central to this, the writer Ambrosio Fornet described how Pavón’s anti-intellectualism led him to denude the country’s established cultural producers of influence over the field in which they operated. Notwithstanding the overall mood of the time, institutions like Casa de las Américas provided a sanctuary for artists committed to the Bolivarian Revolution that had been ignited throughout Latin America.

The grey period officially ended with the opening of the Ministry of Culture in 1976, with the husband of Haydée Santamaría (the former Minister of Education, Armando Hart Dávalos) at its helm, which gradually restored trust between artists, writers and cultural bureaucrats. Pivotal to this development was the first congress of the governing party, which took place in December 1975 and formalised the basis for the Marxist-humanist cultural policy that thrives to this day. The congress sought to establish the most conducive atmosphere for the progress of art and literature. It also relieved artists and writers of any dogmatic expectations and recognised culture as both intrinsically valuable and inherently revolutionary.

Marxist-humanist cultural policy, as it has been uniquely formulated in Cuba, is underwritten by the conviction that those taking up mental labour might emerge from any sector of society. This democratising impulse implies that both passive spectatorship of, and active engagement in, creative production are necessary to human fulfilment. At the same time, the conception of art as a form of social production and of the artist as an integral member of society endures.

 

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt is the author of To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution (PM Press, 2015).

Wednesday, 28 September 2016 14:30

500 years of being unrealistic

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500 years after the publication of Thomas More's Utopia, and days after Jeremy Corbyn's election victory, Professor John Storey explains how utopian thinking seeks to place hope, optimism and imagination at the core of politics. 

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called it the ruling ideas, Antonio Gramsci hegemony, Herbert Marcuse one-dimensionality, and Louis Althusser ideological state apparatuses. What all of these different concepts of power have in common is an insistence that power always produces a particular version of reality. To remain within this reality we are required to be realistic; realistic about this and realistic about that, but above all, realistic about what is possible and what is not.

Like everything else, there is a struggle over the meaning and experience of reality and the demand to be realistic is always an attempt to control desire. But desire is one of the things that make us human. Advertising tries to colonize and satisfy it with commodity solutions. Buy enough of the right things and all your dreams will come true. But humans have always sought to expand it beyond the here and now in search of something or somewhere better. Five hundred years ago in 1516 Thomas More named this desire Utopia.

If we want to describe something as unrealistic the word that is often used is utopian. Marx and Engels used it to describe a version of socialism that thought it could be achieved by mental effort alone. But there was another side to Utopian Socialism, one that Marx and Engels acknowledged and admired – its ability to encourage people to imagine the world in a different way. As they explained in the Communist Manifesto, ‘They attack every principle of existing society. Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class’. Enlightenment or what Miguel Abensour calls the ‘education of desire’ is at the very core of the political power of utopianism.

The role of utopianism is to make change conceivable and to encourage the organisation that might make it possible. It allows us to imagine differently and to think about the boundary between the possible and the so-called impossible in a new way. It can take many forms, both written and practiced, but at its core is the seeking of somewhere or something better. Does this make utopianism hopelessly unrealistic?

Well, only if we think that reality is something beyond human intervention. If instead we understand that what we call reality is a human construct that can always be constructed differently, it becomes difficult to resist Muhammad Ali’s observation that ‘Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion’.

Utopianism always challenges the current ordering of the possible, knowing that the impossible (a historical category) is always open to change. It continually confronts the existing with the possible. In doing this it can expose when the impossible (so called) is little more than an ideological screen in place to discourage demands for social change.

Of course there are what we might call objective conditions of possibility that clearly limit and constrain desire, but often what is presented as objective conditions of possibility are little more than ideological obfuscations designed to force desire to bow down before the twin gods of realism and impossibility.

Unrealistic is always put forward as an absolute, as if reality were fixed and unchanging and always beyond the reach of human intervention. However, once we recognize that reality is a historically variable human construct, the charge of being unrealistic seems far less conclusive and far less persuasive.

Utopianism has what Bertolt Brecht called, in a very different context, an alienation effect. It makes us see the familiar as suddenly unfamiliar. This making strange can have a shattering impact on what Antonio Gramsci called ‘common sense’ – that which hides from criticism as the self-evident, the habitual and the taken for granted. It is this aspect of utopianism, rather than the presenting of blueprints for a new society, that points to its political potential. By challenging the certainty of reality and expanding the range of the possible, it encourages us to desire differently. It points to the unrealized possibilities of human society.

In other words, utopianism promotes a realism that is unrestrained by prevailing versions of reality. It gives us the resources to imagine the future in a different way. Although utopianism cannot change the world, it can produce a demand for change, one that frees desire from commodity solutions and the confines of the prevailing structure of power, with all its realism and limited possibility, allowing us to embrace with Raymond Williams the optimism that ‘Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope’.

None of this might be what Thomas More intended when he published his little book in Latin in 1516. But when he named a desire to imagine and construct alternative realities, that has since manifested itself in both writing and practice, he began a way of thinking and acting that has sought to place hope, optimism and imagination at the core of politics.

We have to first imagine what is possible and then organise to make it happen. Perhaps in the future when you hear or see something described as utopian you will ask the critical question, ‘Against whose version of reality is it unrealistic?’
Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:06

Modern Banality: Post-GFC, Post-Brexit and Post-Trump

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Professor Steve Redhead suggests the continuing relevance of Jean Baudrillard's post-political spirit.

Why are we where we, are post-GFC, post-Brexit and (maybe) post-Trump? Banality rules but Theory beckons. We certainly live, interestingly, in theoretical times. Previously we lived, theoretically, in interesting times. Study on the left globally has attached itself to ‘theory’ and ‘theorists’ as never before. And ‘high theory’ at that. But there has also been a delve into ‘the popular’ of culture as never before, too – both high and low popular culture. The celebrity intellectual culture which has developed inexorably over the past few years has produced open access online journals devoted to theorists such as Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of the key theorists focused on, alongside Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Paul Virilio, in my forthcoming book entitled Theoretical Times partly being written through a website blog post, podcasts, vodcasts, tweets and various other social media. Baudrillard died in March 2007 from cancer but his work continues to be published a decade after his death. His posthumous publications have been very significant in shifting our long term view of Baudrillard - from a banal postmodern theorist to a global theorist with a mature system of thought which made sense of modern banality like no other. His most recent posthumous publication (in a new English translation) from the 1980s The Divine Left: A Chronicle of the Years 1977-1984 shines a light on the politics in France (and elsewhere) of the 1970s and early 1980s. Only French language versions existed in his lifetime. It fits in with his illuminating but misunderstood work of the time on what he called the silent majorities in books like In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities where he investigates the role of the masses in the ‘death of the social’.

The masses, he saw at an early stage of the proceedings which have evolved to the point where a Brexit could happen, banally just refused to play the game anymore. Anyone interested in why the Brexit vote occurred in June 2016 in the UK, or why Donald Trump defies electoral odds in the USA, or why Pauline Hanson’s right wing One Nation party can call for a Royal Commission into Islam in Australia would do well to go back to Baudrillard's texts from the early 1980s and explore notions of 'the divine left', ‘the death of the social’ and 'in the shadow of the silent majorities'. The chronicle of the years 1977-1984 in Baudrillard’s writings in The Divine Left show just how much things were changing in the years after punk culture took on the notion of modern power and how we have never really left the post-punk era.

But Baudrillard’s mature system of thought was already in train by the time the Sex Pistols, Clash, Slits and all emerged on the scene in 1976. By 1976 a key book in the Baudrillard oeuvre was written - namely Symbolic Exchange And Death. It was published in 1976 in French, but not really fully appreciated by English speaking readers until much later if at all. A 1993 English publication helped reorient somewhat but even today his work is thrown away into a dustbin labelled 'postmodernist'. Crucially, Symbolic Exchange And Death contained the theory of reversibility which would become so important to Baudrillard’s writing until his own death. As Sylvere Lotringer publisher of Semiotext(e) and long time friend of Baudrillard put it in the introduction to a posthumous Baudrillard book in 2010 called The Agony of Power 'reversibility is the form death takes in a symbolic exchange'. In 1976, the year zero of punk in global popular culture, punk cultural stirrings were embracing antecedents that Baudrillard shared – the pataphysics of Albert Jarry and Pere Ubu. In the mid-1970s a Cleveland punk band emerged with the name Pere Ubu to globally popularise the drama of writer Albert Jarry from the late nineteeth century which had so fascinated Baudrillard since the 1950s.

Baudrillard's first short book was on Jarry and Pataphysics. As popular music historian Clinton Heylin noted musician David Thomas in 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio named his band Pere Ubu after Albert Jarry’s caricature king because, to Thomas, it added a texture of absolute grotesqueness, a kind of darkness descending over everything which fitted the mid-1970s in America. When I was preparing my own book on the life and work of Baudrillard entitled The Jean Baudrillard Reader as Baudrillard lay dying in 2007, I never got the sense that he was aware of this pop culture connection. In his own lifetime, Baudrillard never declared any awareness of this popular music culture/Ubu connection, though he did once appear in a 'punk' costume of his own. He appeared in a gold lame jacket with mirrored lapels reading the text of his own self-penned 1980s poem 'Motel-Suicide', backed by a rock band at the Chance Event held at Whiskey Pete’s in Las Vegas in November 1996. The only surviving photo shows the short, balding, academic Baudrillard appearing as if he was auditioning for a place in a mid-late 1970s punk band and my publisher Edinburgh University Press duly used it as the cover shot for my book in 2008.

Nevertheless, Baudrillard’s attitude to power, law, culture, sovereignty and politics changed in this mid-1970s 'punk' period. The agony of power was as much about the power of agony. In his own agonising introduction to The Agony of Power Sylvere Lotringer claims powerfully, and in my view correctly, that Baudrillard’s two key ideas throughout his work were that, firstly, reality had disappeared and became replaced by simulacra and secondly that there was a potential symbolic challenge in this disappearance. This mid-1970s period is crucial for understanding Baudrillard’s work for the rest of his life, and especially its political implications for us today post-GFC and post-Brexit as we enter what Slavoj Zizek has hailed as a ‘new dark ages’ and ‘trouble in paradise’. What can be seen in hindsight as Jean Baudrillard’s 'post-punk' work is revealed in all its glory in The Agony of Power, a book praised from within by Sylvere Lotringer as nothing less than Baudrillard’s last'intellectual testament'.

Baudrillard’s posthumous The Agony of Power offers a different view of sovereignty and power from the classical legal conception of power often reproduced in major works of legal philosophy and sociology of law. Baudrillard’s perspective is a form of the 'patasociology' (echoing Albert Jarry's pataphysics) hailed by French theorist of 'the social' Jacques Donzelot who worked with Baudrillard at the University of Nanterre in France. Whilst there are many interesting books in the excellent Nomikoi Critical Legal Thinkers series produced by Routledge, the orthodoxy of the 'critical legal thinkers' chosen on law, politics and power contrasts strongly with Baudrillard’s radical late work on these issues underscored by his idea of integral reality and reversibility. There are books, so far, in the series on Law and Jacques Ranciere, Slavoj Zizek, Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Louis Althusser, Niklas Luhmann, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, amongst many others, but none yet on Jean Baudrillard.

In all this posthumous work, especially in The Agony of Power, Baudrillard offers up a unique theory of power incorporating what he calls 'a double refusal' by which he means the sovereign’s refusal to dominate as well as the subject’s refusal to be dominated. As he points out in another posthumous book Carnival and Cannibal in a passage repeated word for word from The Agony of Power (and partially extracted by Semiotext(e) as the quote on the back cover of The Agony of Power) the radicality of his thinking is in the argument that power itself has to be abolished. For Baudrillard 'it is power itself that has to be abolished – and not just in the refusal to be dominated, which is the essence of all traditional struggles, but equally and as violently in the refusal to dominate. For domination implies both these things, and if there were the same violence or energy in the refusal to dominate, we would long ago have stopped dreaming of revolution. And this tells us why intelligence cannot - and never will be able to – be in power: because it consists precisely in this twofold refusal'.

The refusal to dominate, or to exercise sovereign power, according to Sylvere Lotringer, seeking to illustrate Baudrillard’s theory at its most banal, can be seen in the agonies of those involved in the revolts of May 1968 or the activities of the self-proclaimed 'post-political' Italian Autonomists in the 1970s or the failure of the Communist Party and other parts of the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s in France. They were, in Baudrillard’s theory, according to Lotringer’s interpretation, less than confident in wanting to dominate – they agonised about power, in both their resistance to sovereignty and their unwillingness to become involved in its exercise. Indeed, as Baudrillard has written emphatically, 'power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly'. Although Baudrillard is no longer with us his post-political spirit lives on. There are lesson here for the politics of our own Theoretical Times.
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