Sunday, 18 October 2009

"Democratisation": the great soft-left myth

Momus quotes Reynolds & K-Punk to make a point I've often felt like making but never really known how (in fact, I'm not sure I know now) - that what is most commonly described as "democratisation" actually isn't anything of the kind, and is in fact a self-sustaining myth which does not live up to its own promises, and dresses up an increase in corporate power and control as an increase in mass self-empowerment, whereas in reality it represents precisely the opposite, seemingly only because it may alienate an Old Right axis at the edge of British society who lost all meaningful power decades ago. It cannot be said too often.

Web 2.0 isn't the first major cultural shift the left have played badly in this way: when the state's covert involvement in pop was massively ramped up in the 1980s, a nervous, embattled left threw the baby of articulate, reasoned criticism of capitalism and the means of production out with the bathwater of Hoggartist snobbism, and in doing so rendered itself utterly impotent as a critic of the culture which it falsely assumed, based on misremembered boomer wet dreams, was a legitimate democratic voice - by the decade's end, the left's view of popular culture was pretty much indistinguishable from a reinvented right cowing that rock'n'roll had brought down the Berlin Wall virtually single-handed, and less progressive even than the most insular elements of the Old Left (and, indeed, than some - only some, obviously - of the regimes that fell 20 years ago this autumn; for all Communism's obvious faults, you don't become inherently and instantly more progressive by running to the opposite extreme). During and after the 80s, the same unhappy conclusion - blind celebration of all mass production on the grounds that it fitted prole tastes so therefore must never be criticised, however cynical the exploitative means and methods of its creators were - pretty much did for Cultural Studies. By 1990, much of the left was so deeply riddled with apologias for the narrowing of British television's cultural scope, justified in terms of being "accessible" and not "alienating" the mass, that its only difference from the Murdochian lobby was - and has remained - its reason for holding certain views, not the views themselves.

But perhaps of more direct relevance here, the left played the 80s badly in the precise sense of not using the new forms to convey a clear message in the way the right did: fearful of engaging with those forms at all, it indeed preferred instead to celebrate a vague, poorly-defined dictum of "openness" rather than setting out a definite set of views of its own. All it offered to challenge the blatant neoliberalism of Duran Duran or hair metal, or the world-eating pseudo-concern of U2, was the vague, cuddly, non-threatening multiculturalism of BBC community programmes or, indeed, almost all the black pop favoured by the mid-decade NME which backed go-go against both house and hip-hop. Now there's probably an underlying message here about the inherent incompatibility of mass pop culture and leftist-utopianism (even back then, the dominant gene in hip-hop was aggressive-individualist) and if that is true, and it probably, unspeakably depressingly (because I still want to love pop, for many reasons) it is, I can quite understand why much of the left has long wanted to give pop culture up as a bad job, but the fact is that it has to be engaged with on some level - the alternative is leaving yourself open to something far worse, just as the left running scared from the 1980s speaking in terms of "inclusivity" without stopping to define what they wanted to include left it indefensible against the Blairites (note that I am not aligning myself with Blair's own comments just before he left office, encouraging repression of what little serious investigative journalism there is in the UK and of free speech on the internet - I am merely questioning whether forms of communication which should in theory increase free speech, and often do, also encourage the weak-minded and weak-willed to surrender their opinions to the point where they have practically none left, and therefore work directly against their own best purpose and use).

What is most dispiriting about the present situation is that, just as all the left's political mistakes of the late 1970s have been repeated, all its cultural mistakes of the subsequent decade seem to be being made again: the right is using Web 2.0 just as it used the newly-globalised pop industry in the 1980s - as a platform to spread a message of divide-and-rule rendered misleadingly appealing to the young by its encasement in imagery still very widely (but wrongly) believed to be inherently "democratic". Much of the left, by comparison, aren't even trying - they're using the exact same Cameronist rhetoric of "democratisation", based not around real democratisation (it's a fine word in principle but, like so many, irrevocably tainted by misuse) or egalitarianism, but around the rhetoric of mere numbers, of wealth and power justified in the most misleadingly faux-egalitarian terms, of the fiction that having the privilege of commenting on newspaper websites gives the mass any genuine power. It may well be that the form and style of modern mass culture is inherently shaped against the left. But they - we - should be trying harder than this.

This is also the reason why I don't post here all that often, or fall for the pseudo-democracy (in fact defined in terms of a narrowing of thought and range which is about as "democratic" as Cameron's talk of rolling back the state) of Twitter et al. I post as often as I feel like it. I only communicate when I genuinely feel I have something of interest and value to communicate - I had my fingers burnt by too many years of pumping the air with bullshit because I thought it had to be said, or was somehow worth saying. That may put me out of sync with the spirit of the age, in some ways, but I still make use of the communicative aspects of Web 2.0 to challenge the neoliberal myths and lies in whose name it is so relentlessly misused - I can be as critical of the general assumptions on certain fora as I have ever been, and I want that to remain the case. The lies of an era can only be challenged by serious engagement with its most widespread means, however much abuse you may have thrown at you (it is the mark of maturity to be able to wear that kind of response with pride). That, not tabloid kneejerkery dressed up as constructive comment, is true democracy.

(p.s. HKM - you may not believe it, or even want to believe it, but I write this and say this in large part because of you)


  1. Suffice to say that rock-and-roll did not bring the Berlin Wall down, nor did opera or anything like that.

    Writing comments on newspaper websites is fun, but probably not much more than that.

    Define your terms first and then take action.

    The North Korean films the link mentions at the festival might be interesting.

  2. P.S. Would like to say something about 'always already democratic' which is the assumption I see behind 'democratisation' of the Cameron (and Blair) type.

    Momus really knows how to stir people.

  3. All sides have their own buzzwords which, through cynical machinations and (in the end, often) propaganda, they denude of all meaning. "Sovereignty" is one such for the right, "democratisation" its equivalent on the left.

    Indeed no form of music brought the Berlin Wall down, but the supporters of 'high' culture in the West have never made such claims - indeed, they mostly recognised it, even at the time, as much more of a setback for their forms, by the end much more heavily protected in Eastern Europe than practically anywhere else, than any kind of triumph (not that the death of Britain's comparative 'Third Programme consensus' was down to either 'side' - it was about half leftist egalitarianism and half rightist costcutting). Some exponents of rock-as-neoliberal-tool are still spreading such fantasies, on the other hand, and they are the ones who need to be criticised and challenged.

    Define your terms first and then take action. *Exactly*. That's what I try to do every day. If I fail, it's not for want of trying.