Friday, 4 March 2011

Marx, Murdoch and the market

Marx's oft-forgotten belief that capitalism could be an ally of convenience in the creation of a proletarian/socialist society, to the extent that it worked to reduce the power of quasi-feudal national elites and could, through clearing away the debris of tradition, make it easier for a new order to then be created, may be better-known than it once was due to its legacy in the recent past as the one residual element of their youthful Marxism that continued to influence the New Labour elite. While the Blairite desire to create some kind of new world obviously had no real remaining connection with socialism, and had far more in common with the "creative destruction" of the Thatcherite interpretation of Manchester liberalism, there was still a desire to make it impossible for the Tories ever to retake power unless they distanced themselves utterly from residual cultural ideas of nation and lost all the discomfort they still showed in the 1990s with the aftereffects of capitalism. Once they had done this, the Blairites tellingly showed no meaningful opposition to the Tories whatsoever, and indeed felt more at home with them than with a Labour Prime Minister who had residual ties to another kind of traditionalism. As neoconservatism generally is in many ways a mutation of Marxism with the ending changed, the massive importance of pop culture in the Blairite ideology was a specific, localised form of the same thing - the New Labour elite had retained the Marxist desire to use capitalism to render national tradition obsolete forever, but dropped all the stuff about socialism and equality once that had been done.

This is the context in which we must put the final step in Rupert Murdoch's long march through the institutions. While it was obviously Tory deregulation which pushed him through in the first place, the residual hints of cultural unease which used to permeate from the Tory backbenches and backwoods are now entirely gone, in large part as a result of the Blairite capitalist interpretation of one aspect of Marxism - dissenting opinions are simply not allowed, and meaningful political differences between those who want to erode opposition to Murdoch out of an ideological desire to suppress traditionalism (whether of the Somerset/Shropshire or South Yorkshire/South Wales variety) and those who want to erode opposition to Murdoch simply because they want to make as much money as they can have ceased to exist. The Blairite project - the abolition of politics, at least in the sense of genuine debate and a range of opinions on this matter within the mainstream - has utterly triumphed. Vince Cable's role was bound to have been eliminated by some means or other; certainly, there were powerful and deep-rooted forces which knew that he was, by the standards of the modern elite, an enemy within and alien presence, and were determined to weed him out.

The context of Murdoch's victory - and, in a different way, the background context of the success of the referendum to increase the Welsh Assembly's powers, a potential increase in the power of a more collectivist and less US-based method of organisation within the UK, which could lead to internal fractures and potential problems for those who support unbridled Murdochian control - is the dichotomy of capitalism itself, and the fact that it has become as powerful and dominant as it has for a reason, which has to be dealt with and understood before a serious, advanced critique of its effects can be put forward. While it can promote greed, social decay and environmental destruction, it also has the potential to make many - myself included - feel that there is a bigger, more varied and challenging world beyond the petty prejudices and fears they were born to. However delusionary this may ultimately be, its appeal and resonance - in the form of anything from Motown to Kid Cudi, Stax to Nicki Minaj - should not be lumped in with the blatant exploitation of Cowellism. A society without any form of capitalism would, almost certainly, be a feudal society and not in any way socialist. However distorted and misconstrued it was by the worn-out radicals who became Blairites and lived 13 years under the delusion that their government wasn't essentially a slightly more socially compassionate latterday Tory one, the Marxist idea of capitalism as potentially clearing the ground for socialism cannot be dismissed as easily as may seem tempting.

This is why, while I loathe the form of capitalism represented by Murdoch, I also absolutely do not embrace the David Lindsay version of socialism, which is pretty much "the working class should form an alliance with landowners and masters of foxhounds so as to keep out Mistajam and Logan Sama". There are deep-rooted historical reasons - the landed aristocracy regrouping much more successfully in heavy industry than elsewhere, Newcastle never being an Atlantic port and thus the local population remaining far more ethnically homogeneous - why this form of "Daily Mail Socialism" should have had the potential to grow in north-east England, and I have a feeling that much of what may seem progressive and forward-thinking in Scotland and Wales also fits into this category, at least when attempts are made to apply it to England; the kind of socialism you can get away with when your communities have been comparatively closed-off and secure within themselves, but which simply does not make sense when you never felt you needed an identity outside an empire that went round the world and has made it inevitable that that same world would come back to you. This is not to criticise Scotland and Wales, just to suggest that England's very specific problems need something else altogether.

Similarly, when it comes to the multifarious forms of pop music I love, I cannot help thinking that the contrast between the English and Celtic experiences make it impossible for either to have it both ways - that, while I love Martin Solveig's "Hello" and wish it had sold as well in England as in Ireland and Scotland, its sheer European-ness (and let's not kid ourselves that we don't usually mean "whiteness" when we say this in a mass-cultural context; it's a long way from the perfect balance of European and American influences reached in "When Love Takes Over") will prevent it from resonating in the same way with those who have lived at the cutting edge first of the original colonisation and then of the reverse of the process that created the other pop I love - that the very diversity of modern England and its openness to hybridising and further radicalising the music of the American margins, something I will always support and advocate, will render other songs that speak to me meaningless, incomplete. At the same time, the historical factors which render audiences in the non-English parts of these islands more open to the idea of European pop will also make the lineage of "urban"/multiracial pop both less meaningful and, in a deeper sense, less necessary there. And, in my tastes just as in my parentage, I am caught (I would be interested to know whether others of Anglo-Irish parentage find this piece particularly potent). Which is the best to have, economically, socially and culturally, and which fits best with my deeper philosophy on politics and life? Which is most necessary, most important, most valuable?

Does my obsessive desire to take the sounds and styles of the socio-political margins' engagement with capitalism and then radicalise it - the side of me that thinks "Hello", wonderful as it is, is not enough - betray a deeper, more profound weakness, both in my own life and in my country, if that country is accepted to be England rather than what remains of the Union? Could it be, in short, that black pop, from the Marvelettes to Durrty Goodz, has the immense place it has in my life and my engagement with the wider world precisely because of a more profound political and cultural void in post-imperial England - that I need it because I don't have anything else? And, if this is true, should it even matter? Macmillan privately admitted at the time - safe in the knowledge that the pre-Murdoch media would never have made such elite doubts public - that he pushed consumerism and affluence as strongly as he did because he was frightened that the people he claimed to represent might otherwise react so badly to the political state's loss of power and pride, might feel the wounds so personally and viciously, that they would turn violently against the exhausted, worn-out state and bring the edifice of privilege on which his own life depended crashing down. In other words, the political importance of the consumer boom in the Tories' post-Suez recovery plan, the foundation stone of everything that reached its final fruition for Murdoch this week, was born out of sheer expediency, rather than because the Tories of that time particularly wanted it or would have had to rely on it in their ideal world - the electorate had to be given something to fill the void of imperial collapse, something to fall back on and convince them that everything was alright really, simply for the security and safety of the state.

And this, really, is how the state dominated by England has kept itself alive ever since. The main reason why some in England have come to see themselves, rather than the Irish, as the real prisoners of history is a deep-rooted doubt as to whether pop culture, even in its most potentially radical forms, is enough to fill the gap left by the death of the British Empire, and this is where the inevitable accusations of romanticisation and retreat come in. But the referendum result suggests that a new fusion of past, present and future is being created in Wales, which makes this an apposite time to pose the question: who will come out of this era best, and who is in the best position to face the future - the people of 2011 England, almost indescribably varied and open and hybridised and outward-looking (though varying wildly between further radicalisation of those marginalised within the US and the mere consumerism of the alienated mass in a place like the one I live in) or the various peoples commonly described as "Celtic", for so long on the fringe, latterly on the fringe of the fringe, but kept together by a deeper identity held together by that very marginalisation and now taking that sense of themselves, modernising it and using that modernisation to find a role for themselves within Europe, as opposed to the pop-cultural mass which is all that modern England can exist within? Is it better simply to take in everything and to have never had to fight for a communal identity - to live as a post-modern nation, a post-nation, with the strongest ideological differences being over whether simply to consume or to radicalise and reinvent mass culture, and nothing else really mattering - or to have defined an identity in adversity, and to have a sufficient history of freedom-fighting not to need Trilla or Ghetts or the whole Bradford and Nottingham scenes in anything like the same way?

I don't know, really. One thing I do know, though, is that Marx would absolutely have supported and aligned himself with British urban pop, even in its more populist forms, against the quasi-feudal resurgence of Mumford & Welch, and that the current state of British pop and the current nature of the relationship between England and the rest of the Union are both among many things in the present era that he really should have been alive to write about. While we have the market, the best thing we can do with it is to genuinely radicalise it, rather than - as the previous government did - simply co-opt the language and rhetoric of market radicalisation in the name of unbridled, unreconstructed capitalism, and in doing so make it far easier than it would otherwise have been for a quasi-feudal elite to come back through that very economic system. There are, at least, people with one foot in the door of market radicalisation. The challenge for them, and for all of us, is to follow through, rather than - as Wretch 32 is wasting his hard-won position by doing - simply to rehash that aptly-named central statement of my own lifetime's Manchester School, "Fool's Gold". It's really far too late for that sort of thing.

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