Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Their states and ours: the BFI wins again

I thought I'd have a lot of time to kill at BFI Southbank last Wednesday. But I suddenly remembered the existence of the Atrium, and in the end I only just got the last train that goes west of Poole. What had caught me was a succession of films made within my own lifetime, which made me think anew about the nature of the society I live in - and, specifically, whether some kind of balance could have been found, in the former Communist countries and, in a different way, here, between economic and financial security for the mass and the rights and freedoms of the political dissident.

The BFI's masterstroke has been to show "official" films promoting the activities and commemorations of the Soviet and East German states in the early 1980s. We're used to 1950s Communist propaganda, from the height of the post-war ideological battle which climaxed in Cuba, but in many ways these later films are much eerier and more compelling to see now, because they come from an era which has only just become recognisable as proper history, and because they evoke a world of absolute certainty and stability (and, yes, I am well aware of how much repression and restriction they conceal, none of which I defend) which was to collapse dramatically, unthinkably soon afterwards. The sight of ordinary Soviet citizens at the 1983 Victory Day commemorations, blissfully unaware that the "great power" they thought they were living in was already economically unsustainable and living on ghosts, is reminiscent, for a British person, of nothing so much as the sight of the Coronation revellers of 30 years earlier, genuinely convinced as they were that Britain had entered a new age of global political significance on its own terms and concurrent cultural self-sufficiency, and utterly immunised from the fact that both these things were on borrowed time, and in a different way of the heartbreaking 1978 National Coal Board films, none of whose makers or audiences could have foreseen what was to come.

My statement above about the uneasy balance any society, but especially those societies, must find between stability of the mass and freedom of the individual, and about the unsettling way that we now feel that everything that seems appealing about so many past societies, in terms of a consensus on nationalisation and full employment, was bound up with a marginalisation and ghettoisation of "non-conformists" which we now obviously find repulsive, could of course apply as well, if not even better, to the mixed-economy Britain that created the likes of British Transport Films and the NCB Film Unit, and the strange thing that strikes you when you see these films now is how similar they are stylistically, making you feel that the post-war consensus in Britain gave us many of the best things about Communist countries without most of the worst excesses (our worst excesses were different kinds of worst excesses).

Just as the 1959 Report on Modernisation, an extraordinary, quasi-fetishistic BTF hymn to working with fire and steel resembles a more benign, Macmillanite version of Soviet propaganda of that time, so does a 1983 East German film on the country's housing development resemble in some ways the official products of Britain in the declining years of Butskellism (interestingly, wildly different interpretations of excerpts from Bach's Toccata and Fugue - BTF hushed organ, DDR funk-lite library music - link them both). Obviously no "official" British film would have contained direct references in its commentary to Marx and "the working-class party" - our consensus was rather the product of a cross-class trade-off which began to die when those who had hidden their Marxist loyalties for the sake of a stake in management could hold them back no longer, and provided the platform for a Tory reaction - but there's little else stylistically to tell the East German Housing Problems from, say, the Magnus Magnusson-narrated early 1970s paean to Cumbernauld (also available in the BFI's Mediatheque). For all that what was lost there was far less defensible than what was lost here, the references to "the next ten years" and "1990" made me think instantly of Partners in Prosperity referring, genuinely convinced that BTF's ethos might survive those decades, to "the 80s and 90s". You see both "our" films and "theirs", and you learn things about both "us" and "them" in that era - and, by extension, now - that you never thought you would.

While the versions of the Soviet films released in English-speaking countries seemed disconnected from the politics that had inspired them by their American voiceovers - the voice of capitalism, however much some would love to pretend American English is culturally neutral in the rest of the world - the East German effort had what sounded like an impeccably RP voiceover, eerily akin to those in BTF films, with some residual German pronunciations, and I imagined that it might have been one of the by-then elderly German broadcasters and actors who developed near-perfect RP voices in their youth, the better to fit within Hitler's admiration of the British Empire (a fact which should itself make those who fetishise Anglospherism as the antithesis of Nazism ask themselves some serious questions), and who had been used on the propaganda broadcasts to Britain and fake BBC bulletins, who had happened to be born in what became the Soviet sector and so later had to fit in with another kind of ideology. The connections make me ask as many questions of myself as I could have imagined, and provide no simple answers.

As always, you wonder how both "us" and "them" could have retained what was best about our former societies while getting rid of the bad bits. As usual, thoughts of In Place of Strife, Heath winning in '74 and Labour reforming without going neoliberal, Callaghan in '78, Bernard Nossiter's Britain: A Future That Works actually coming true, detente holding ... we have gone through it so many times, and it only makes us hurt all the more. What I can say without hesitation, though, is that anyone who can get to the South Bank this March really should see these films (along with the Cumbernauld and Thamesmead ones in the Mediatheque, and those in the Shadows of Progress DVD set), and that they might know both their own and others' past, present and future better once they've seen them. Films that were, in their original context, wholly unassuming and unremarkable can do no more.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Daily Mail Socialism and the Barnsley by-election

The dramatic scale of the difference between Lindsayism/Daily Mail Socialism and the more outward-looking, cosmopolitan version espoused in the West Coast Main Line cities can best be defined by the simple statement that, had the Liverpudlian working class identified - as Lindsay wishes the entire British working class would, and cannot face the fact that many of them never did - with the landed aristocracy rather than with those as marginalised in the United States for racial reasons as they were for social class reasons here, there would simply never have been such a thing as the Beatles; the impetus which brought them into existence would, without argument, simply not have been there. Now you can argue at length about whether or not that would have been a better or worse Britain or a better or worse world - I can certainly see both sides - but it would have been, equally without argument, an almost indescribably and unimaginably different Britain and arguably an even more different world. It would also, of course, be a Britain and a world in which enough people would identify with quasi-feudal ideas of "community" for Lindsayism to make sense.

The historical reasons why Daily Mail Socialism has been much stronger in north-east England, Scotland and Wales, places where a deep-rooted antipathy to the Tory party is combined with an equally deep-rooted social conservatism, than in the WCML cities (whose populations have been far more shifting and varied) and in the southern English shires (which have been, broadly, C/conservative in both the party political and literal senses, and whose self-image has seemed ever more ridiculous and ill-thought-out in recent years through the irreconcilibility of the two), have been gone over well enough already. It is not surprising in this context, and in that of Liverpool's very specific history where both traditional socialism and most (in my lifetime, all) forms of Toryism have seemed equally alien and out-of-place, that the only use Google reveals by anyone other than myself of the term "Daily Mail Socialism" is by a Liverpool season-ticket holder criticising Gordon Brown's use of the term "British jobs for British workers".

This was and is wholly accurate; my partial defence of Brown here in the past extends only to the crude Blairite/Cameronite taunting for reasons that have nothing to do with his politics rather than out of any real defence of those politics themselves; now the dust has settled, the pathetic, futile nature of such rhetoric is most reminiscent of the utter impotence of Major's ministers opposing aspects of Sky's influence, having previously done nothing to stop it while there was still time. Brown, as a leader with some residual, sentimental ties to the older incarnation of his party following an overpowering political personality who had achieved unprecedented electoral success at the expense of the party's entire cultural base, stands perfect comparison; while he had never been as wholly committed a cheerleader for neoliberalism as the Blairites themselves, he had no meaningful opposition to it either, certainly not sufficiently so to prevent him waving through such policies in his decade as chancellor. For him then to mouth vague statements in favour of the organisation of the economy along the lines of heavily protected and separated, psychologically socialist nations, when he had spent the previous decade happily pushing through economic policies which aggressively confined such things to history, just made him look stupid and weak. Of more direct relevance to the issue being discussed here, though, is that a Liverpudlian should use the term "Daily Mail Socialism" to describe the rhetorical language of a Scot, a fact which seems aptly to sum up the differences between the dominant versions of socialism in these two left-leaning places.

This of course also explains the recent political history of Barnsley, a town where a disillusioned "Old Labour" emotional feeling of betrayal combines with a profound insularity and fear of outsiders, and where the residual Tory vote - obviously never anywhere near enough to win the seat even in an election like 1959, but still greater than they could expect now - felt so alienated by the party's abandonment of "One Nation" politics and confrontational attitude towards South Yorkshire during the 1980s that much of the area's Tory vote collapsed for good, perhaps to the Lib Dems in the days (how long ago they now seem) when they were a protest vote for disillusioned supporters of both larger parties. While a Tory vote could obviously never be any kind of protest vote now, it could - without the legacy of the 1980s - have been a protest vote against Labour when they were still in office, but in practice could not be because the hatred for the party's handling of the industrial disputes of that time (one far above all others, of course) was still too strong.

This dual alienation led directly to the disturbing success of the BNP in the 2009 European election (where the party won 16% of Barnsley's vote, a significant factor in the shameful election of Andrew Brons to the European Parliament) and in last year's general election (more than 3,000 votes in Barnsley Central) - sheer despair and isolation, the long-term legacy of a cultural fear of the much more hybridised, cosmopolitan style of socialism "over the Pennines" (and even, to some extent, in Leeds and Sheffield), and the insular racism and Europhobia of certain aspects of "Old Labour" culture (typified in the late 1990s by Austin Mitchell's Mail on Sunday column and defence of the Duke of Edinburgh's dodgier remarks because, effectively, "everybody said that in my day and it never did us any harm", and by Dennis Skinner's claim that the German owners of Rolls Royce were "getting too big for their jackboots", both arguably worse than the worst Blairite) manifesting itself on the most odious level imaginable. Last week, the BNP's decline since the general election was thankfully evident (though they still won more votes than is comfortable to think of) and it was inevitable that the Lib Dems would have fallen as far as they did (as they undoubtedly will, for the same reasons, in the Scottish and Welsh elections) seeing that they are propping up a government that many in Barnsley will see as something akin to an occupying power, but UKIP's second place was deeply depressing, and clearly very much the same kind of misguided and deluded protest vote, inheriting both the Daily Mail Socialist and Tory-but-for-Thatcher tendencies.

We can say, as much without argument as that both Britain and the wider world would have been unrecognisably different without the Beatles, that the comparative success in Barnsley of parties like UKIP and the BNP is one of the worst legacies of an organised safe tribal war that never needed to happen. This Hugo Young piece - written three months before the death of John Smith - is a fine example, with all the eloquence and command of language that The Guardian still misses, of what is probably the second best point of departure other than "In Place of Strife" succeeding. As things are, though, the political alienation of so many in Barnsley is very precisely the legacy of 1984/5, and as depressing and enervating as anything else that can be so described.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The apotheosis of Lindsayism

lovely to see it right down, in so many words (scroll down to the last two paragraphs, if the start makes you lose the will to live)

I fell for fogeyism partially out of sheer desperation with neoliberalism, and partially out of the natural aftereffects of my condition - the desire for certainty and rules and norms, embraced and required all the more precisely because people on the spectrum can never fit in with them, and mostly spent their lives undiagnosed and locked in homes for the "subnormal" in the world where they did apply. The condition brings on a desire to romanticise whatever you don't personally know and never personally experienced, all the more so because you know you could never be part of it; the more naturally isolated you are, the more you will fantasise how life would be if you were a natural conformist. It's the cultural politics of unrequited love, or of being unable to love at all in the standard human sense. It's why I can recall the weather and even what I was eating when I heard, at the age of 13, that Donald Swann had died, and why - after I'd turned 14 - I was reduced to tears by the music from The First of the Few. It's also why I fell in love with The Owl's Map and We Are All Pan's People (not that the Ghost Box aesthetic represents a strict and straightforward delineation of the actual past - it would have been almost unthinkable in your actual Butskellite era for anyone to be both ruralist and in favour of modernist architecture - but the point still holds). It's why I genuinely felt sympathy, for a while, for the nativist interpretation of socialism, the Daily Mail with its support for global capitalism removed - it chimed with my romantic streak, my feeling for a few lost years that all modern culture was worthless, that the only way to go was back. And in all its forms, it's invariably a mistake I regret sooner rather than later.

For time and context have changed and, if anything, I've become more radical (in the genuine sense of that term, not simply the smash-the-market-but-only-to-restore-what-once-was Lindsay sense) as my fourth decade on earth has begun. Welcome to Godalming wasn't even on the And Then There Were Three level, it was on a Camel or Barclay James Harvest level of inconsequentiality, and the Aphex Twin's "Goon Gumpas" got that schools interval sound back in the '90s far better without even trying than anyone who's ever tried to make a cultural point of it, back when it was still the day before yesterday and wasn't a hopeless dream of a cul de sac, long past crying for. I almost invented this stuff, and now I don't want to talk or think about it.

The thing is that I wouldn't keep going back to Clark/Lindsay, usually despite myself and against my own will, if part of me didn't wonder - thinking, for example, of Reynolds' description of Sarah Palin as the ultimate rock'n'roll politician - whether they may be, at least in part, correct, whether the logical conclusion of the conflict between most of what I love in terms of mass culture and most of what I believe politically is this impasse. But this denies the complexity of human life, human experiences and human responses to both culture and politics; it is possible, in the minds of most people if not in the strictly-defined autistic mind, to disconnect forms of mass entertainment from their theoretical destructive effects on tradition (odious as it is, the widespread English tendency to say, effectively, "send the foreigners home" while knowing no culture beyond that effectively owned by Murdoch is an example of this), and the neoconservative mistake of assuming that simply because Iraqis wore jeans, they would automatically support the US military uncritically, is - like almost everything else about neoconservatism - merely an inversion of the worst aspects of Marxism, and specifically of the Marxist supposition that public taste for music rooted in socialism and radicalism would equate to actual active belief in those ideologies.

In many ways, Philip Cross's suspicion that Lindsay may have the same condition that he and I both have seems the most credible response; Lindsay's politics are born of the same streak which may sometimes lead me to suggest that if you are going to oppose Tesco in a place like this then you must also oppose Cee-Lo on local radio, or that the campaign to retain public libraries in a place like this is meaningless and pointless because they may stock the odd book by Katie Price, and if you had to define my condition in two rhetorical arguments which fall down when exposed to the nature of humanity itself, those would be the ones. Lindsay's greatest achievement may, in fact, be to make the market - and the assumptions and norms of the modern world generally - seem, by comparison, far more progressive than they can really ever be.

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.