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Slide1This Saturday, February 21st 1-2pm, The Free Association will be making one of our rare public appearance.

We”ll be at Duffy’s Bar in Leicester expanding on this article we published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site last year: Why are Comedians, not musicians, talking ’bout a revolution?

Here’s the blurb:

We used to look to musicians for anti-establishment thinking. Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Johnny Rotten and Chuck D all acted as lightning rods for wider social movements. But Pop in the 21st century feels like a field that’s been played out. Instead, it’s comedians who are stepping up to challenge the status quo. Why is this? And how can we amplify and deepen the questions they are posing? Join us in an entertaining and provocative discussion.

It’s free, but apparently you need to book tickets.

Or, if that link doesn’t work, from here.

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Beryl-BurtonI’m at a bike shop in central London. I’m being fitted for a new frame. I’ve had some serious problems with my back and my best bike, its pro geometry never really suitable for me even when I did race, is now definitely inappropriate. Julian, who’s sorting me out, asks me about racing and I mention my club Ferryhill Wheelers. Ah, he’s seen that name when he’s looked at results for over-50s races. I do a double-take and look at Julian more closely. This guy’s in his fifties? I would’ve put him at around my age. Turns out he’s 56. Must be something keeping him looking young. Perhaps it’s cycling. Or maybe love of life. He’s just returned from a holiday celebrating his first wedding anniversary. Congratulations. He tells me that he and his partner, now wife, have been together for decades, they’ve got a couple of teenage kids, but last year decideded to get married. That’s interesting, I think, getting married only once your kids have almost left home isn’t normal. I’m drawn to him.

We return to cycling and Julian talks of racing as a kid, before “giving it all up for rock ’n’ roll and going off to play in various punk bands”. So we spend some time chatting about punk rock. Once more the conversation returns to cycling and Julian starts talking about his cycling heroes. The great Belgian cyclist, Eddy Merckx, ‘the Cannibal’, 5-times winner of the Tour de France, is one. But he’s most enthusiastic about Beryl Burton, from Morley, Leeds, who won numerous races over a four-decade career, beating men as well as women, and breaking dozens of records, all between her day job picking rhubarb.

Talk of Yorkshire sporting heroes reminds me of my daughter’s first school, which she attended for a term, a sports academy, which chose to name its four houses after a male footballer (Billy Bremner), a male cricketer (Fred Truman), a male rugby player (Jason Robinson), with the sole woman Jane Tomlinson, a ‘plucky’ amateur runner (unlike the more successful men) who died of cancer. I get angry again: at the gender imbalance and at the school’s choice of the four sports (football, cricket, rugby and athletics) that you read about every day on the back pages. How boring. And at the omission of the wonderful Beryl Burton.

For some reason, I mention a trip I made a few years ago, by bike of course, from Monchio, just north of Bologna, to Bergamo, near Milan, a distance of 250km. The furthest I’ve ridden in one day — though it’s absolutely flat. Julian is impressed. Then he mentions that he took a similar route once, but by train, from further south in Italy up to Milan. 1980. His train passed through Bologna railway station just a few hours before the massive terrorist explosion that killed 85 and wounded more than 200. The Red Brigades, he tells me. Actually no, I respond. Yes, the Red Brigades were involved in setting bombs, but the Bologna massacre was the work of fascists, with the likely connivance of the Italian state. And I start explaining about the social movements of the 1970s, autonomia, and the ‘strategy of tension’, with which the state responded.

Cycling, punk, gender politics, autonomia… It’s great when you meet someone new and you click — and I found Julian’s obvious love of life quite inspiring — but somehow those topics seem connected.

old papers

What we have lost, it can often seem, is the very possibility of loss. Digital archiving means that the fugitive evanescence that long ago used to characterise, for instance, the watching of television programmes – seen once, and then only remembered – has disappeared.
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life

I’ve been catching up with Mark Fisher’s latest collection and have been really struck by what he says about loss – or rather the loss of loss. I’m tempted to start banging on about Pogle’s Wood (a prime example of ‘fugitive evanescence’, in my life at least), but this sense of loss goes a lot further than TV programmes.

Like a lot of people I know, I’ve got 30 years of radical ephemera stored under my bed (see photo above). But these days if I want to dig something out, it’s usually quicker (and cleaner) to go straight to Google rather than sift through a dozen boxes full of dusty scraps of paper. And I think this has consequences – both in the material world (see the recent demise of schnews) and in the subjectivities we reproduce.

OK, I might be biased because I work in print design, but I think there’s still something special about the printed product: leaflets, flyers, magazines, newspapers, books…. Because these things are tangible objects, you have to engage with them in a quite different way from, say, something that falls into your inbox or pops up on your Facebook or Twitter. It might be a newspaper you bought, or a leaflet you picked up, or even an actual book in analogue format, but the way you relate to it will be qualitatively different from something that flashes across your smartphone. This shift in sensibility is, if anything, even more marked in music. In our house, I find that music is ‘on’ most of the time yet it’s the very opposite of the immersive experience I would have enjoyed thirty years ago. It starts to become seamless, muzak-like.

Here’s Fisher again, on a digital world where everything is always available, always on.

If anything is the signature of 21st century consumer culture, it is this feeling of a digitally upgraded normality – a perverse yet ultra-banal normality, from which all flaws have been erased.

Perhaps this links to a criticism a friend made of this blog. I’m paraphrasing but I think the gist was that our posts tend to be too crafted, too considered, too ‘perfect’. That threw me for a bit but I think what it means is this. The glossy interface of digital life doesn’t seem to leave room for mistakes, blemishes or stains. And it’s precisely those things which we need in order to get a purchase on something. The imperfections, the grubby in-between-places are where we can make our home. That’s where we find ourselves and find others.

How does all that relate to the stack of crap under my bed? Fisher once more:

Cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity.

That idea of linear development was always a myth (as if A would always lead to B and then to C), but there was still a sense of history piling up under our beds, on our walls, in our bodies. The newspapers and flyers are dated, literally. But that’s what also gives them some power: they can take us back to different places, different times, different conditions and then let us work out some other route which doesn’t bring us back to this awful place. Compared to that, the Wayback Machine seems positively puny.

All of which is somewhat ironic as this post is just an excuse to stick up those Fisher quotes so I don’t lose them… Ah well, if it ain’t contradictory, it ain’t worth a fuck.

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There’s a great interview here with Mark Stewart of early post-punks the Pop Group — by Diane Kamikaze on wfmu.

Can’t capture it all here, but the conversation ranges seamlessly across music, politics, culture, innovation, DIY, group dynamics, magic, ethics and the repetition of history. He even mentions zombies. As punk as fuck.

The interview alone is here (about 55 minutes); the full 3-hour show — with 7 or 8 Pop Group songs — is here.

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Why aren’t the British middle classes staging a revolution?”, asks Telegraph columnist Alex Pound.

Why aren’t the middle classes revolting? Words you probably never thought you’d read in the Telegraph. Words which, as a Gladstonian Liberal, I never thought I’d write. But seriously, why aren’t we seeing scenes reminiscent of Paris in 1968? Moscow in 1917? Boston in 1773?

I don’t much like a lot of what he’s written (“While much of what Reagan and Thatcher did was necessary…”), that’s not the point, and I’m not part of his target audience – “officer class” types, more senior managers, people who “worry about things like Farrow & Ball Paint colours”. But he gets a few things spot on.

He clearly identifies himself and his middle-class readership as part of the “99%” – or rather the “99.9%”. His readership is certainly not part of the elite: “All these guys care about is money. They don’t care about society. They certainly don’t care about jobs and they don’t care about you.”

He’s right that discussing politics, economics, political economy, inequality, the ethics (or not) of capitalism belongs in a “lifestyle” column. In a sense he’s writing about social reproduction: “the most important lifestyle issue you’ll ever face”.

He touches at parts of what we’ve called the “neoliberal deal” too. He notes that, in the 1980s, that period when Regan and Thatcher were carrying out their “necessary” attacks on the working class, the middle classes, “vain fools that we were, we identified upwards.” And, finally, he’s clear that this “deal” is now over, that things have changed: “And its when the middle classes start identifying downwards, rather than upwards that when elites really need to start watching their backs”.

So, perhaps next time London riots, it’ll be Kensington, Mayfair and Notting Hill in flames, not Hackney and Croydon. And the people on ordinary incomes won’t be hiding their homes, they’ll be joining in or at least cheering from the sidelines.


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Stop, etc



For me, one of the best things about last weekend’s FAST FORWARD festival was seeing two comrades I organised with in the early- to mid-1990s. We’ve been involved in different political projects over the intervening two decades, we live in different cities, different countries even. But every year or so I encounter one or the other of them. At some demonstration or protest. At a conference. Maybe a social event where there’s a bunch of politicos. I like the fact that we share political histories stretching back a quarter-century. I like it that I know these people who keep turning up, on the streets (or in the fields — I’m thinking of the summit protests of the counter-globalisation movement and climate camps), in our political meeting spaces, like bad pennies. Enoch Root types. The radical. Enoch the Red. It’s definitely to the credit of Plan C, FAST FORWARD and its organisers, that these bad pennies were attracted to the festival.

There was some discussion of diversity — or the lack of it — at FAST FORWARD. Too few black people, for example. And where were the trans people? (Perhaps they were there, but we didn’t know.) But why do we care about this? After all, we’re not sociologists or pollsters who need a representative sample of the population. I think it does matter: different ‘sectors’ or ‘sections’ (of the ‘class’, the ‘multitude’, the ’99% — delete according to your preferred political tradition) experience capitalism in different ways and they (we) have different experiences of struggle. These experiences are valuable in informing collective analysis (i.e. understanding our situation(s) and our power) and collective strategising.

But my two old comrades apart, there were precious few older heads at FAST FORWARD — and certainly no-one who’d count as an ‘elder’. And there weren’t that many children either — 15 or 16, which is certainly more than at most political events of similar size, but still not that many out of 160-odd participants. Another way of saying this — though not exactly equivalent for several reasons — is that not many parents took their kids to FAST FORWARD. (Again, it’s worth pointing out that there was probably a far higher proportion of ‘families’ — my shorthand for parent(s) plus child(ren) — than at most political events, but lower than in the population as a whole or even the population you might find in a youth hostel like Edale on any other weekend of the year.)

Again, this matters. First, the older heads. My generation (I’m talking more about political generation than an age-defined generation) was politicised by moments such as the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the peace movement, particularly the women’s camp at Greenham Common (yes, men too were influenced and inspired by this camp); we were all active in the movement against the first Gulf war and — perhaps most important — the anti-poll tax movement. I’m not claiming these — for us formative — experiences are more important than other political struggles. But it is worth remembering that we are currently in the midst of a debt crisis (part of the crisis of social reproduction) and the anti-poll tax movement was a debtors’ movement — and a successful one, with 1 in 3 refusing to pay the tax. The poll tax has been rarely mentioned over the past 5 or 6 years — what’s happened to all those anti-poll tax activists, what’s happened to all their knowledge and experience of struggle?

More generally, what’s happened to my generation? And older generations (‘the elders’), those folks who made the struggles of the 1980s, the 1970s, even the 1960s? Where are those comrades who opposed the Vietnam war? Those who were so disruptive in (waged) workplaces — walking out of factories, occupying factories, ‘working to rule’, ‘going slow’ — that poor industrial relations became known as the ‘British disease’? Who, with their struggles in the workplaces, homes and on the streets, made the so-called second wave of feminism? No doubt a few have changed their politics, some have probably joined the Labour party. But most haven’t.

Then what about the young? My daughter had a fantastic time at FAST FORWARD, she loved it, I think all the kids did. She/they relished the freedom of having the run of such a large territory. For them, Edale youth hostel became a ‘temporary autonomous zone’; and they were helping in our collective ‘making of another dimension’. Theo and Caddy, who ran the kids’ space, were fantastic. They don’t see what they do as a ‘service’, the provision of childcare that enables parents to participate in the political activities. Rather, they see themselves as doing political activity alongside the other political activity — only their stuff is aimed at children rather than adults. We can see what Nic did, cooking with the children in the kids’ kitchen, in a similar way; and also the contribution of Giles, who did rock-climbing with the slightly older children.

So we can understand events like FAST FORWARD as ‘formative’ for children and young people — just as counter-summit convergence camps and climate camps have been over the 2000s. And before too long — just a few years for the oldest children at FAST FORWARD 2014 — these kids will start becoming interested in what the adults are talking about, they might start wandering into meetings and staying to listen and ask questions, they might start demanding or organising their own meetings. After all, as one Plan C member and bamn contributor writes in his biographical blurb, ‘his first school detention was for taking part in a walkout over the Iraq invasion. His second was for leading a walkout of the first via a window.’

So, my vision for FAST FORWARD in future years, FF2015, FF2016 and so on…

I want it to be a space where all generations can mix. That’s how Plan C can help create and sustain a ‘community of reference’. (Related to this, but slightly off the generations theme: I don’t think Plan C should be shy about attempting to recruit new members/activists. But FAST FORWARD shouldn’t be primarily about recruitment. I want it to be a space where we can encounter people involved in other struggles, movements, organisations — as it was this year, I think.) Nor should it matter too much if people don’t attend the meetings. Edale is (obviously) beautiful, a lovely place to stroll, hike, cycle, or just hang out. I’d be happy if we encouraged no-longer active older comrades (my generation, elders) to come along simply to de-stress. For them the festival is a place to PAUSE. But of course we all mingle, after a day of meetings or not-meetings, in the REWIND bar (great name for the bar, by the way, and I’m riffing off it). The old heads soak up the enthusiasm and energy of their younger comrade and in return share some of their wisdom, gained through their experiences in earlier struggles. Sometimes this will be reversed: young activists have different experiences, valuable experiences, lessons to teach; they also get burned out; sometimes older people can be the inspirational ones, they can provide energy and enthusiasm — and also more sober advice on how to cope with burnout and defeat.

Childcare is absolutely crucial for this. Parents need to know that there’ll be activities for their kids to enjoy, that they won’t need to worry about them. Thus the festival will also incorporate PLAY spaces — for children of all ages. And of course, these kids’ spaces and activities will also be spaces where our children will develop — we hope — into young comrades.

We want to STOP capitalism, but that requires the constitution or composition of a new ‘we’; my hope is that FAST FORWARD can become a space for the constitution of a new ‘we’ in the fullest sense of the word.

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cameron salford lads

We’ve just had a short piece published in the Guardian which sets out to explain why so many of us get pissed off when the rich turn up to music festivals, claim to like ‘our’ music, and generally try to colonise ‘our’ culture.

No doubt some of this is good old-fashioned toff-bashing (aw, sorry, Benedict) which feeds into a wider anger about gentrification – the way that ‘raw’ culture gets domesticated, sanitised and sold back to us. But we think there’s also a more far-reaching point here. This colonisation is part of an attempt to wipe out the history of ‘popular modernism’.

It’s hard to remember now, but for much of the second half of the twentieth century working-class (and lower-middle-class) kids directly influenced the future direction of society by pioneering both culture and styles of living. From bebop to Mod, from punk to hip hop, kids weren’t content with inhabiting the world – they wanted to remake it. So when Cameron poses at the Salford Lads Club, he’s not just trying to claim that alternative history as his own: he’s also hoping to erase an entire history and all the alternative futures it embodied.

Why does this matter? Because a different sort of future can only come from below. For all its talk of creativity and innovation, the future that neoliberalism offers is one-dimensional: tomorrow will be the same as today, except with more shiny commodities.

It’s hard to imagine the shape that popular modernism might take in the twenty-first century but we’ve tried to think through some of the problems (and possibilities) in This is Not a Love Song.

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the-great-escape 4a

Even before I emerged from childhood, I seem to have experienced, deeply at heart, that paradoxical feeling which was to dominate me all through the first part of my life: that of living in a world without any possible escape, in which there was nothing for it but to fight for an impossible escape.
Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

I’m working on the layout of a new edition of Victor Serge’s Birth of Our Power, so I’ve just been reminded of how Serge opens his autobiography. I remember reading it about 30 years ago and those lines really struck a chord. There’s something in that notion of “an impossible escape”. Our idea of what’s possible at any moment is shaped by our immediate conditions: most of the time it feels like tomorrow is going to be exactly the same as today. But every now and then something happens and you find yourself popping your head out and seeing an entirely different terrain.

Until then, it’s more like the end of Beckett’s The Unnamable: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.