Postscript to rock’n’roll suicide

April 2014

In the spring of 2013 we wrote an article about emerging problems of post-crisis political organisation. We sensed, in particular, the disquieting possibility that a populist icon might spark an anti-political movement. To find a new angle on this potent prospect we turned to the figure of Ziggy Stardust. We weren’t sure this would resonate. With austerity entrenched and popular movements scarce perhaps our problem was out of time. Did we compound this untimeliness with a metaphor drawn from 40-year-old pop history? Perhaps we were falling prey to the current trend for retro-mania and its eclipse of the present with nostalgia for our past.1

And then, from nowhere, we heard a voice calmly pointing out that the Emperor was wearing no clothes… Russell Brand, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, punctured the illusion that the time for change was past.2 Paxman repeatedly tried to drag Brand back within the traditional boundaries of political debate, but every time Brand refused. Instead he was able to raise again those wider, more fundamental questions of environmental disaster, global poverty and capital’s incessant desire for ‘growth’. When Paxman eventually asked, “You don’t believe in democracy; you want a revolution, don’t you?”, Brand replied, “The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we’re exploiting poor people all over the world, and there are genuine, legitimate problems of the people not being addressed by our political class.” And suddenly it felt like the most natural, normal thing in the world to be talking about a revolution.

Brand is not an isolated figure. In Italy the comedian Beppe Grillo has been the catalyst for the Movimento Cinque Stelle [Five Star Movement], a populist anti-corruption organisation which has tried to position itself outside of the traditional Left-Right paradigm. Meanwhile in France the comedian Dieudonné has mobilised a nasty coalition of far-right activists, Holocaust-deniers and marginalised youth behind an anti-Establishment rhetoric.3 In some respects this phenomenon confirmed our intuition that public figures could crystallise an anti-political populism – but it also begs some questions. Why is it comedians, rather than pop stars, who have been able to intervene in this way? What does this tell us about the shape of the contemporary world?

Politically engaged pop stars have a long pedigree: from Woody Guthrie, through John Lennon to Chuck D, musicians have acted as lightning rods for wider social movements. But pop in the 21st century feels like a field that’s been played out. Some of this is down to changes in technology, with tectonic shifts in the way music is both produced and consumed. More importantly, neoliberal reforms in work, housing, social welfare, and education have drastically curtailed the space in which music was able to thrive. It’s not just that pop music now circulates like any other commodity, organised by corporations and delivered by identikit graduates from the BRIT School for Performing Arts. More tellingly, pop has also become the playground of a privileged elite: more than 60% of the successful pop and rock acts in 2010 were privately educated compared with just 1% 20 years ago.4

While digital technology appeared to lay the foundations for a more democratised production of culture, the reality is that popular culture is less truly ‘popular’ than it has ever been. This is no accident. Instead it’s the result of the ring-fencing of resources and the systematic exclusion of several generations of talent. In the 1960s and 1970s working-class kids had ready access to space and time in polytechnics, universities and art schools. Alongside that there was a whole world of squatting, dole culture, travelling, off-the-books work and so on. It was these material conditions (more than the talent of individual singers and writers) that spawned the moments which went crashing through popular culture in the UK – from mod to punk, from 2-Tone to rave.

So if it’s less likely that today’s pop music will produce figures capable of channelling our disillusionment, frustration and anger, then is there something about the role of comedians which has enabled people like Brand and Grillo to step forward? To understand that, we need to dig a little deeper into the enormous changes enacted in the fields of work, housing, social welfare and education over the last three decades. Those neoliberal reforms restructured the material conditions of social life in the UK. Some of the effects were immediate and obvious: anti-union legislation, the break-up of housing estates, the end of student grants, falling wages and so on. But other aspects of restructuring have taken place at the level of subjectivity, turning us all into Homo economicus. We have come to view ourselves as human capital, as privatised enterprises locked in competition with others. Thirty years of training for competitive markets has shredded our sense of collectivity. The result is a much more precarious existence, a retreat from civic life into a private, atomised realm.

A recent article by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness has pushed this idea further. It argues that each distinct epoch of capitalism is mirrored by a dominant affect or feeling. The socially secure society that came with the post-war Fordist settlement was plagued by the boredom of the 9–5 job. Now, with the privatised precariousness of neoliberalism, we are paralysed by anxiety.5 We can see the symptoms everywhere, from the health statistics to the structure of our working lives, but they are also evident in our hyper-ironised culture.6 Cynicism has become the default position on almost everything, punctured only by moments of pious sentimentality. Ironic detachment has become such a reflex that any statement of simple sincerity is treated with immediate suspicion. We can understand such reluctance to commit as a defence mechanism, a way of inoculating ourselves against the possibility of embarrassment, failure or defeat.7 And in a world where an earnest statement of belief is difficult to take seriously, the comedian has a distinct advantage. If they are to make a political stand they must venture there from their natural position of tongues-in-cheeks. They also know the best routes back again there if the audience isn’t receptive. In this sense they pioneer the move we all must make if we are to escape our ironised entropy.8

So when Brand spoke, it resonated in a way that few others could manage. It wasn’t just what he said but the tone in which he said it. His utter confidence that “revolution is totally going to happen” punctured the establishment’s own veneer of certainty. Crucially, the call for revolution shocked few people because it suddenly seemed like common sense. This underlined the pernicious way that ideology operates. As David Graeber points out, ideology isn’t about what we believe. It’s about what we believe the other believes. So it’s not important that we really believe austerity is the best available option; but it is important that we act as if we do – and we do that because we think everyone else believes in austerity.9

The mass media play a central role in the dissemination of ideology, not by telling us what to think but by telling us what ‘everyone else’ thinks. This frames our political imagination, shapes our understanding of what is possible and provokes an only partially conscious self-censoring that feeds on our sense of anxiety. By stepping outside of those boundaries, Brand introduced a totally different horizon and asked the question that asserts itself throughout history: what sort of world do we want to live in? The space to do so has been opened by the failure of the ‘official narrative’ to reflect the post-crisis changes in people’s experiences and expectations. There is huge potential for anyone able to express what’s on everyone’s lips.

We can return here to the role of the transferential figure. Perhaps what figures such as Grillo, Brand and also Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s recently-deceased president, offer is a way to feel part of a movement without having to hurl yourself into the occupation of a physical space. Although the events of the Arab Spring highlighted the importance of bodies congregating in one time and place, they were also dependent on a network of ties extending far beyond the physical boundaries of any square – it was the latter which was crucial for weakening the power of the military and the police. Given these limitations of the assembly moment, we need to re-think the politics of aggregation, of those moments when bodies come together and start to cohere. These are immensely powerful moments, precisely because they run counter to the individualism we are expected to cultivate as self-motivated neoliberal subjects: for all the hype about social media bringing people together, our everyday experience tends to be one of dispersal and atomisation.10

Thinking about transference might be one way to break this cycle of movements flaring up and then subsiding without a trace. Figureheads and icons can provide a link across space and also across time, making connections to previous moments. There’s a temptation here to fall back on the myth of individual genius, the idea that history is made by Great Men. In order to avoid this, we need to reverse the usual terms of the argument: rather than starting with the figurehead, we can consider the way that movements become embodied. So we can think of social movements as passing through the body of people like Chavez and Grillo and Brand (or of passing through the assembly moment), in much the same way that punk passed through John Lydon.11 In this light, it is the transferential figures which allow movements to recognise their own collectivity, to become self-aware.

But if such figures can act as a moment of popular focus, they can also re-assert the Great Man narrative and become barriers to further movement. In this regard it’s hard to see how Brand could get over himself, or how we might push him aside when the time is right. The history of comedy provides little resources for that. So let’s turn back to pop.

Part of what piqued people’s interest was Brand’s change of direction away from the vacuity of celebrity. In this respect he is more similar to the pop stars of old than to today’s pop world – just think of John Lennon transforming himself from a member of a boy band to the figurehead of a generation. The Beatles became pop stars through a wave of hysterical identification fed by the need to shift product. But as they developed they kept changing, exceeding capital’s need for self-expansion by adding the human impulse to explore the world through acts of creation. It is this that sets them apart from contemporary bands such as One Direction, who can only really move in, well, one direction – the one that maximises return on investment – “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”12

Yet aren’t we missing a trick here? Despite their manufactured status, bands such as One Direction are surrounded by active fan cultures. ‘Shipping’, for instance, is a form of fan fiction in which members of the band are imagined in relationships with other celebrities, or even with one another. Isn’t this a classic case of transference? The icons are hollowed out to be filled with the audience’s own desires. Maybe there is some potential there after all. When we use Ziggy Stardust to think through the problem of populist icons aren’t we leader-shipping Bowie? Yet if ‘shipping’ has replaced the musical subcultures of old, then what’s lacking is the possibility of escaping celebrity reference points altogether. The DIY of punk allowed the audience to get on stage themselves – “Here’s three chords, now form a band” – while Mod ceded leadership to an ever-changing cast of Faces, leaving bands to follow in their wake; with rave there were no bands as such, and the more interesting tendencies within rave culture tried to ward off the DJ-as-star trajectory.

While we may need a populist icon to provide the shared point of focus, it’s not where we want to remain. Populism creates a ‘people’ and a people can never speak for itself. Its expression must be channelled through a transcendent point, whether a leader, flag or an icon, that speaks on its behalf. This may be a necessary moment but it’s not enough. What we really desire is the polyphonic cacophony of real democracy, the one we could hear in the post-punk explosion.

So here we are again back in the time of our youth. Are we simply unable to escape the post-war imaginary? Yet let’s just remember that the pop of that era was powerful because it released desires that exceeded the Fordist settlement. Those desires were eaten and desiccated by the rise of the neoliberal world, but they also contained futures that didn’t come to pass. Perhaps now, as neoliberalism reaches its dark twilight, we can rescue those desires from their fragmented state and put them back together in order to re-inhabit pop’s lost future and its democratic potential.

  1. There may be some truth to this as we were partly inspired by the wave of Bowie mania that surrounded an exhibition on the musician at the V&A, as well as the release of a new album.
  2. In the weeks that followed it was one of the UK’s 10 most-watched YouTube clips, seen by 10 million people.
  3. Dieudonné was the inspiration behind Nicolas Anelka’s infamous quenelle gesture.
  4. The same stranglehold is being exerted in drama, publishing, art and so on
  5. The article goes on to argue that the strategies developed to escape the world of boredom will not help us overcome anxiety. Is this a trap that we have fallen into? Are we mistaking the affective world of Woody Allen for that of the Buzzcocks?
  6. More work-days are now lost to stress related illness than were lost to strikes in the 1970s
  7. We can find a predecessor for this in the phenomenon of ‘cool’: emotional detachment and irony were techniques developed by black men in the USA at the time of slavery as a way of protecting themselves against authority. This later cross-fertilised with the Jewish humour of comedians such as Lenny Bruce who defused the hurt of racial slurs through their overuse.
  8. Russell Brand seems well aware of this tension: his live act mixes radical attack on the political elite with a large quota of knob jokes. Perhaps this explains the lack of musicians as political spokespeople; in contemporary culture the affects provoked by music are too directly felt and raw to form the material for politics.
  9. This process also underpins the phenomenon of ‘capitalist realism’ outlined by Mark Fisher. Taking his cue from the work of the therapist David Smail, Fisher writes: “What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ – the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be – is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression – whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it.”
  10. This is the double bind at the heart of neoliberalism: the pressure to ‘be yourself’ feels overwhelming, and yet the real possibilities for self-expression are more limited than ever. Our world appears at once more individualised and more uniform than at any time in history.
  12. While Moses and the Prophets is a good name for a post-Fordist boy band, the quote actually comes from Karl Marx’s Capital, Vol. I, p. 742 in the Penguin edition.