This is not a love song

August 2014 Published in bamn #1

We live in populist times. The financial crisis of 2007/08 and subsequent years of austerity have starkly revealed an arrogant, oligarchic elite unwilling to address the real problems of our time: a plutocracy unembarrassed by accelerating inequality between a tiny stratum of super-rich and ‘the 99%’. This economic, social and political inequality has long been the public secret of neoliberalism. It lay at the heart of the neoliberal deal, a deal premised on the maintenance of living standards through cheap, plentiful credit and cheap commodities. When that deal collapsed in 2007/08, what was once tolerated became intolerable and moved centre stage. The economic crisis has produced a legitimacy crisis.1

Populism is a perfect fit for this moment. It claims to speak on behalf of a people that was once united but is now in discord. In fact populism is a project to reconstruct ‘the people’, which it does through identifying a common enemy. Rarely drawn distinctly, this enemy is never the ‘system’ as a whole. Instead, it’s a particular part of the system that is no longer functioning properly and which is preventing the people achieving the unity they once had. The ‘distorting’ factor might be a foreign intruder (the immigrant or the Jew or the Muslim). Or it might be some part of the social body that is functioning too much in its own interests (finance, the oligarchy) rather than the people’s. Either way, something has disturbed the system’s normal operation and this must be corrected.

In Britain and other parts of northern and eastern Europe the populist Right has taken advantage of an impotent political ‘centre’. As states stepped in to bail out the financial sector and the story moved to a sovereign debt crisis, the Right found it could construct populist narratives out of the prejudices lying around. The Euro-crisis, for instance, shifted focus to governance of the EU, the epitome of a post-political, technocratic administration.2 In this story, immigrants, and Muslims in particular, play the role of the intruding foreign element that disrupts the body of the people, with the aid of a culturally Left elite who place immigrants’ interests above those of native residents. Figures with firmly establishment backgrounds, like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, can then present themselves as outsiders, men of the people willing to speak their minds. The story doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but it’s affectively satisfying and is just viable enough.

It’s a more mixed story for the Left. In the UK, the once social-democratic Left had nailed its banner so firmly to the neoliberal mast that it has suffered a post-crisis collapse of confidence, direction and support. Meanwhile the anti-systemic or revolutionary Left parties have discovered that they have paid too high a price to survive neoliberalism’s ascendancy. Cut off from the outside, both in their culture and in their analysis, they have been unable to make any impact as the crisis hit and living standards plummeted.3

Further south in Europe, however, a populist approach does seem to be bringing rewards for the Left, with Syriza and Podemos both enjoying success in recent elections. A key factor seems to be the presence of a mobilised society: those countries in Europe which have shifted to the left have also experienced moments of collective joy and hope, as well as the fear ubiquitous to all post-crisis countries. The growth of Syriza followed years of dramatic struggles by autonomous social movements in Greece and has been accompanied by a proliferation of projects of autonomous social reproduction. In Spain, Podemos (meaning ‘we can’) has ridden the spirit of the autonomous social movements that have raged through the country: set up just two months prior to the European elections of May 2014, it gained 1.25 million votes, 8% of the total, giving them five seats in the European Parliament.4

The example of Podemos raises several questions or problematics for any Left populist project. First, how do we move from identification of an enemy – ‘fraudulent bankers’, ‘corrupt politicians’, ‘the rich’, ‘the 1%’ – to a critique of the entire system?5 Second, what is the relationship between the twin aspects of a popular social movement, its institutional (electoral) expression and its street-level (‘grassroots’) activities? Podemos shows this dilemma perfectly: in order to gain power it requires popular identification with its ideas and leaders, and yet, drawing on 15M, its appeal is precisely that it rejects ‘politics as usual’.

This leads into a third problem – the role of the leader or figurehead. Populists claim to speak on behalf of the people, with the implication that a people can’t speak directly for itself. ‘The people’ is a form of collectivity whose unity comes from a shared identification with those speaking for them. In Spain despite innovative attempts to include horizontal forms of communication the trajectory of Podemos seems inextricably bound up with its leader Pablo Iglesias. We need to recognise that our present subjectivities produce powerful desires for a figurehead. But the risks of such an over-identification are also obvious.

The emergence of Left populism seems like a response to the limitations of the horizontalist movement. But if the key to its rise in Europe has been a mobilised society, the risk is that entering institutional politics will result in demobilisation as people wait for newly elected politicians to sort things out. Is the populist moment one that can be pushed through into wider and more fundamental social change? Or can the dynamics which give rise to populism be addressed in a different way?

The pop in pop music

If we want a different model of the popular, then there is an obvious place to look. The history of popular culture, and in particular pop music, in the second half of the twentieth century is interesting precisely because of the oscillation between different renderings of the word ‘pop’. On the face of it, record sales have always been the principal means of measuring the ‘pop’ in pop music, and that’s sometimes been important. Top of the Pops had frequently been a battleground as pop music in the post-war period unleashed a disruptive excitement and energy intimately tied up with excessive identification with pop icons.

Icons aren’t limited to music, of course – film stars have functioned in much the same way. But music is unique for the way in which the identification with icons can be taken hold of, broken and reset by ‘the audience’. It is this dynamic which gives us the most interesting definition of ‘pop’ in pop music, a kind of popular participation unmatched in other cultural forms and one that can’t simply be captured in record sales.

This participation has not been limited to those who formed the bands. Just as important, if not more so, were the much larger groups that took part in constructing the culture around them. At times we have seen working-class youth using pop music to pioneer new desires and new ways of life. At several points these desires have spilled over into antagonistic struggle with capital and the state, and touched on an anti-capitalist dynamic. “The New Left sprang… from Elvis’ gyrating pelvis,” as that great huckster Jerry Rubin said with characteristic overstatement.

An oscillation between popular identification and popular participation, the role of icons in focusing desire: there’s a similarity of form between popular music and populism.6 But our turn to pop history is not just metaphorical. Any Left that stands a chance of becoming popular enough to fundamentally change the direction of society will have to be linked to popular experimentation with new desires and new ways of life. A popular Left will need to be aligned to a popular counter-culture and, in a positive feedback loop, create the material and cultural conditions to defend, sustain and extend it.

There are several historical examples to learn from, moments when at least part of the Left has connected with the new desires emerging from popular cultural participation. But rather than look at any example in particular we want to ask whether there is something about the desires and dynamics that pop music was mobilising that was common to each of these instances.7

Writers such as Mark Fisher have proposed the term ‘popular modernism’ as a way of grasping this: a subculture like Mod can be seen as means of escaping a world which people found constricting and boring by repurposing the consumer items they found around them. Popular modernism is the attempt to construct different futures by claiming a better grip on the potentials of the present; and crucially it does this by recirculating, extending and reworking avant-garde ideas through popular culture.8 In this way it is a kind of subaltern modernism in which the pioneering of new desires, new potentials and new possible futures could act, at the very least, as a form of armour against the psychological effects of entrenched inequality. This is what Ian Penman calls ‘style as armour’. It’s what Bobby Gillespie, lead singer of Primal Scream, means when he says, “We always saw music as some kind of revolutionary force… People can laugh at that all they like but we saw it as fucking psychic resistance.”9

It’s this history of psychic resistance that seems violated by the domestication of the music festival and ‘alternative’ culture. When Conservative MPs go glamping at Glastonbury or David Cameron claims to like The Smiths, it’s an attempt to claim that history as their own, to wipe out the lost futures it still contains. But rather than revive the 1960s or the 1990s, we need to rekindle the dynamic that produced them so the potentials of the present moment can be revealed. Perhaps it won’t occur in the field of music but there is something in the form that must be repeated. Those moments in popular culture produced a kind of utopia that can’t be captured in political demands. It’s a utopia that is at least partly inhabitable in the here and now: something that we can feel, hear and taste even if only momentarily. And despite their shortcomings those moments, when linked to a wider political culture, can be a moment of grounding which shows that the world could be different.

Yet if pop music reveals a different model of the popular, how can we relate this back to the more overtly political world inhabited by populism?

Ever fallen in love with someone…

Perhaps in looking at Mod or post-punk or rave, we are still being too avant-garde. If we are going to get at the desires unleashed by pop music, then we need to start somewhere a little more… well, pop. People can laugh all they like but the roots of pop desires can actually be found lurking in that most hackneyed of genres, the love song. It is of course the most reactionary of imaginaries: most love songs merely repeat clichéd notions of exclusionary ‘romantic’ love where salvation lies in a nuclear couple cut off from what’s outside it. “I’m saving all my love for you.” But if you listen hard, there are also renderings of a love with more complicated traits – a disruptive love that overwhelms our rational selves. “Love will tear us apart.”

A love like this is a form of mutual transformation that goes beyond any rational calculation of individual interests. And in doing so, it offers one possible route out of our neoliberal subjectivities. We can think of this as the ‘Barry White critique’, although Vaneigem’s formulation is probably more familiar.10 And of course over the last thirty years, reason has been so closely tied to utility-maximising Homo economicus that it’s no surprise we turn to the passions in a bid to escape capitalist realism. This is precisely the appeal of populism: it reintroduces the passion that is excluded from the bloodless violence of instrumental administration.

So we might look at love as one of those openings in ideology, either despite it being so saturated in ideology – or perhaps precisely because it is. A more complex idea of love survives as a form of folk ontology – an idea of who we are and what we’re capable of that is pushed just out of view when we think about what’s socially and politically possible.11 In order to bring these potentials out into the open we need a more precise conception of love. One place we can find that is in the thought of seventeenth century philosopher and lens grinder Baruch Spinoza.

… you shouldn’t have fallen in love with

For Spinoza, any encounter either increases or decreases our power to affect or be affected by the world. An increase in our capacities for action is experienced as joy; when an encounter decreases our capacities we experience sadness. Unsurprisingly, we are drawn towards joyful encounters and we seek to avoid sad ones. We can recognise this in both politics and everyday life. We find ourselves compatible – or not – with different people in different ways. Some people make us feel more intelligent when we think or converse with them. Others make us feel stupider and less capable. For Spinoza, love follows on from this: love is simply joy linked to an idea of an external cause. We come to associate something – or someone – with the experience of joy and then come to love that thing. Perhaps it is the association of a football team with repeated experiences of collective joy. Perhaps it is a political leader or a band on stage. Conversely hate is merely “sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause.”

This conception helps explain the loves and hates associated with populism. That we might hate what appears to keep us from the powerful connectivity of a unified people seems straightforward. But using this ‘love’ to understand the shared identification with a charismatic figurehead or leader opens up some new possibilities. Let’s return to pop music. We accept that much of the libidinal energy of rock n’ roll is captured in the phrase’s original meaning but the most powerful pop experiences come when we listen together as a crowd. We can see this in those intense but repeatable periods of collective joy born out of dancing. While we might be drawn to associate that joy with an external cause (the band, the singer or the DJ), it’s actually the lateral sociality happening below the level of consciousness that’s the real attraction.12 Perhaps it’s possible to create and use shared affective objects that the crowd as a whole can own, and which can’t be mistaken for the particular qualities of a specific individual.13 Indeed perhaps it’s possible to rethink the whole idea of ‘leadership’ in the mode of joy and the collective increase in our capacity to act and think. Leadership then becomes the ability to orchestrate and increase that capacity.14

Of course we need to be careful here. Love is not all we need. So much can go wrong with love. It can fool us. We might misread the external cause of joy and come to love something that really causes us sadness.15 Indeed the object that we genuinely love may prevent us from other loves that might bring us greater joy. In this light the populist love of a people tied to a nation can be called a foreshortened love. Another danger lays in becoming fixated on an object, requiring its presence before we can experience any joy at all. Isn’t this the danger of a figurehead who leads through charisma or iconic status? We need a dynamic in love that avoids fixation or fetish, which allows us to gain collective control over the necessary conditions of joy. Of course, that dynamic will require recognition of the antagonism inherent to capital, including moments of indignation, if it is to keep unfolding.16 Okay, you say, all very poetic but how practically can we bring this about?

A love supreme

Moments of joy are widespread: they happen everywhere, all the time. But every now and then collective joy expands to such an extent that they disrupt existing subjectivities. The joy reaches such a force and spreads so far that it exceeds the presuppositions and assumptions we operate within in the existing social body. We have called these ‘moments of excess’.

Any politics that has a chance of becoming popular, in both senses of the word, will need to have moments of collective joy in its repertoire. Its actions must be aimed at making participants (and if possible observers) feel more powerful and more intelligent, with a better grasp of the world. It is joyous moments such as these that act as a pole of attraction. This is something that can be planned for and engineered but we can’t do the same for moments of excess, not with any certainty. What we can do is develop tactics, strategies and infrastructure that can give joy an ever more collective shape and allow moments of joy and excess to open out onto mechanisms of collective analysis that can stop them folding over and closing in on themselves. Perhaps these mechanisms of analysis might become the object of love.17 Or perhaps they simply move the object of love further along, towards ever-greater knowledge and connection. A love supreme?

Of course a politics based on moments of joy and the ‘affective alliances’ they can create has its own limitations. It is hard to see, for instance, an affective alliance between the ‘metrosexual Left’ and those in the towns and smaller cities around the UK who are fearful of the pace of change (for example, those tempted to vote for UKIP as a consequence of the tabloid mobilisation of fear). Perhaps this is a place where concrete demands can be useful. By shifting the terrain of politics back to the rational calculation of interests, we can create alliances that cross the apparent gulf in compatible ‘structures of feeling’. The most obvious example would be the demand for a guaranteed income delinked from contribution. Such a demand discovers and addresses the affect of anxiety that is shared by the two constituencies.

Bringing all this about will require different groups taking risks and trying things out. As we don’t know what will work in advance it seems prudent to build infrastructures of coordination and synchronization rather than exclusionary unity. Most of all, however, we need to create a new affective tone on the Left – a kind of critical empathy that’s less accusatory and more willing to give other groups the benefit of the doubt. How else can we build a movement based on confidence, autonomy and ever-increasing participation?

  1. The extent of that crisis in the UK can be seen in the series of scandals involving every part of the alliance that brought neoliberalism to the country: the financial sector, parliament, the press and the police. Each scandal is followed by an impunity that cements the picture of a self-serving elite playing by different rules. No one is ever to blame and (almost) no one goes to jail. It’s little surprise then that populist discourse lends itself to conspiracy theories. Even the overdue revelation of Jimmy Savile’s paedophilia, long a public secret, has added to the sense of living in the world of a dark elite that David Peace could only hint at.
  2. The Euro-sceptic Right are not completely wrong about the EU. The incorporation of neoliberal measures into the EU constitution insulates decision-making from pressure from below. Beyond the EU, however, are the global neoliberal institutions and transnational corporations who carry an even bigger ‘democratic deficit’. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which is currently being debated would place the protection of corporate interests unequivocally above national democratic sentiments. UKIP’s support of the TTIP marks the party’s limit point of sense-making.
  3. There have been attempts to develop a more self-consciously populist approach. The Left Unity project draws inspiration from the achievements of Britain’s first post-war Labour government (mythologised in Ken Loach’s film Spirit of ’45) and sets out to reconstruct a people out of this memory. Similarly the People’s Assembly Against Austerity makes much of the fact that the Con-Dem coalition has no democratic mandate. Of course we wish these projects well but their appeal risks being more sectional (public sector workers) than popular. As we will go on to argue perhaps we can also appeal to the spirit of the 45, or perhaps that should now be the spirit of the mp3.
  4. Podemos certainly has populist overtones: it places fraudulent bankers and corrupt politicians on one side with ‘ordinary people just like you’ on the other. Yet as a populism produced from existing materials and existing subjectivities it also contains other possibilities: while their manifesto promises to end corruption, it also addresses the crisis in social reproduction with a guaranteed minimum income and a reduction of the retirement age, for example. In fact the potentials of Podemos seem to resonate with those of the 15M movement, whose subjectivities the party draws on. Podemos can be seen as, in part, a reaction to the limits of that movement’s horizontalist approach which left the institutional field wide open for its opponents. Despite 60% of the population participating in 15M’s demonstrations and protest camps, and 80% expressing agreements with their aims, Spain still ended up with a right-wing government after the 2011 general election. The stated aim of Podemos is to turn Spain’s ‘social majority’ into a political majority.
  5. This isn’t a problem for Right populism. Having no desire to overthrow capitalism, Right populists have no need of a structural critique.
  6. Jamie Reid recognised this with his ‘Stratoswasticastor’ graphic, a Swastika formed from guitar necks surrounded by the legend ‘music prevents you thinking for yourself’. But pop history has also thrown up models of how we might construct icons and figureheads in a way that lets us move through them to a lateral, horizontal sociality: see
  7. The counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s is the most obvious example, but we could also think about the punk and post-punk explosion that revitalised the anarchist movement before falling into sub-culture. The most recent example of this dynamic is probably rave culture of the early to mid-1990s which led, via the free party scene, to the anti-capitalist politics of Reclaim the Streets.
  8. If you see the footage of conservative Christians protesting against a Sex Pistols gig in the 1970s, it’s striking how the protestors look like they’re from a different and alien historical era. However dated the punks look, they are still recognisably from our era.
  9. Of course racism and ‘negative solidarity’ are also forms of psychic resistance for the indignities of class. The Bobby Gillespie quote is from an interview in the Guardian:
  10. “Anyone who talks about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life – without grasping what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints – has a corpse in his mouth.” The Revolution of Everyday Life, PM Press 2012.
  11. Love then is one of Slavoj Zizek’s “unknown knowns”. Responding to Donald Rumsfeld’s musings about the relationship between the known and the unknown, Žižek adds a fourth category of ‘unknown knowns’: “things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself,’ as Lacan used to say, the core of which is fantasy.”
  12. There’s something about dancing that reveals the possibility of developing collective affect horizontally without a shared object of identification on stage. Dancing involves non-verbal communication as you unconsciously mimic and follow those around you. Some scientists talk of mirror neurons firing. Perhaps the collective joy of dancing also operates as a kind of folk counter-ontology.
  13. San Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers, represents an experiment with this kind of tactic by Italian movements.
  14. There is a real contrast here with much Left activity which often seems to have the effect of making people feel more stupid and less able.
  15. Lauren Berlant talks of “cruel optimism” in which something that we love and desire is actually an obstacle to our flourishing.
  16. We’ve written before about the need to have “LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, HATE on the other” in the article Six Impossible Things before Breakfast, but for an illustration of the dangers of denying inherent antagonism just look at the weaponisation of positive psychology in the UK government’s ‘Work Programme’.
  17. We feel this is what happened in the Occupy movement when shared organisational process became an important point of unity. Yet this didn’t escape the problem of fixation as attachment to consensus process inhibited the recognition of its limitations.