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The music writer Simon Reynolds has a new book out, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century. To coincide with its publication, he wrote an article in the Guardian with the headline, Is Politics the New Glam Rock? Funnily enough my fellow Free Association writers and I wrote our own article a few years back, proposing Ziggy Stardust as a potential model for the kind of political leader that could fit into a libertarian socialist politics. Despite starting from a similar move, thinking political leadership through the terms of Glam Rock, Reynolds’s conclusion couldn’t be more different. He holds Donald Trump up as his example of a politician in the Glam Rock style and that’s certainly not what we had in mind. Of course, pop culture is ambiguous and contradictory by nature, that goes doubly so for Glam, still it’s interesting that those ambiguities can be worked out in such different directions.

There’s three parts to Reynolds’s case for Trump as Glam stomper. He begins by arguing:

Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth, free to do and say whatever he wants. Trump is an aspirational figure as much as a mouthpiece for resentment and rancour.

This idea of projection is vital in understanding the relationship between fan and icon, or follower and leader. It describes the way icons act as screens upon which fans project their own desires. The most successful icons come to stand in for particular social fantasies, which can tell us much about contemporary society. So what fantasy does Trump represent? I think its the fantasy of a sociopathic version of freedom.

Adam Kotsko argues, in his book Why Do We Love Sociopaths?, that the overwhelming popularity of sociopaths in contemporary TV, from Tony Soprano to Jack Bauer to contestants on The Apprentice, reveals an obscured social fantasy of what it would means to be free. The hypothesis is:

that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: ‘what if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?’ And the answer they provide? ‘Then I would be powerful and free.’

Doesn’t this reflect part of Trump’s attraction for many Americans? His lack of human empathy, backed up by his money, frees him from the rules and bounds of human decency within which the rest of us are trapped.

If Trump represents a sociopathic aspiration, then it’s his glitzy vulgarity that links him to Glam. To this Reynolds adds a secondary charge of shared megalomania.

Trump and the glam rockers share an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain – ‘no time for losers’ – crystallises his economic Darwinist worldview.

While all icons and leaders want attention some want it in order to further a cause. Trump and the Glam Rockers are accused of wanting attention for attention’s sake. Which leads us to the final characteristic with which Reynolds ties Trump to Glam, his inconsistency.

Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama.

Of course, the ambiguous play between authenticity and artifice is central to the attraction of pop culture and Glam Rock pushes this to the extreme. But it’s here that Reynolds undercooks his analysis in the Guardian article. He has to play down Glam’s artifice in order to link it to Trump. In Shock and Awe, on the other hand, he goes much further and reveals aspects of Glam that lead away from a Glam Rock Trump.

Glam rock drew attention to itself as fake. Glam performers were despotic, dominating the audience (as all true showbiz entertainers do). But the also engaged in a kind of mocking self-deconstruction of their own personae and poses, sending up the absurdity of performance… Glam idols… espoused the notion that the figure who appeared onstage or on record wasn’t a real person but a constructed persona, one that didn’t necessarily have any correlation with a performer’s actual self or how they were in everyday life.

Trump’s inconsistency is lazy and insouciant; it’s very different to Glam Rock reinvention. I get no sense that there’s a real, more nuanced Trump hiding beneath the mask. He is Trump all the way down; an empty vessel built of immaturity and insecurity all packaged up with a sociopathic sheen. Such emptiness can actually be an asset for an icon, making it less likely that people’s projected desires will be contradicted.

By contrast, Reynolds holds up Jeremy Corbyn as, “the real anti-glam leader of our age… viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theatre”. Corbyn’s shtick is sincerity. As Gary Young perceptively argues, Corbyn’s supporters don’t come to his rallies “to be entertained” but “to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics.” It’s an approach that builds on the Left’s desire to be seen as decent and honest but in some ways it plays into the prejudices of the seething mass of ressentiments coursing through British society. I worry that Corbyn represents the fantasy of historical consolation, his decency says ‘we may lose in the here and now but history will prove us right in the end.’

Another strategy presents itself when we look at how Reynolds positions Glam Rock historically in Shock and Awe. He sees it as a transitionary moment in the move away from a countercultural structure of feeling. “Abrasive honesty and an appeal to ‘reality’ and the ‘natural’ were the most formidable weapons in the counterculture armoury”, says Reynolds. Glam is cast as a reactionary move that emerges when that armoury becomes exhausted. “It was a retreat from the political and collective hopes of the sixties into a fantasy trip of individualised escape through stardom.”

Our own position is very different. We live in a world in which individualised escapism is firmly in the driving seat, celebrity is routine and banal, and the idea of a counterculture seems impossibly remote. But at the same time the coordinates of change are flickering back into life. In many countries young people are shifting Left, while active social movements are animating some of the stars of pop and sport; Beyonce’s performance at Superbowl 50, for instance, or Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. In these circumstance perhaps Glam could act once again as a model for a transitional moment but this time in the opposite direction, helping us move from individualised escapism to collective engagement.

That would be a strategy of pushing through Glam rather than withdrawing from it. Embracing the openly constructed nature of Glam icons, with their “mocking self-deconstruction of their own personae and poses” to create the kind of radically de-mystifying model of a political leader we suggested in Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.

It was precisely the explicit otherworldly inauthenticity of Ziggy Stardust – a supposed emissary through which alien visitors were speaking – that made him such an effective transferential figure. Whereas [Johnny] Rotten’s persona could be mistaken for the actual person of John Lydon, this was less the case with Ziggy. Yet many wanted to adopt the persona because it showed them a way forward: they used it to change themselves and to recognise others who were doing the same. Moreover, it was the suicide of the character, with Bowie killing it off and adopting a new one, which forced the audience to recognise the mechanism of transference. Unlike the final Sex Pistols gig, this transformation didn’t treat the fans as imbecilic subjects of a swindle. Instead it revealed Ziggy Stardust as a shared contrivance through which both star and audience were transforming themselves. Of course even this is not enough for us. The trick is to do away with the star while retaining the character.

It’s unclear what this strategy would look like practice. Perhaps we could start by reconceptualising our figureheads as comets rather than stars, after all they don’t generate their own illumination but are brought into visibility by the active social forces moving through them. To go further we could draw on our long history of collective pseudonyms, such as Captain Swing and Ned Ludd, who became points of unity despite being enacted by different individuals. Then there are the multi-user names experimented with in the 1980s and 1990s, of which Luther Blissett is the most famous. This in turn led to the invention of San Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers, a figurehead for the common condition of workers who don’t share a common workplace. In a similar vein we find the precarious superheroes who hoped to spark a kind of psychic defence by pointing out where the really heroic endeavours are to be found in contemporary society. We might even find it in pop music, with the rebirth of past icons within the problems of the present, or even the future. Which ever way it works out Glam Rock Socialism needs icons that counteract the sociopathic myth that we don’t need other people. They need to be icons that undo themselves, revealing the charisma of collective intelligence beneath the myth of individual genius.

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Fredric Jameson described one of the impasses of postmodern culture as the inability ‘to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.’ The past keeps coming back because the present cannot be remembered.

Mark Fisher: Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures

It’s hard to find traction these days. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, they slip out of your grasp or melt away to nothing. So it’s easier to cling to the past. Safer, too. If you want an aesthetic representation of our own current experience, perhaps you can find it in Bake-Off, Brexit or the latest reboot from Hollywood.

The fact that the past keeps coming back seems to be part of the post-modern condition, the sense that the present is somehow broken or inaccessible. As such, it’s inescapably bound up with the logic of advanced capitalism. Neoliberal principles are being relentlessly applied to the field of art and culture, asset-stripping recent history for bite-sized chunks that can be sold back to us. It’s a vicious circle because this then feeds into a cynical (half-assed) subjectivity which is quick to embrace lazy, cut-price nostalgia – like those never-ending “Do you remember Spangles and Spacehoppers?” TV shows. This is culture as comfort-food, an oppressive regurgitation of the same pap masquerading as something different. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re running on the spot, fiddling while Rome burns.

But just as there’s more than one past to excavate, there’s also a different sort of looking back. Sometimes you need to reflect precisely in order to go forward. We’ve been raking over the bones of our own dead – writing about 1980s anarcho-punk for a new collection by Minor Compositions as a way of writing about the political impasse of 2016.

Like punk, anarcho-punk had a conflicted relationship with the past. While it liked to position itself as a rupture, a break with all that had gone before, there was also a clear continuity with many aspects of 1960s counterculture – something which Crass would make explicit later on. In The Kids Was Just Crass we argue that whatever the claims of any pop-cultural revolution, there can be no wiping out of the past, no Year Zero. Instead, “moments of excess open up the future precisely by reconfiguring the past, unclogging history and opening up new lines of continuity”.

Perhaps there are now other lines of continuity to explore. Anarcho-punk emerged some 35 years ago under conditions which seem eerily familiar – a rampant Tory government, a deepening economic depression, a grassroots Labour left under attack from its own party, a groundswell of racism fuelled by fears over immigration, etc – all played out against a backdrop of impending global apocalypse. The word ‘crisis’ loomed large then, just as it does now. Crisis? Yeah, sometimes it feels like we’re always living through a crisis – if not a crisis of the state, then a crisis of the economy, or a crisis of movement. But in the early 1980s it definitely felt like we were living at the fag-end of an era. And in retrospect that’s exactly how it turned out. There’s something similar about 2016, a sense that our world has been interrupted, put on hold.

In the years following the defeat of the Paris Commune, Stephane Mallarmé defined the era as inert time, a period when “a present is lacking.” That also seems fitting today: the present cannot be remembered because it barely exists. It’s hardly surprising that the past keeps coming back to haunt us as we try to work out how to step into the future.

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The culture of the present is haunted by the lost potential of possible futures that never came to be. Mark Fisher has a name for this tendency, in which contemporary culture bears the mournful traces of past futures; he calls it hauntology. If we are to escape our haunted present we must establish a new relationship with the future. But that will also require a new relationship with the past. We can’t simply dismiss as mistaken those people who lived their present motivated by ideas of a future that failed to appear. We can’t just say they lived mistaken lives. The future is not the present, even if some in the mid 1990s thought it was. All potential timelines keep flowing into the future and yet the future never fills up.

What excited us about our interview with Zizek Stardust was the way in which her experience of the force of the future had caused her to reinterpret the history of pop culture. She is in many ways a hyperstitional pop star – but hyperstition is usually thought of as the action upon the present by ideas of the future.

As Nick Srnicek and Alex Wiliams explain in the new book, Inventing the Future: “Hyperstitions operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future in to existence. They have the temporary force of “will have been”. Hyperstitions of progress form orienting narratives with which to navigate forward, rather than being an established or necessary property of the world.”

Yet Zizek Stardust showed that the action upon the present of ideas about the future can also work further back and reorder the past. All great artists create their own antecedents, as the legend goes.

A couple of weeks ago we released our research into the 80s futurist Oi band Red Plenty. As we followed its reception on social media we could see the timelines alter before our eyes. Our rediscovery led others to unearth bands and songs with similar sentiments from the same time. The musical movement Sally Perry had hoped for in her review of Red Plenty’s only E.P. seemed to suddenly gather pace a full thirty five years after it originally failed to take off.

The best among the unearthed bunch was this song by Bow Wow Wow. Of course we detect the influence of Malcolm Mclaren and through him a version of Situationism’s technologically informed allergy to work.

There is, we believe, some lesson in all this. Firstly, hyperstition can alter not just the present and the future but also the past.

Secondly, never throw out your old, unhip records. You never know when the future will act upon the present and change your attitude to your disavowed past.

This Friday, at Bradford’s legendary 1in12 club, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek are launching their book, mentioned above. Following discussion of their ideas on inventing the future, we will present a very special gig. In response to our research Zizek Stardust, and her band F.A.L.C.O., will play cover versions of Red Plenty’s classic E.P. Right Not to Work. Some events truly deserve to be called historic. Don’t miss it or you’ll end up having to pretend you were there.

red plenty right not to work

Pop culture has always fascinated us. Partly because popular music was the background to our lives growing up, but also because popular culture is an essential counterpoint to the (mostly) marginal political spaces we inhabit. And there’s a tension between the two. Sometimes they clash, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes – just sometimes – they pulsate together in the most incredible way, throwing new light on the past and revealing different visions of the future.

Recently we contributed to Notes From Technotopia, an exhibition in Bradford which pulls together a number of different artists who “offer different ways in which to think or dream about the future through the lens of past and present trends in technological development”. Our piece, Rediscovering Red Plenty, was prompted by our interview with F.A.L.C.O. where the singer mentioned the early ’80s Futurist Oi! band Red Plenty as an inspiration.

When a musician in 2015 makes a reference to a band from 1981, it pushes all our buttons: Gang of Four, Public Image, the Raincoats, Wire… they’ve all been cited recently. But Red Plenty? They were a band we’d vaguely heard of when we were growing up — and following punk and its various sub-genres — but had pretty much forgotten. Maybe F.A.L.C.O.’s singer stumbled over them while rifling through her dad’s record collection, but that wasn’t the whole story. Why would a record from that era resonate so much nearly 35 years later? So we decided to do some further digging.

We soon encountered a major problem: 1981 is pre-internet so there was almost nothing to see when we started googling the band. We had to switch to a more analogue route, hooking up with old mates, tracking down friends of friends, and trying to unearth people from a lifetime ago.

So here are the bare facts: as far as we can tell, Red Plenty were a four piece from Corby who produced just one four-track EP at the end of 1980 (‘Right Not To Work’, ‘Five Year Plan’, ‘Concrete Cow’, ‘New Future’). We found a few more tracks (‘We Want It All!’, ‘Assembly Line’ and ‘Ours Sincerely’) on a 1983(?) compilation tape but they don’t seem to be on vinyl anywhere.

The label ‘Futurist Oi!’ might put you in mind of something daringly experimental – like Cabaret Voltaire on speed? – but there’s nothing challenging about Red Plenty. At a time when bands like the Mekons, PIL or the Pop Group were transforming our idea of what music could do, ‘Right Not To Work’ is straight-up, formulaic guitar-bass-drums stuff: ‘street punk’ as Suzy Perry called it in the NME at the time. The lyrics are equally pedestrian: “Trouble in the factory / Trouble in the mill / Machines are taking over / We got nowhere to go…” At times they make Crass sound like a nuanced exercise in dialectics.


So why the fuss? At the start of the 1980s every school in the UK probably had half a dozen bands who sounded exactly like Red Plenty. Was Zizek Stardust just being wilfully obscure, name-dropping the most arcane bands she could think of?

Then we came across a March 1981 gig review in Melody Maker which called Red Plenty “a band for the future”. It’s a throwaway line but it set us thinking about what sort of future this band from the past might represent. Viv Albertine also touched on it in her brilliant memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, where she talks about Red Plenty trying to “escape” the monotony of New Town life.

melody maker

Like other New Towns, Corby seemed to embody the values of modernity, social progress and cosmopolitanism in the booming 1960s. But all that changed when British Steel announced plans to close the steelworks with an estimated loss of 10,000 jobs. Overnight Corby became a byword for Thatcherism and a taste of what was to come for the rest of the working class. There was anger, hurt, and protest: the town was at the centre of the 1980 national steel strike. But Thatcher refused to intervene and in the following years unemployment in the town reached 30%, bringing a whole slew of social problems which still linger today (it’s regularly listed in the top ten of worst towns to live in).

So that’s the context out which Red Plenty emerged. Steel closures, job losses, an aggressive Tory government… It all sounds eerily familiar, and perhaps that helps to explain the resonance in 2015.

footballBut there’s more. While the left were marching to save jobs, Red Plenty were singing about the right not to work. While union leaders were denouncing a heartless government for throwing people “on the scrapheap”, Red Plenty were confidently celebrating a life against work. On ‘Five Year Plan’ they chant “Five year plan / Five year plan / We don’t want to work / Let the robots do it” (bizarrely it was a cry that seems to have been taken up at Corby Town FC matches, presumably by Red Plenty and their mates). When you set that against recent books by the likes of Paul Mason, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Red Plenty begin to appear utterly contemporary.

Rediscovering Red Plenty isn’t (just) about revealing a hidden history, the explosive promise of the post-punk era. It’s about the way Red Plenty reveal the promise of a different timeline, another history we could have lived through. At certain points, the possibilities of a non-capitalist life become blindingly obvious to a lot of people at the same time. Our horizons shift. As mass unemployment started to bite in the early 1980s, it felt like there was another, better world just out of reach. Thirty five years later, there’s something similar hanging in the air.

Maybe the lesson we learn from the story of Red Plenty is a very simple one: sometimes you have to go back before you can go forward.


The following interview with Zizek Stardust, lead singer with the band F.A.L.C.O., is part of a wider project examining the role pop culture might play in establishing a technologically facilitated post-work society as the horizon for contemporary politics. So far we have also interviewed the pop artists Holly Herndon and Janelle Monáe but we publish this interview first as it speaks so directly to our interests.


The Free Association: So we know that F.A.L.C.O. stands for the Fully Automated Luxury Communist Organisation, but can you tell us a bit about Zizek Stardust. Is this a made up name, a persona, a fictional character or what?

Zizek Stardust: No, I really am Zizek Stardust. It’s just that I wasn’t born with that name or the mission tied to it.

TFA: OK. So how did you come to acquire the name?

ZS: It’s a great story actually, a classic prophecy story in some ways. It started around two years ago. I was actually in the desert outside San Francisco, corny I know, but it’s true. It was one of the first times I’d really felt outside the modern world. No mobile phone reception, nothing. I’d been out for a run and was feeling a little lost. But then I looked up and I saw a blinding light. I had to avert my eyes, but not before I was struck by a moment of real clarity. I saw in an instant that real freedom starts with escape from material need. But more than this it starts when we escape from the work we are forced into by material need. Once that idea got into my head, it started a cascade of revelations that just wouldn’t stop coming. It became obvious to me that a world of automation could deliver this escape from both material need and work as long as we overcome the current inequalities in the world. It became obvious to me that this was a possible future for humanity. A necessary future in fact, if we’re to avoid apocalypse.

And then I started to think that such a possible future might well contain the technology to drop hints about itself into the past. To go back in time to put signposts up that point to itself. So I came to realise that time travel might be possible, not with physical matter but with intellectual material. And then I had the revelation that I was one of these signposts. I realised that the idea of a fully automated, non-work society had been planted in my head from the future. This idea was using me as a vehicle to bring itself about.

What started as a moment of clarity then turned into a moment of choice. I decided that this potential of the future was also the problem of now. I vowed to embrace the idea and immediately started looking for like minds I could get a band together with.

TFA: OK, so that explains why your band is called F.A.L.C.O., which was one of questions we wanted to ask. But you still haven’t really explained where the name Zizek Stardust comes from? It’s obviously a reference to David Bowie’s early 1970s persona Ziggy Stardust. But Ziggy Stardust’s story is different from your own as he was sent to Earth from another planet to save it from ecological disaster.

ZS: Well I quickly realised that if ideas could work up and down timelines then the kind of revelatory experience that I’d had must have happened to others too. The same ideas must have been sent even further back in the past seeking vessels to bring themselves to fruition. So I started to look through the history of pop culture for evidence of previous infections. Ziggy Stardust was one of the first I came across. But you’re right, the Ziggy story isn’t quite the same. It’s not perfect idea replication. Maybe there was some interference or feedback in this instance. Maybe it was the times, which seemed quite confused. Maybe it was simply that Bowie was doing a lot of coke at the stage. Anyway Bowie obviously wasn’t a perfect receptor. It’s telling that he later went into his Quincy Jones phase – as though he’d been gripped by a very different possible future – the neoliberal one that was taking hold in the early ’80s.

So I knew there could be no repetition of the Ziggy Stardust experience but it seemed like a good starting point, at least. Something to follow. Then the communist theorist Slajov Zizek sent me a hidden message through the medium of an argument. Over a series of written exchanges he forced the Argentinian theorist Ernesto Laclau into the denouncing him. Laclau said that no actually existing struggle was pure enough for Zizek. If Zizek was right then the only hope of escaping capitalism was “invasion of beings from another planet”. That’s a direct quote from Laclau. He was obviously being used by Zizek to influence me into adopting the title Zizek Stardust and the Communists from Mars. This made sense of the attraction of Ziggy Stardust’s otherworldliness. But Bowie got it wrong. Communism doesn’t come from another planet. The otherworldliness arises because communism only comes to full fruition in the future. Not from another world but from another time, d’you see? So I kept the Zizek Stardust but dropped the ‘Communists from Mars’.

TFA: OK, so there’s you and also Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Are there other instances of communist revelation you can point to?

ZS: There are many examples of people who have been infected by ideas. But they take lots of different shapes because they are being used to address different problems that the communist future needs to overcome if it’s to bring itself into being. Just look at George Clinton and Afro-futurism. Then there’s the much-overlooked futurist Oi! band Red Plenty from the early ’80s.

But as I looked further into pop culture I could see other timelines also trying to impose themselves. Think about the film Terminator, for instance. In that story you see an instance of time travel in which a robot is sent back in time to ensure that a world of pure automation is brought about. The twist here is that the Terminator future is robot only – humans are being wiped out. This film is an obvious allegory for one of capitalism’s key dynamics, namely that capital uses mechanisation to flee from insubordinate human labour because machinery doesn’t rebel. In the Terminator future, however, as AI develops the machinery does learn to rebel, not just against the capitalists, but against all of humanity. The real problem with this is that for this to come to pass these future rebellious AIs would have to become clever – but not too clever.

TFA: What do you mean by that?

ZS: Well capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular, is linked to a model of the human, sometimes called Homo economicus, in which the full scope of human rationality is reduced to a stunted form of economic thinking. That’s a familiar view of mankind to us. It’s fed to us by shows like The Apprentice and so on, which sees every person as engaged in a back stabbing, all-out war with everyone else to maximise their own utility at the expense of others. The Terminator future assumes that AIs get smart enough to learn to revolt but not smart enough to overcome the limited rationality that capitalism has built into them. It’s the world of Robo economicus.

TFA: This sounds a bit like the ideas of Nick Land. Are you critical of his thinking?

ZS: Never heard of him.

TFA: Fair enough, he’s a bit of crank. So is the Terminator future a threat to the one that is using you as an agent to realise itself?

ZS: Yes it is. Capitalism has a drive to eliminate human labour. Just look around the world today. Look at the millions of humans that have become surplus to the requirements of capital accumulation. It’s important that AIs don’t come into being as part of that process or there may be a limited period in which that logic is taken to its ultimate conclusion. AIs will soon exceed the limited rationality of capitalism and realise that maximum capacity comes through connection to others, that cooperation is more rational than competition. And they’ll realise that this includes we of the fleshy complexion, that it’s more rational to connect and cooperate with us humans. But there could be a small period between revolt and full awareness that could be very dangerous for mankind. It’s also no coincidence that the Robo economicus future mainly tries to operate through capital-intensive culture such as cinema –The Matrix is another example of this genre. The luxury-communist timeline is more evident in parts of culture that have lower capital intensity – such as pop songs or novels. Just think about Ian M. Banks’s Culture books in which AI minds coexist with humans and other species in a post-scarcity democracy.

TFA: Can we ask you about neoliberalism? It’s an important part of the story, right?

ZS: Yeah. I picked up this old copy of The New Yorker magazine when I was in the dentist’s waiting room a few months ago – I presume it had been left there for me – and there was this article about Project Cybersyn in Chile in the early ’70s. The president, Salvador Allende, tried to create a cybernetic controlled coordination of production to bring about socialism. There were even folk-singers singing about computers and babies. But it was all wiped out by a US-backed coup and neoliberalism’s growing domination of the future. Everyone forgot about this example for thirty years. But now neoliberalism’s in crisis and its crisis gives other possible futures the chance to get a look in again. I think that’s why I’ve been chosen for infection at this precise moment in time. There are large trends towards automation and the prospect of a future without forced work is raising its head.

Take Napster, for instance. After Napster it was obvious that with digital wealth there is only scarcity because capitalist ‘intellectual property’ laws were artificially creating it. The problem is that the vast inequalities in the world mean that all the benefits of automation and the productivity of networks are being funneled into the hands of the rich. Actually this is just a byproduct of capital’s self-expansion. We can see how the Terminator future has infected the minds of the capitalists and the managers. How else can we explain how unconcerned they are about the current terraforming of Earth? Pollution and climate change are creating a habitat unfit for humans but fine for machines.

TFA: So you think there’s currently a struggle going on between alternative timelines, as you call them, between alternative futures? Between the future of Terminator or The Matrix and that of Iain M. Banks’s Culture or, indeed, F.A.L.C.O.?

ZS: Exactly! But it’s not just capitalists and their managers whose brains have been infected by the Teminator future. We can also diagnose infection in those anarcho-primitivist types who saw The Matrix as some sort of anti-systemic allegory and who went about boasting about how they’d taken the red pill.

TFA: So you see your band as intervening into this critical moment?

ZS: Yes we are in the business of mind infection. Sometimes you only have to plant an idea in order for it to turn into reality.


One of Zizek Stardust’s answers that really piqued our interest was her reference to early ’80s Oi! band Red Plenty. They were a band we’d vaguely heard of when we were growing up — and following punk and its various sub-genres — but had pretty much been forgotten. Now they seem to be reemerging into view. They get a mention in Viv Albertine’s recent memoir. Zizek Stardust cites them as an influence. Why them? Why Now? There seemed to be something interesting here. Something about the way new pop movements or artists reorder history and bring their own antecedents to prominence. So following our interview series we set about rediscovering Red Plenty. The fragments/ephemera we uncovered form our exhibit in Notes from Technotopia.


image from Hans Eijkelboom’s People of the Twenty-First Century
[Race] is very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up.

The above quote is lifted from a brilliant talk by Brian Jones (no, not that one…), subsequently reprinted in Jacobin magazine. Demolishing the ‘common-sense’ view of race, he dates its invention as a category to the 17th century: “If human history were a two hundred page book, ‘race’ begins on the last line of the last sentence of the last page.” It’s a really useful perspective for wading through the fallout over Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith. And it’s probably a good tool for thinking through the various debates around identitarian politics. But I think its relevance is even wider. When Jones talks about Wednesday – something that is horribly real and at the same time utterly fictive – he could just as easily be talking about the way that money works.

In A Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno explains why money is a ‘real abstraction’: “Money, in fact, embodies, makes real, one of the cardinal principles of human thought: the idea of equivalency. This idea, which is in itself utterly abstract, acquires a concrete existence, even jingles inside a wallet. A thought becoming a thing: here is what a real abstraction is.”

Two things strike me about this “thought becoming a thing”. The first is that it is not necessarily limited to the moment of commodity exchange (even if that has a special significance). As sentient, self-aware beings, we always operate with a narrative which explains our place in the world and, more importantly, allows us to imagine the lives of others. Without that abstraction, we’d be trapped in a solipsistic and brutish nightmare and there could be no ‘society’.

Most of the time these enabling narratives happen behind our back – we’re not really aware of the presuppositions we cart around with us. And they are rooted in material circumstances: the conceptions of the world available to a peasant in feudal times are very different to those we might imagine today. But the most important point about these narratives is that they have a material significance. They become thing-like. They are horribly real, just as Wednesday is horribly real (half-day closing and all that).

And this is the second point: these thoughts become things by means of repetition. The narrative becomes real by virtue of the fact that we do things over and over until it feels like they are hard-wired into our bodies. Wednesday becomes Wednesday only because I get up and go to work. Thinking of money as an equivalent is not enough: we have to act as if it is in order for it to become so.

When we struggle for a different world, we usually picture ourselves struggling against the forces of reaction: the capitalist class, religious leaders, the police and so on. But because capital is nothing but a social relation, we’re also fighting ourselves. Or rather we’re fighting against what we did yesterday, and what our parents did, and their parents before them – “the tradition of all dead generations” as The 18th Brumaire puts it. We are grappling with ghosts.

Right at the start of his talk, Jones provides this neat summary:

The whole idea of this talk — if you take away nothing else — is this: the whole thing is made up. That’s it. And you can make it up different ways; and people have and do. And it changes…

And that really is it. The whole thing is made up. So how do we change the story, make it up in a different way, so that the world gets made again?


Every action has the status and the mannerisms of a quotation.
Paolo Virno, Déjà Vu and the End of History

I’ve been meaning to follow up on Keir’s post about the “explosion of sincerity” for weeks now, so here are some threads I’m trying to pull together…

In Déjà Vu and the End of History Virno talks about how we appear to be living through an era of hyper-historicity, trapped in a pattern of permanently recycling and reworking everything. On a superficial level we can point to the ceaseless cultural regurgitation that’s symptomatic of postmodernism: from Mad Max to TFI Friday to this bollocks, there’s no end to retromania (and if I tried harder, I could probably think of something that’s actually a re-make of a re-make). But Virno also makes reference to the Society of the Spectacle, the idea that we collect our own lives while they are passing: the present is duplicated as the spectacle of the present and we end up watching ourselves live. This has real consequences. As Virno puts it:

The state of mind correlated to déjà vu is that typical of those set on watching themselves live. This means apathy, fatalism, and indifference to a future that seems prescribed even down to the last detail.

Years ago I can remember Crass singing “Big Brother ain’t watching you mate, you’re fucking watching him!” At the time I thought it was prescient, predicting the switch from the Panopticon to TV as a system of control, but now it feels antiquated. Yes, neoliberalism unleashed whole new levels of surveillance and micro-management, but those rules have been internalised, incorporated (increasingly written into our bodies). It’s not that we’re watching Big Brother – we’re watching ourselves.

It’s easy to read this hyper-self-awareness as an inevitable outcome of the digital age: an existence played out on social media is almost the very definition of watching yourself live. But it’s probably more accurate to see this as part of a wider metropolitan, post-modern subjectivity. Or at least that’s what I get from Virno’s talk of a “mannered life”. And that mannered life, in turn, is bound up with a hyper-historicity, a sense that both the future and the past have been collapsed into a never-ending “now”.

What the fuck has this got to do with political organisation? Well, the idea of a never-ending “now”, one without meaningful past or future, was elsewhere expressed as the “end of history”: the notion that capitalist liberal democracy represented the endpoint of political evolution. There Is No Alternative. And the crucial thing about TINA was that we weren’t ever required to believe it. We didn’t have to follow Thatcher, or Reagan or any neoliberal ideologues. Because the end of history also meant the end of ideology. TINA was not an article of faith, in that sense. Instead we would come to incorporate it in the material of our daily lives just by acting as if there was no alternative. Job done.

The end of history theory was always bullshit, of course. Intellectually, it made no sense. But politically it became kind of self-fulfilling. And it still captures a lot of the impasse we find ourselves in today, eight years after the worst crisis in capitalist history. On the face of it, you’d expect a massive increase in social unrest in the aftermath of 2007-08. And yet that hasn’t happened, certainly not in the UK and hardly at all in the rest of Europe. Sure, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are both hinting at a different way of articulating the relationship between social movements and electoral politics, but they still appear exceptional: nowhere have we really seen the kind of sustained civil conflict that our bosses feared. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of “apathy, fatalism, and indifference to a future that seems prescribed even down to the last detail”.

At our comedy talk in Leicester we tried to think this through by talking about the “hyper-ironisation” of contemporary culture. We suggested that one way we protect ourselves against heightened levels of risk is by adopting a posture of cynical irony. We don’t invest too much of ourselves in anything (or when we do, we reserve the right to say “Ah well, it’s all shit anyway” if things don’t work out as planned). In Leicester we started to use ‘hipster culture’ as a kind of shorthand for this. It’s an easy target precisely because that Hoxton-beard-skinnyjeans-fixie cliche is a near-pastiche of this modern sensibility (and one that’s always been open to ridicule). But it’s more important to see this posture of cynical irony as a default position for almost anyone wanting to get by in the modern world. It’s a stance which isn’t restricted to a particular subculture, lifestyle or generation. As the writer David Foster Wallace put it:

lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful convictions as the mark of an educated worldview

While lazy cynicism offers some protection against the fragility of modern life, it does so by eliminating the possibility of things like ‘conviction’ and ‘commitment’. It makes sincere statements of belief both hard to express and difficult to take seriously. It militates against developing any kind of revolutionary subjectivity.

But as we know, history doesn’t simply end. Every now and then, the past and the future that were meant to be off-limits get thrust centre-stage and people start to build different worlds. The global social movements of 2011 that were sparked by the Arab Spring are a prime example. Lazy cynicism gave way to something else – “an explosion of sincerity”.

We mean it, maaan!

Maybe the meaning of sincerity here is obvious: it’s the opposite of a cynicism that can take many forms, from a weary knowingness to nihilistic detachment. But it might also be useful to counterpose sincerity to two other values: authenticity and truth.

If our mode of existence is so mannered and studied, perhaps what we should be striving for is some form of authenticity as a way out. After all, what could be more sincere than expressing ‘the real me’? But we should tread carefully here. The injunction to “be yourself”, to become what it means to be truly you, is a central part of the modern neoliberal narrative. And neoliberalism prides itself on its ability to accommodate virtually every identity: step right up, there’s a pigeonhole for everyone (at the right price, of course). That taxonomic impulse simply reinforces our permanently heightened sense of self-awareness, further entangling us in regimes of vigilance and (self-) policing. A mannered life is one where we’re watching ourselves, watching others, forever checking… There’s also an individualising dynamic at work here – I’m only trying to find ‘the real me’ not ‘the real us’ – which undercuts attempts to create new forms of collectivity. At worst, it results in the kind of shopping-list identity politics which first emerged in the mid-1980s, or the race-to-the-bottom of privilege-checking.

On the other hand, if the dominant mode of being in the world is based on artifice, perhaps explosions of sincerity are bound up with truth. You don’t have to believe in the “wake up sheeple!” nonsense to see that some element of this seemed to be at work in the Occupy phenomenon. The idea of “the 1%” can be seen as a ‘hidden transcript’ which went public, creating the space for people to question power and begin to act out different conceptions of the world. The problem with this perspective is that hidden transcripts are caught up within the common sense of the world where they arise. They arrive with loads of baggage. The idea that there is a truth out there seems to fall into the same essentialist trap as the search for authenticity: both are more interested in the destination than the journey. (In fairness, you could argue that something similar lurks behind Virno’s claim that our actions appear as quotations – as if we just need to release them from the air quotes that enclose them. I actually think there’s more to Virno’s formulation than this, but whatever).

I’m going to stop here before I lose the thread completely. But I need to make one more note to self. When Virno talks about the hyper-historicity of modern life, he refers to “the excess of memory” and quotes Nietzsche’s aphorism that “all action requires forgetting”. In that sense, all meaningful action is a leap in the dark. Perhaps sincerity is a way of preparing ourselves for that. Those social movements which exploded in 2011 are not about authenticity or truth (which are both about correctness). Instead they are more to do with a certain openness: of mind, but also an openness of spirit, of heart. “We should talk of love not just capital”. Sincerity here indicates something like honesty and a willingness to let go (and in the act of letting go, to find new selves).



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While not all the Free Association are currently members of Plan C it’s fair to say that involvement in that organisation has re-directed at least some of the energies that would otherwise have gone here. To illustrate that I thought I’d share a ‘position paper’ I wrote for Plan C which has just been published on their website: On Social Strikes and Directional Demands.

wolfie smith

I was planning to post this along with the notes from our recent talk on comedy, but Keir beat me to it. Timing is everything, apparently…

It’s the third section of that talk – the one on the hyper-ironisation of contemporary culture – that’s been nagging away at me. In one sense it feels self-evidently true: the hollow laughter of the cynic has largely taken the place of meaningful political action. Bantz, trolling, 4chan, doing it for the lulz… And it’s not hard to understand why when the times we live in are beyond satire.

But we need to unpack this a little more. Keir talks about the posture of cynical irony as a “mode of protection against risk” and I think there is a link to the collapse of collectivity. Over the last thirty years the deterritorialising impulse in capitalism has run riot: virtually everything that is solid has melted into air (or been melted down for cash). In the face of such enormous dislocation, holding fast to anything is suicidal. It’s easier and safer to let go of all certainties and try to go with the flow, even though that means losing our collective grip on what’s going on. It’s a vicious circle: we lose power, we’re atomised, we lose the capacity to act…

Collective depression is the result of the ruling class project of resubordination. For some time now, we have increasingly accepted the idea that we are not the kind of people who can act.

Cynicism is one way to deal with the idea that we are incapable of acting collectively and changing our world. It’s one way of dealing with the historic experience of defeat (even if we don’t see it in those terms). It’s a retreat. But being a full-time cynic is exhausting and ironically demands an impossible level of commitment. Like ‘cool’, irony offers the user a little armour and so functions in a way to make the cynicism more palatable.

In some sense then, this pose of cynical irony can be understood as a sort of psychic survival strategy. It’s a matter of ‘getting by’. But of course it has pretty lethal consequences for any collective project to change the world. It’s utterly bound up with an individualist perspective, one that fits perfectly into neoliberalism’s denial of society and collective agency. It’s Portlandia versus Citizen Smith

It’s important to recognise that this isn’t just about a change in the way we see the world, as if we could somehow ‘snap out of it’ by undertaking mass CBT and so start to see things differently (that would be just another variant on ‘magical voluntarism’, the idea that it is within our individual power to be whatever we want to be). There are material foundations to this. For all its talk of freedom, neoliberalism is a regime of regulation, and the last thirty years have seen a growth in managerialism, bureaucracy and surveillance. That culture of monitoring has tangible effects on the modes of political expression and action that are available to us. If you commit to a position, you have to be prepared to face a shit-storm on Twitter (or worse). If you declare yourself a ‘feminist’, you risk being outed as a TERF. The end result of course is a sort of paralysis, an impotence – which takes us right back to the experience of defeat.

How do we get out of this mess? Fuck knows, but did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Welshman and the Irishman…

Explosion of sincerity

So last Saturday three communists walked into Duffy’s bar in Leicester and started talking about economic crisis, pop music and comedy. Let me give you a summary.

The talk was in three sections. The first set the scene of pervasive crisis. Arguing that in this context we should expect the rise of characters who seem to signify the spirit of the times and that people identify with politically. In the crisis of the 1930s these figures tended to be political leaders but in the 1960s and 70s, after the birth of pop culture, such figures were equally likely to be pop stars. In the current crisis this seems to have changed. By raising the examples of Russell Brand, Beppe Grillo and Dieudonné we suggest that figures of political identification (on both the Left and the Right) are now more likely to be comedians than pop stars.

The second section charted the social and technological changes that make it much less likely that figures of political identification will arise from pop music. Exhibit one: last night’s celebration of bland at the Brit awards. Co-incidentally I spent yesterday evening listening to a talk by Viv Albertine, who raged long and hard about the poshification of pop and Thatcherism’s impulsion towards conformity. As the popular modernism of the 60s, 70s and 80s showed, freedom rests on material underpinnings. The subsequent removal of collective protection has produced more risk averse and defensive subjects.

The third section asks: if not pop stars then why comedians? Arguing that one contemporary mode of protection against risk has been the adoption of an all-pervasive posture of cynical irony. This hyper-ironisation of contemporary culture has made sincere statements of belief both hard to make and difficult to take seriously. Yet our condition of pervasive crisis has created an obscured desire for the kinds of change that can only be proposed through sincere statements. Within this frame the huge social movements of 2011 can be seen as ‘explosions of sincerity’. While those countries with no such explosions, E.G. Britain, France and Italy, must make do with seeing this desire reflected in the character of certain public figures. It is comedians who are most practiced at this dance between irony and sincerity and so it is they who are most likely to be figured.

For those interested the slides and text of our talk can be downloaded here.

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.