How in the hell does Jeremy Corbyn become such a sensation at Glastonbury? A sixty-eight-year-old politician propped in front of a crowd of young people gathered to take in Run the Jewels does not on the surface sound at all like the raw material of cultural memory. And yet, when he spoke, the crowd chanted his name (to the tune of the White Stripes no less). They cheered and applauded and shouted themselves hoarse.
There is, ultimately, no reason they shouldn’t have. The leader of the Labour Party who led it to its best showing in twenty years did so by saying that this crowd of young people matters. That they deserve better than wages that can’t pay rent and education as a preserve for the rich. That they are more than just the subjects of austerity or a bleak world at war. That they deserve a future. Less than a week after the despicable fire at Grenfell Tower (“social murder” as Frederick Engels would have called it), when the deadly consequences of making a crowd invisible had set so many working-class people’s tempers on edge, this was the crowd as a cacophonous, un-ignorable fact.
It was just a glimpse for sure, muddled in with all the spectacle and problems of the music industry, but it was real and palpable. Bristling against the reality of most modern music festivals that treat attendees like cattle, there was another thread poking out that reminded us this is the same Glastonbury that sought to carry on a sincere counter-cultural ideal. It brought in union members to provide the beer and, thirty-four years prior to Corbyn, brought E.P. Thompson onstage to stump for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Corbyn ended his speech with some words well-worn to anyone who has been around the English-speaking left long enough. The great radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!
It is worth reminding ourselves of the hope and potential that can exist when a crowd gathers. It is worth it because in so much of the centrist and liberal commentariat, there is an equation between the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump. Both, in the eyes of the center, tap into a “populist” impulse, riling up hordes of underserving and audaciously acknowledging that there is an anger in them. Increasingly it is difficult to miss how this deep centrist anxiety – apologetic as it is for the kinds of austerity and cuts that have made working people’s lives miserable – engenders itself in a deep-seated terror of the bottom-up.
In the U.S., Democrats point the finger at supporters of Bernie Sanders for the election result while offering little more than lip-service (if that) against Trump’s worst excesses. No blame for the antiquated electoral system, certainly no reflection on how Hillary Clinton ran on a platform that amounted to more of the same neoliberal bleakness while Trump, albeit in a twisted and manipulative way, gave his base something concrete to mobilize around. In America and elsewhere, it is not the establishment that has caused the crisis, but the victims of that crisis, that have caused it.
History never really ended. Nobody with any sense has believed this – on either a literal or philosophico-metaphoric level – for some time. But when billionaires, talking heads and politicians alike are openly expressing their fear of the mob, it signals that something in history itself has restarted. How this unfolds isn’t clear, but it has consequence for how artists, musicians, writers and cultural workers participate in the creation and recreation of their environment.
Make no mistake: there are dark days ahead. Probably many more before it starts to lighten up – if it ever does. Trump, Marine Le Pen, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and even nastier counterparts across the globe represent a vicious strain of this restarted reality. It is true that right-wing populism isn’t as blue-collar, red-necked or subaltern as so many make it out to be. As Charlie Post argues in Jacobin, “Trump’s populist nationalism appeals to elements of the older, white middle class who fear sliding downward into the working class.” This anxious disaffection isn’t underconfident in making itself heard. In its mind, there is a better life on offer if only the outsiders – the poors, the illegals, the perverts – are put in their place and prevented from leeching off the promise of prosperity. Not quite a fool’s socialism, but certainly as foolish as it is poisonous.
The equation between this and a mass left-wing vision (ultimately a communist one) can only be made because the neoliberal center, though still very much in control, is faltering. There is a cultural counterpart to this “radical center.” It’s found in the massive culture industries whose commitment to truth, inquiry and beauty have been kicked so far down the list by the requirements of profit and commodity that they barely register. Hollywood’s movies are no more substantive for all their increasing expense. For every stunning and urgent masterpiece like To Pimp a Butterfly or Lemonade, the record labels churn out countless disposable compliments to the rhythm of our own alienation. The “art world” becomes increasingly opaque, bent toward providing ornament for the cultural credibility of the rich.
That so much of the above throws in its lot with the Clintonite center via its own sense of smug self-satisfaction and paternalism is why it is starting to lose its grip. Ordinary people are right to turn their backs on these, or at least regard them with a severely skeptical eye. Where they turn afterwards though is a poignant matter.
For sure, all art is commodity under capitalism, and we find meaning where we can. But the desire for something more substantive, something that mediates our present with a vision of the future and acknowledges our dire lot, is a real one. So, therefore, is the desire to tear it all down.
Currently, the far-right understand this far better than the left. The “alt-right” is adept at using the aesthetics of irony and schadenfreude to provoke and instigate their enemy. It is telling that Richard Spencer, the human punching-bag who claims to have coined the term, wrote his Master’s thesis on the work of Theodor Adorno. Alex Jones knows that his bullshit is bullshit, but he also knows that conspiracy-mongering can play a role in constructing an alternate narrative for those desperate enough.
For as easily as this desperation can be misdirected, it comes from somewhere. As neoliberalism’s vast inabilities and shortcomings continue to be exposed, many on the right recognize the raw nerves underneath along signifiers and slogans that agitate them. Working, poor and oppressed people feel this anxiety too, albeit from a different angle than their middle-class counterparts. Certainly, in an atomized society working-class people fall for reactionary ideas all the time. The point here isn’t to deny this, but to insist that workers and the oppressed have an objective interest in shunning these ideas in favor of a different kind
The populism that mobilizes these contingents, the populisms of Corbyn, Sanders, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and others, broad and imperfect though it may be, speaks to a fundamentally different vision of society. The dreams and hopes of this vision – its narratives and stories, its sounds and colors – must also be fundamentally different. In the wreckage of neoliberalism, it is a vision we will have to literally remake and rebuild. It is for this reason that Red Wedge is dedicating its third issue – and our first in our new quarterly schedule! – to the theme “Return of the Crowd.”
It is our hope that the material in this issue can suggest a radical utopian vision and how it differentiates from the approach of the right. The art, articles, and poetry in this magazine are aimed at asking what signifiers and gestures might spur on the participant to interact with the world in a way such that our own world might come to be. Adam Turl’s article on how each end of the spectrum has used an “aesthetic levelling” – lionizing the sidelines against a perceived dominance – attempts to unpack the sharp and often deceptive differences. If the right is more adept at tapping an aesthetic valence then it’s contingent on the left not to ape them but to learn what we are diverging from.
From there we are hoping to bring together some of the key theoretical and aesthetic legacies that have been part of a genuine Marxist and communist vision. Cat Moir’s and Alexander Billet’s respective reviews each seek to examine the revival of interest in two of Marxism’s most significant cultural thinkers: Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. Jason Netek’s essay on Situationism rescues the school of thought from much of its academic and anarchist distortion to posit a reclamation of beauty and space that is politically urgent. The recently and tragically departed radical theorist Mark Fisher’s penultimate book on the uses of the weird is the subject of Anindya Bhattacharyya’s review. And Neil Davidson’s long-form essay aims thoroughly to reestablish the bedrock of Marxism’s relationship to modernism by linking together the cultural theories of Leon Trotsky, Georg Lukács, and influential American art critic Clement Greenberg.
As Goethe remarked, theory is grey and by implication it is practice that is full of color – though, to paraphrase Kant, practice without theory is blind and directionless. And so, it is only natural that we highlight the art currently made that pivots off this dystopian moment and grapples with the possibility of something better. The new album from experimental rock group Algiers – which has already been receiving rave reviews – is one such work, and we’re thrilled that they agreed to speak with us about it. Hulu’s streaming adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has already become a cultural reference point for the stakes of struggling in Trump’s America; J. Matthew Camp’s review of the show seeks to mine the meaning of this. The poetry from Sunni Hutton and Mike Linaweaver similarly play in the space between despair and hope. So too does the art of Howard Barry, Laura Fair-Schulz, Arthur Sangster, and Amy Madden. All of whom have contributions in this issue.
The center cannot hold. Neither can its culture. Benjamin, in his Theses On the Philosophy of History, eloquently described time’s uneven, chaotic path toward a “messianic moment” of some kind. There is an obvious risk in taking this in too literal and religious terms. But at its most boiled down, Benjamin is insisting that that the revolutionary seeks to break with empty time, of repetition, that dominates our lives and bring to fruition a fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of those who fought before them. It is a moment that ensures the pain of history hasn’t been in vain.
The right has its own messiahs too, its own anticipated moments when its version of events is solidified as fact. Given the nature of reactionary thought it is perhaps no coincidence that this messiah is quite literal, personified in a Duce or Fuhrer. But this messiah is profoundly nationalist and punitive in nature, ultimately available to a select group and unafraid to crush those who fight for it under its boot. It tears down not to raise up others in their place but to further fracture and atomize them.
That messianic moment of the left is one of redemption. Of tearing down not just to build, but to build on a fundamentally collective and radically democratic basis. There is unfortunately a lot more to remind us of the fear, the estrangement, the abject horror. We don’t need to imagine a punitive world. We already live there. What we need is a way to conceive of something more. We will either do this collectively or we will fail.
This editorial appears in our third issue, “Return of the Crowd.” Purchase a copy at wedge shop.
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