After the Election

dystopia

….for the 31% of the public who voted for Labour, they may not ring absolutely true. Those people may feel, as they haven’t for a generation, like aliens in their own land. Promised that social justice was a cause that would ultimately resonate with the whole country, they have instead been reminded that to vast numbers of people, their beliefs seem peculiar, their cause an unholy alliance of the snooty and the feckless. They could live with the disapproval of the newspapers they didn’t like. But now they must admit that the Mail was not a mouthpiece, but an amplifier.

I was fortunate enough to be on holiday when the dreadful election results were announced so that perhaps played a role in why this description of the aftermath, taken from here, so resonated with me. It’s really not over-stating things to say that the UK really does currently feel like an alien land. It was relatively easy to remain optimistic in the face of the cruelties and traumas of the past five years, as the Tories hadn’t been able to win a majority, no-one had actually voted for much of what the coalition did and it seemed certain that we would (at the very least) face an even wider (and thus more diluted) coalition after this election. I went off on holiday with a bounce in my step, creating a playlist called ‘All Things Seem Possible in May’ to mark May Day and my sense of optimism that better days were near. Yet it wasn’t to be: enough people voted for the horrors offered by the Tories to give them a full majority, free from even the moderately palliative influence of the Liberal Democrats.

The real kick in the teeth is that this didn’t happen, I believe, because most people are just unabashed dickheads. I could parse that and feed strength from my sense of righteousness. No, rather this result underlines the state of unreality our politics exists in, the sense that we are all wading through bullshit. As I mentioned in that piece most people, whatever their political identification (if they have one), have no idea of the reality of welfare, immigration, spending etc. It doesn’t seem to me that most people in this election chose a party because they felt they could support its policies; rather it was about emotional identification. This is, of course, always an important factor but the role of nationalism in this election has certainly been stronger than any in my adult life. The Tories pulled off their victory because they spent the last 3 weeks of their campaign not discussing their policies or articulating a vision for the country but rather invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government beholden to the SNP. Again, the easy and self-righteous interpretation here would be to believe that ‘England’ was terrified of the SNP dragging Labour to the left. A more honest one, I think, is to acknowledge that the SNP spent their campaign invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government at ‘Westmonster’ which they could exert influence on to amplify ‘Scotland’s voice’. There is, of course, no such thing as ‘Scotland’s voice’ and that rhetoric, along with digs about ‘writing the Labour manifesto’ and ‘making Labour bolder’ were aimed at appealing to Scottish nationalist ideas of ‘us vs them down there’ while equally inflaming a reactionary English nationalism which could only ever serve the Tories.

While on the left it’s been (and remains) easy to attack the Tories and Labour, casting a critical eye over the SNP remains a (very controversial) niche pursuit. The responses have been predictable: the left in Scotland largely keep telling themselves that Scotland is ‘different’, they are not nationalist and the Tory government is England’s fault; the left in England largely indulge this and keep fighting about how inadequate Labour is; the right swiftly gets on with things like removing the Human Rights Act which underline how facile the ‘they’re both the same’ or ‘Red Tories’ lines are. When I wrote about the #indyref I predicted that it would (further) divide the UK left, that the SNP would almost entirely mop up the spoils with the ‘Green Yes’ and RIC campaigns largely irrelevant and that we would disappear down the rabbit hole of nationalism. I think all these things have come to pass and, as I wrote in March, I think we’re going to be here for some time (as does Patrick Cockburn in this good piece placing nationalism in context). Certainly the fact that we now face the actual Tories means there will be no further parsing of Scottish nationalism, the myths of difference which sustain it or the fact that Scottish politics exists in a same-but-different state of unreality as the rest of the UK (a state brilliantly demolished in this blog). This is a particularly egregious example of what we can expect, portraying the SNP vote as against ‘colonial nationalism’ and explicitly mentioning Libya, clearly utterly oblivious to the fact that the SNP supported the ‘intervention’ there (as it did in Afghanistan and in the first Gulf War). I do, incidentally, think Scottish independence is far more likely – I don’t however think this will change the above situation for at least a decade. This piece shows why. Even after a surge in SNP support which literally started the week of the referendum result and has led to an almost one-party state in Scotland, prominent ‘Green Yes’ supporters are still arguing that this ‘isn’t about nationalism’, the Greens polling 1.3% in Scotland (less than UKIP) is a good thing and a ‘real left’ will emerge at some point in the future. The absolute need for these ‘progressives’ to feel dissociated from nationalism has completely blunted their critical faculties. They are forehead deep in the unreal bullshit.

The state of unreality trundled on as soon as Labour’s defeat became obvious and we’re already seeing the right of the party trying to capitalise on it. Make no mistake about it, speaking as a socialist the Labour Party manifesto was inadequate in many ways, sometimes indefensibly so. Yet there was also much to be excited about and it was in some aspects the most left-wing manifesto Labour has had in decades. This manifesto saw the Labour vote increase in England and Wales – not enough, clearly, but it’s important to remember this in the face of instant rhetoric about how this was a disaster comparable to 1983.

Nonetheless, just as the unreality of ‘Labour spent too much and wrecked the economy’ became quickly accepted as truth after the 2010 election (something Labour clearly has large responsibility for) we can already see the bullshit we will be wading through for the foreseeable future: on the right it will be cemented that Labour were too left-wing, that austerity is working, that the coalition’s legacy has to be accepted. The left will prove more fractious, as ever, but it will be cemented that Labour were too right-wing and that ‘Scotland’ voted for a more radical left-wing party and nationalism played little role. There will also be an increase in despair and the notion that electoral politics is a busted flush for the left, something which overwhelmingly manifests itself in attacks on the electorally-minded left-wing.

I feel despair too, of a kind I have rarely known politically. It does cause an existential questioning of what we’re doing here, exactly. Yet there are things I still firmly believe: that you can argue for and fight for a better government than the Tories without believing that it’s the be all and end all of politics or, indeed, abandoning opposition to much of a Labour government platform; that electoral reform is an absolutely crucial goal for the left; that the past five years have shown the power and brilliance of people joining together, whether locally or across the UK, to fight the Tories.

I also believe that it’s always easier to appeal to people’s base instincts and apportion blame to ‘others’ in politics and I believe that we (and I) on the left do this in our own ways, which we remain largely blind to. If the UK currently feels like an alien country, we need to start fighting against the bullshit unreality which dominates and get back to what kind of society we live in, what kind of one we want to live in and how we take ourselves there. It’s only with a keen understanding of now that we can begin to fight back. The fact we need to fight back now rather than indulge in hand-wringing doesn’t make this any less possible or necessary. That is the one thing I still believe which is keeping me sane: people largely do not vote any way in particular because they are intrinsically anything. They’re all just wading through the same bullshit as the rest of us and joining together to build movements is the one sure fire way to begin to change that.

The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
stpjan_000

Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.

What I Learned Reading “7 Things I Learned During My Year Without Alcohol”

Certain kinds of puritanism are widely mocked these days. You’re unlikely to be taken seriously if you believe that not owning a TV lends you a moral superiority over the sheeple who watch Game of Thrones, for example, while Gary Turk’s cloying video decrying social media went viral precisely because of people finding it insufferably smug. Such judgments on how people spend their time are deeply unfashionable and invite almost instant opprobrium. It’s been fascinating, then, to see this piece being widely and approvingly shared. Written by a woman who has spent the past year sober, it presents alcohol as a damaging force and has an overwhelming air of self-congratulation about it. Many of the people sharing it seem to be ruefully agreeing that alcohol has held them back in life while the comments are full of praise for the writer’s bravery and determination.

Is it ‘brave’ not to drink? Certainly we live in an alcohol-oriented culture so it feels instinctively right to say that it takes character to be tee-total. Then again, if we accept that then we could also say that it takes character to avoid the internet, something far fewer people would be eager to celebrate. It surely isn’t a weakness to drink alcohol – most people who do so have no particular issues with it. Why, then, is it such an easy proxy for a sense of personal failure?

When you closely read Kelly Fitzgerald’s piece it’s clear that she had a problem with alcohol. She writes that she was ‘tired of disappointing and embarrassing my friends and loved ones” and unable to “drink in moderation”. She writes of the ‘stupid, embarrassing things’ she did while drinking. She writes of ‘trying and failing for years to regulate’ her drinking and of ‘bad things’ happening when she drank. Rather than being the words of a social drinker who gave up and felt better as a result, these are the words of an addict who is still coming to terms with her addiction. It’s quite incredible that the words ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addiction’ aren’t used once in the piece – yet if they were it would clearly resonate with fewer people.

If you read Kelly’s words as being those of an addict this becomes a very different piece.

My emotions are crazy, sometimes I think this is what it must feel like to be pregnant. I cry at the drop of a hat, I’m offended easily and sometimes I am so happy I feel like I’m going to burst. I actually care what people think about me.

Perhaps I’m completely crazy but to me this emotional imbalance doesn’t sound like a great thing. Yet mood swings which as described sound almost bipolar are described as ‘heightened senses’. Uh huh. Alarm bells are already ringing over unresolved issues here. They becoming deafening with the second ‘lesson’, that Kelly is ‘just beginning to understand’ who she ‘really’ is. She presents some authentic, ‘real’ her that was hidden by ‘constant alcohol blackouts’. Seriously – this is way beyond drinking a bit too much and regretting a hangover. This is an addict with deep emotional problems whose drug of ‘choice’ was alcohol. I think we can safely say that most people who drink alcohol do not need to have some dramatic revelation to understand that they are ‘real’ people.

It goes on – her life is now ‘manageable’, she is ‘worthy of love’, she has removed ‘toxic people’. How you can reach the end without realising that this is a piece about addiction rather than alcohol is beyond me. There are even a couple of mentions of ‘drugs’ but this is never elaborated on.

Of course it’s great that someone with an addiction has been able to regain control of their life but the speed with which this piece went viral raises interesting questions about why it’s resonated with so many. Do they think they have problems with alcohol, even to an extent where they don’t feel like ‘real’ people? It can hardly be a bad thing to examine our own behaviour and think about our relationship with things like alcohol (or indeed the internet or whatever other bogeyman is thrown our way). Yet I don’t believe that most of the people sharing it believe themselves to be addicts (or are addicts). They are rather, like many of us, people who probably drink a bit too much and feel the need to self-flagellate about it to the extent of convincing themselves that they would be different people if it wasn’t for alcohol. This difference almost always seems to involve being more ‘successful’ and ‘sorted’, because that’s what we’re encouraged to focus on isn’t it? The Big Picture. The Bottom Line. The little everyday things – the time we spend with our friends and family, our undramatic jobs, our quotidian engagement with the world – we’re told this stuff is unimportant and that we must achieve in a very particular way. If we haven’t done this, the problem lies within ourselves – we spend too long on the internet, we watch too much TV, we drink too much! Internalise, internalise.

It’s impossible not to comment on the class aspect of this. The public narrative of ‘problem drinking’ and ‘destructive alcohol’ almost entirely focuses on the rampaging working-class hordes who descend on pubs and clubs of a weekend. The debates over issues like licensing hours and minimum alcohol pricing are never conducted with ‘targets’ like the permanently-sozzled posh couple from Gogglebox in mind. No-one ever ponders the drinking habits of George Osborne or Rebecca Brooks. They are ‘successful’ and so have the right to do what they want. The working-class, on the other hand, will have their behaviour morally policed while being told it’s their own fault that it happens. It’s not that we live in a system which ensures and requires that a minority hold most of the wealth while the wages and working-conditions of the masses are depressed as far as possible; no, the problem is that the proles drink too much and ruin it for themselves.

This is the kind of nasty puritanism which Kelly’s piece is feeding into and why it’s so easy to present it as a morality tale about alcohol rather than a pragmatic description of addiction. If you think you drink too much and want to drink less – drink less. If you want to drink less but feel you are unable to – speak to someone (while accepting that it’s difficult to get to this stage of even asking for help). If, however, you’re one of millions who enjoy drinking alcohol don’t buy into this idea that you would be (or even should be) a high-flying millionaire if you would only put down the beer. It’s a pernicious lie and there’s no inherent moral superiority in not drinking alcohol. Thinking there is buys into the pathologising of ‘failure’, the same absurd reduction of our society to the level of the individual which lies behind so many damaging attitudes towards welfare, employment and, as @thisisapollo pointed out on Twitter, mental health. We are never the products of individual effort and we do not stand alone.

Britpop and Robson and Jerome

This was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1994:

And this was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1995:

We could continue. The biggest selling singles and albums of the period were made up of acts like Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, Simply Red, Take That, Bon Jovi, The Beautiful South. Now, whatever the musical merits of these acts (I attended a Celine Dion night at an East London pub last year and it was incredible) no-one could possibly claim that they were diverse or radical, in any sense. It was one big gloopy mass of MOR. It’s been quite hilarious, then, to see pieces likethis appearing to mark the ‘anniversary’ of Britpop. It was a “cultural abomination that set music back”, apparently, leading to “unrelentingly pedestrian bands (which) ditched everything that once made British pop music interesting”. Woah! That’s quite the claim isn’t it? There’s a lot of it about too: attacks on how‘rubbish’ it all was, confused musings about its ‘conservatism’ (except for the bands/albums which the writer liked). These pieces tilt at the windmill of Britpop ‘celebration’, of which there’s been very little (an incredibly half-hearted BBC season being the only effort of note in that regard). Instead, Britpop has in the past 20 years become an embarrassing and much-maligned period far more likely to inspire ire and ridicule than misty-eyed nostalgia. This interpretation has evidently taken hold to the extent that critics can completely rewrite history, removing Britpop from its chronological context and blaming it for anything and everything they didn’t like about the 1990s.

It’s important, then, to remember the climate in which Oasis and co first came to prominence. It was ridiculously conservative and derivative, all power ballads and shit cover versions and semi-ironic one-hit wonders. Robson and Jerome sold millions of records entirely on the back of World War II nostalgia, at a time when John Major’s Back to Basics campaign was reeling from scandal after scandal. Were Oasis really more damaging than this comforting retreat or, just maybe, have they become the whipping-boys for a mainstream conservatism which everyone seems to have forgotten existed before them? I instinctively dismissed Definitely Maybe at the time – I was a 14 year old starting to realise I was gay and my brother played Oasis constantly – yet even then I could see that it had an energetic swagger which had largely been missing from the British mainstream. It felt exciting and it came from a recognisably, assertively working-class place. The opening lines of Oasis’ debut single are ‘I need to be myself/I can be no-one else/I’m feeling supersonic/give me gin and tonic’, for God’s sake. ‘You and I are gonna live forever’. “Is it worth the aggravation to find a job when there’s nothing worth working for?’ This was a band upending the defeatism of a class pummelled by almost two decades of Tory government and capturing the sense of dynamism and hope which was leading to a Labour government.

That government, of course, would turn out to be a shattering disappointment. This plays into contemporary responses to Britpop, as of course does Oasis’ decline into cocaine excess and disconnect. Yet the class dynamics which made Oasis seem revolutionary at the time still instruct responses to Britpop today. It’s notable, for example, that critics almost uniformly pick out Pulp and Common People as worthy of praise amongst the detritus. Yet the irony of praising a band singing about patronising responses to the working-class while slating the gobby working-class kids who took it too far (ie didn’t know their place) is completely lost. Michael Hann writes that Britpop “resulted in a generation of bands and fans who resembled nothing so much as a parody of the football hooligans of a generation before.” Just read that sentence again. It drips with a class hatred which Guardianistas would be quick to leap on if aimed at a less acceptable target. ‘We don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk’, indeed. It’s easy to toss up a few signifiers of what ‘Britpop’ was and appeal to caricatures of violent working-class excess. It’s also lazy and utterly meaningless, failing to understand the musical period as a lived experience involving pride, self-discovery and a healthy lack of deference.

The media pieces slating Britpop are further bemusing because, it cannot be stressed enough, the ‘genre’ was almost entirely a media construct (hence why my use of it in this blog is so all over the place). While Britpop as a term may have only become commonly understood in 1994, it very quickly was being applied to preceding acts like Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and even Morrissey (who had been embroiled in a racism storm in 1992 for draping himself in a union jack in front of a backdrop depicting skinheads). Again, the past 20 years has seen a hardening of opinion on what constituted Britpop which simply did not exist at the time. Dance acts like Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were drawn under the umbrella at the time, as were Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack (with trip-hop becoming a ‘thing’ in 1994). The intellectual, anti-sexist/homophobic/racist, cross-dressing Manic Street Preachers were included with aforementioned A Design For Life being as much an  ’intelligent Britpop anthem’ as Common People. Then there were the swathes of bands drawn into the fold yet kicking against it: Skunk Anansie’s Skin declared they were ‘clitpop, not Britpop!’ while the Manics-endorsed Asian Dub Foundation complained of the ‘mythical whiteness’ pushed by the Britpop label. These were the bands which spoke to me, an awkward queer teenager at the time, and as far as Britpop means anything I would identify them as part of it. This isn’t to say that I buy into the ‘Oasis fans are awful’ stuff which The Guardian has previous form on – my 18th birthday was spent with my brother and a bunch of his mates, all of whom loved Britpop and called me ‘Jarvis Cocker’ for  the evening. None of them ever gave a shit about my sexuality. But this doesn’t fit into the trite narrative about Britpop being conservative, sexist, racist etc so it’s all completely abandoned. So, in essence, the media reframes its own creation to argue against itself. It wasn’t, after all, Oasis that led to the creation of Loaded magazine, or Suede who wrote the ‘Yanks Go Home!’ cover.

Michael Hann’s hatchet job underlines his complete lack of understanding of the period with this observation:

Indie had ceased to be an alternative. And if it was no longer an alternative, but a hegemonic force of its own, then what was the point of it?

It’s important to note that he completely overstates the case. Even at its peak, Britpop was largely confined to the lower reaches of the charts and was still being outsold by the Celine Dion and Michael Jacksons of the world. Yet as far as Oasis, Blur, Suede etc did become big-hitters, this didn’t close down the opportunities for difference and diversity. Precisely the opposite – they opened the door to acts you previously couldn’t have imagined competing with Meat Load et al. What were Spice Girls if not a part-response to, part-expansion of Britpop? Yet as an unashamedly POP act, free from all the dreary anti-guitar, anti-‘authenticity’ rubbish which currently dominates music criticism, they’re still widely celebrated today. It wasn’t a BAD THING that Oasis again reminded people that some passionate working-class people could become one of the biggest bands in the world. In fact the media seems to accept this when engaging in one of the endless ‘the charts are now dominated by posh people’ tirades – it’s only when you mention ‘Oasis’ or ‘Britpop’ that the Pavlovian responses kick in and thought goes out the window.

None of this is intended as an argument that Britpop shouldn’t be criticised. If anything, it demands criticism as one of the final big musical periods where a substantial audience intersected with massive media hype and eager critics. Acts like Shania Twain and James Blunt would sell heaps in the years after but you’d never find them on the News at Ten, while the rise of Popstars/Pop Idol/X Factor in the early 00s would soon change the game again. If everyone seems to have an opinion on Britpop it’s because everyone of a certain age feels that they lived through it. It’s expected, then, that there will be different voices and criticisms. But let’s not just accept the vapid consensus that Britpop was horrible and ruined everything for everyone. Let’s remember Wet Wet Wet and Robson and Jerome.

Reactions to Lily

image

God knows I don’t need to write anything further in terms of parsing the Lily Allen video, so I’ll largely refrain. Instead I want to note a few things about the reaction to it.

The response of the white ‘faux-feminists’ of the broadsheets has largely been a textbook example of the issues discussed here. They have been perfectly willing to throw questions of race and class under the bus because this privileged private school woman has poked fun at ‘misogyny’ in pop/hip-hop music. It’s interesting that Russell Brand’s recent foray into politics was met with many furious blogs and tweets about his sexism and how this discounted his opinions while these same people are defending Allen against accusations of sexism/racism/classism on the basis that ‘her heart was in the right place’. If this doesn’t underline the self-interest at play here, what does?

The discussions around misogyny in pop tend to be absolutely woeful, going no deeper than ‘women take their clothes off, waaah!’ Certainly sexism is a thing in pop but it’s far more complex that this and, indeed, exists in responses which condemn women for showing flesh while having absolutely nothing to say about the litany of boy bands and Biebers who are permanently semi-naked. Pop music itself is sexualised – any discussion of women in pop has to start from this point. It also has to note that the genre is particularly dominated by female singers while ‘rock’ is dominated by men. Questioning why this may be and even understanding that someone like Allen is in a position of huge power (not least over her dancers) leads to difficult, but far more illuminating, discussions.

Another aspect of the response which has been interesting has been the wailing from the kind of POP FAN who endlessly bemoans ‘snobbery’. They’re known as Poptimists and you’ll find them on most pop forums or reviewing albums in The Guardian. I’ve long noted the very peculiar brand of self-loathing exhibited by this type, who will follow Lady Gaga in insisting that ‘pop will never be low brow’ and insist that it deserves to be taken seriously while adopting a corrosive irony about the thing they ostensibly love. So they will celebrate the insincere mocking tone of The Big Reunion or self-consciously rejoice at dancing to Eternal b-sides. It’s all surface, all a posture – any earnest appreciation for pop as an art form is absent, any serious analysis of it is off-limits. We recently saw this with Lady Gaga’s appalling Aura song which made ‘Burqa Swag’ a thing. You can read a great commentary on the problems behind the track here but such serious reasoning seemed to be almost entirely absent from the outlets which routinely celebrate and discuss pop music. Instead, the only acknowledgement of these issues was a loud chorus of snide mocking that anyone would possibly think that it could be racist. Racist?! It’s a POP SONG! It’s fun! It’s POSITIVE! We see this exact response with Lily Allen’s video, where anyone advancing a critical opinion of its problematic content is dismissed as ‘reading too much into it’, ‘taking it too seriously’ or ‘not getting it’. This reveals the curious contempt for pop-as-art which seems to lie beneath the surface of so much Poptimism, which is shown to mean banal and ostentatious applause for pop and not sincere appreciation. Pop isn’t to be taken seriously, the deployment of ‘fun’ an assertion that it simply lacks the weight to carry serious socio-political impact. It’s a joke. Rather than acknowledge this, of course, the issue is projected onto the critic: it is Sara Ahmed’s ‘Bad Feeling’ writ large.

This blaming of ‘the dissenting voice’ for interrupting the bland, ‘happy’ consensus has been particularly notable with white, gay, male pop fans shouting down black females who have advanced an opinion that Allen’s video is racist. Clearly there is a lot going on here in terms of the overlaps between sexism, racism and the gay community and it’s interesting that a lot of gay men have adopted the ‘faux-feminism’ of the twee commentariat. In their eyes, then, it’s a great thing that Allen has ‘raised the issue’ and those who find problems in the video are bitter try-hards who are ruining the liberal love-in. Of course, as I noted in the ‘Dig Deep’ piece, modern Gay Politics has much in common with ‘faux-feminism’, more concerned with a self-serving victimisation than with intersectional solidarity. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the voice of the privileged white pop singer instantly wins out. Allen’s video flatters the ego of these viewers, assuring them of their moral superiority without asking them to consider more complex interactions of power or, indeed, their own position with regards to race, class and gender. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

A few things we know about the royal baby

2011

I read ‘Anti-Gay’ in February this year. It was around the time Gaga released ‘Born this Way’ and the ‘gay community’ seemed to collectively suspend all critical faculties. Only a couple of weeks later, Johann Hari wrote his awful, racist lies about ‘Muslim homophobia’ in Tower Hamlets and the piece went viral, shared by countless educated people who should have known better. That piece and the reaction to it (from Hari, from his colleagues, from his readers) proved to be the catalyst for a serious appraisal of my own beliefs and approaches towards the media, identity politics and wider politics.

It took in ‘gay activists’ in Tower Hamlets, Caitlin Moran, Johann Hari, Patrick Strudwick and Sunny Hundal (repeatedly – exactly a year ago I actually followed Johann, Patrick and Sunny. I would sometimes engage in harmless banter with them. It was only when I criticised them that they turned (quite insanely) nasty and this response proved to be quite typical of their peers like Caitlin and Grace Dent. An honourable mention to Eva Wiseman, who somehow tracked down a criticism I made of one of her articles (I didn’t send it to her) and responded in very good humour) and the John Snow “kiss-ins”. The Hari scandal, by complete coincidence, unfolded only weeks after my own disillusionment with him and the response to that further informed my self-criticism. It led me to be depressed at the ironic cynicism which passes as ‘writing’ for so many prominent figures in the media (and the ironic responses they receive). 

The response by many of my peers to the London riots only added to the sense that I had been living in a cosy bubble for many years, not really questioning anything around me but instead being happy to have my opinions reflected back at me. My disgust with identity politics led to a re-focusing on class and in increasing disdain for the petty politics of Labour vs Tory (something which, again, I have been frequently guilty of). I have been bored to death by the tedious and irrelevant chattering about Ed Miliband being replaced by someone more presentable. It seems that ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ have in many quarters become just another form of ‘identity’, signifying something while meaning nothing. My thinking of late has been around trying to form a coherent narrative relating class to many of the above issues and why identity politics inevitably reaches a cul-de-sac that inevitably ends up serving the powerful and diverting from the real problems.

I’ve come in for a lot of flack while thinking through all this stuff. Of course I know that I can seem smug, vitriolic, aggressive in my writing but really I think many of the responses I have received are more to do with the things I’m questioning and how the person relates to them than with anything relating to me. I don’t claim to know any great ‘truth’ or to be ‘correct’ but I think it’s fair to say that my politics and my approach to politics has completely altered this year, more so than it has done probably since university over a decade ago. A decade seems like a long enough time to coast along without seriously having my beliefs challenged. That is the fundamental thing – whomever else has been a part of this, it’s my own thinking and beliefs that I have ultimately been criticising. I feel much better for it and feel excited about what 2012 will bring – in terms of what I will learn and also what I can do to help fight the battles I believe are important.

Edit- and in the spirit of continuing to learn, if anyone has any recommendations for future reading please comment below and let me know.

The Masses Against the Classes

As I have briefly touched on before, I am continually amazed by how many of my peers completely ignore or are completely ignorant of class. For my generation (and those that have followed) it is de rigueur to ascribe certain qualities of your personality or certain external events in your life to different aspects of your identity. Decades of misinformation (and downright propaganda) from our media (and larger culture) have rendered class invisible, a perceived irrelevance. It is not to be mentioned in polite company and speaking about it passionately and intelligently instantly marks you out as, at best, a naive relic (while it is not often verbalised, it’s clear that, at worse, mentioning class sees you painted as hopelessly bitter.) Even much of ‘the left’ will respond to its mention by trotting out that ever more meaningless insult, ‘Trot’.

Cultural theory, largely removed from any economic realm, is what’s fashionable these days. I use the phrase ‘fashionable’ deliberately as it is a grim irony that the worlds of media, marketing and fashion have been at the forefront of capitalist society’s efforts to strip the economic from the political and replace it with a post-modern sense that all is vanity. To speak to someone who works in these fields is typically to find someone who staggeringly believes that their work is beyond politics and their success is entirely down to their own qualities. Indeed, these industries thrive on pushing the notion that anyone can make it if they try. That we are the Kings and Queens of our own fates and our success or failure depends entirely on our personal efforts. There is, of course, absolutely no place for class in this narrative. No place for power, even for politics itself. Contact with the outside world will express itself as a series of fringe identity issues, for example ‘compassionate consumerism’ wherein ineffectual hand-wringing about sweatshops identifies you as someone who cares.

Mention of a ‘class war’ is, then, completely beyond the pale. It is no exaggeration that proposing this possibility generally results in your instant dismissal as a crazy person. A class war suggests one class using its power to protect or advance its position at the expense of another and how could this be in a world free of class?

Yet if we are to accept that class isn’t real we need different explanations as to why so much of our society is intrinsically linked to income (which plays a huge, but not solitary, role in class). As the first column linked to above indicates, educational attainment is still closely linked to class. This follows through into professional jobs, our legal system, our government, all areas where the higher income brackets are hopelessly over-represented. Lower income families account for a hugely out-of-proportion number of those in prison. A recent report linked the UK riots with deprivation. Obviously I am rattling through and simplifying here but the blunt links are there and undeniable. Social mobility is at a standstill and for every person who, against the odds, ‘escapes’ from their background there are countless more who do not, who cannot, who don’t even begin to think that they can.

So yes, I believe that class is real and, in a country where inequality is reaching levels worse than it has ever been it is more relevant than ever. Labour’s record on inequality wasn’t great by any means but, on the whole, it decreased poverty even while failing to tackle the rich becoming ever richer and ever more disconnected from society. Today we have a government which is actively redistributing wealth away from the poor to pay for more PFI (an expensive means of moving wealth from taxpayers into concentrated, private hands), ‘free schools’ and further subsidies for banks and businesses which are steadfastly failing to play their part in the coalition fantasy of the private sector rushing to the aid of the economy (after the state bailouts which prevented worldwide depression, you’d think they’d return the favour). This comes in seven days where the government announced its plans to tackle youth unemployment and the housing bubble by subsidising low wage employers and hawkish landlords. The Treasury’s own figures anticipate today’s policies pushing 100,000 further children into poverty. Unemployment is predicted to rise above the dreaded figure of 3 million, not seen since the dark days of Thatcher. Poverty in general is predicted to rise by millions in the next decade.

As you can see in this chart, a swift analysis of today’s measures saw the top income decile being affected most. However, this was largely due to Labour’s 50p tax rate which the government has several times indicated it wishes to scrap. Remove this from the picture and the changes are completely regressive, with the poorest being hit hardest (and, in any case, clearly a decline in net income of 1.5% affects the poorest far more than a decline of 2% affects the richest). Note that the curve rises upwards from the poorest so that the middle-classes are the least ‘hit’. This is classic class politics. The token gesture of hitting the richest by a few more fractions of a percentile enables the government to trumpet that everyone is ‘in it together’. Hitting the middle-class least protects their vote; even more so if the blame for it can be diverted to those who are being hit hardest. So it was that the government announced a headline benefits rise of over 5%. Cue many outraged comments that the feckless were being ‘rewarded’ for doing nothing while workers were being penalised. Of course the reality is that both groups are worse-off and those on benefits are hit harder in other ways, but many people won’t look beyond the headlines to realise this and their anger is directed away from those in power.

All of this is done under the guise of reducing a ‘deficit’ that was caused by a mendacious and greedy financial sector with the help of cowardly politicians (and anyone who still believes the lie that it was due to public spending should read this and this). Yet these people continue to accumulate wealth while public sector workers are given real term double-digit pay cuts and the government ‘consults’ on destroying further employment rights (the UK already suffers some of the worst employment rights in Europe). And the deficit is getting bigger! The political manipulation on display is breathtaking. 

You can see it too in the pensions dispute. The government’s own report anticipated public sector pension costs peaking around 2026 and then declining. Even at its peak, the cost never hits 2% of GDP. There has already been significant reform of public sector pensions over the past 15 years which has reduced their cost. Yet the government pushes the myth of an out-of-control pension bill and an intransigent, greedy public sector determined to hold onto unfair, outdated arrangements. Again, they play ordinary workers off against each other – rather than ask why their own pensions are so derisory, private sector workers are led to believe that dinner ladies are looking forward to living it up at their expense. It’s a myth that falls apart very quickly but in the face of a media largely owned by billionaire oligarchs, it is one that is rarely challenged. No wonder when, as I’ve noted above, our society is so geared towards the supremacy of individual effort? The guy in marketing earning £30,000 a year, he earned it. If a nurse is seeing her pay cut in real terms it’s probably her fault for not finding another job, right?

It is difficult not to believe that we are seeing a class war. The government refuses to countenance a Tobin tax or anything other than mild reform of the financial sector. The interests of those who caused, and benefited from, the financial crisis continue to be protected. Today has been the clearest indicator yet that the government is not only failing the majority of the country but actively attacking them and their interests, all under the guise of tackling a deficit that they are actually increasing.

Tomorrow sees the biggest strike in the UK in several generations. Everyone who cares about this country, who believes that it should be a fairer place with a sense of justice, should support it. We need to recognise our common enemy, neatly encapsulated in recent months in the term ‘the 1%’. This government is ensuring that your class, and your children’s class, will matter more than ever when it comes to dictating their lives. We need to recognise this, which means accepting the reality of class and the logic of class interests. It means accepting that there is such a thing as society and it plays a part in where we all end up in our lives. It means accepting that our individual effort only goes so far and our common destiny is far more important. This is the only way we can begin to even move towards a world where class truly does not matter.

Impossible Dreams

Last weekend I had a chat with a friend about growing up. Specifically about the moment when you accept that, in all likelihood, your life is going to be pretty average. You’re not going to be famous. You’re not going to hugely wealthy. You’ll make no more or less contribution to the wider world than countless other people. You’ll be one life amongst billions, forgotten in a few generations.

For some, it’s quite a big deal having this realisation. If you’ve somehow been convinced for much of your life that you’re going to be famous and/or wildly successful and/or will change the world, it could be a huge blow to your whole identity to face up to a rather more obscure and low-key life. That’s a very obvious example and it could (probably will?) be a lot more subtle than that. You could have spent decades chasing status amongst and the approval of your peers only to realise that this is always going to be just ahead of you, just beyond your grasp. We all want to feel important, after all. 

During this chat I mentioned a very interesting article which I read a couple of weeks ago. Its basic point (or at least what I took from it) was that only two or three generations ago, the problem with the class system was that it made most dreams seem out of reach for the vast majority of people. Yet, it argued, what was now the case was that the class system had adapted to present different dreams as being within the reach of everybody. Dreams which didn’t threaten the system, dreams which didn’t actually further social mobility in any meaningful way. ‘The Apprentice’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and countless other reality shows present images of ‘betterment’ which don’t rely on self-improvement, education and personal toil (personal as in not done for the benefit of your peers). Instead they push ‘being yourself’, even if the ‘yourself’ in question does not possess any particularly admirable qualities or character. They push a sense that the dreams they dangle could happen to anyone within a matter of weeks, if you just have the right temperament and are ‘entertaining’ enough. They push entitlement, competition and the idea that other people are obstacles or tools on your way to success – no more, no less. The qualities they elevate and enforce are a neoliberal dream of individualism and solipsism – you can make it if you just try hard enough, that’s the only force that matters and any curiosity about the wider world is foolish. Do not question how power operates. Do not question what you are told is ‘natural’. Do not question what is ‘accepted’.

I thought of all this when I saw that Vice Magazine thing about Dalston. However caricatured the characters in it were, they merely represented a wider attitude which Vice Magazine is very much a part of. This is the fetishism of ‘creativity’. In common with the above shows, stemming from the same place as them (and now reinforced by them) they present creativity as an almost supernatural quality which is possessed by a blessed view and exists in a way which can be easily seen and understood by the mere mortals around them. This is the more mundane yet ingenious version of the non-threatening ‘dream’ that is dangled in front of us. It is perhaps even more mundane than the dream of chasing wealth because at least, in the unlikely event that you become wealthy, you become a powerful player in the system (albeit one unlikely to wish to change it). ‘Success’ in being ‘a creative’ tends to be measured in a far more limited and localised way. So people scramble to be photographers, to be writers, to be actors, to be film makers, to be artists, to be creatives and so many of them don’t really have any idea why just as, 20 years ago, so many would chase money just because it was the done thing. The idea that creativity resides in every single person, that creativity can be an intensely private thing and still have value, the idea that self-improvement is perhaps the most powerful form of creativity possible – this has all been lost.

This isn’t to argue that people shouldn’t chase dreams, not at all. In growing up, however, there is huge value to be found in questioning the dreams which hang heavily in the air; value to be found in thinking about what is truly valuable both in terms of our own lives and in how we perceive others. Even if you are pursuing something that you really love, there is value and enormous freedom to be found in accepting (if indeed you must) that you are not going to be a ‘success’ at it in terms of how most judge success. Whether you are famous/wealthy/renowned or otherwise, your life is creative and your life can always be a success.

One of the people who inspired the conversation I mentioned at the start is indeed chasing one of those traditional dreams. But they’re getting older now. They have a family and the responsibilities that come with that. The ‘X Factor’ interpretation of this would be that, even if the dream has to be put on hold because of these responsibilities, you should keep chasing it and never give up. I think the grown up (and only possible happy) interpretation of that is to think how fortunate your life is that you can do something you love and have people who love you, even if you have to balance it with some things you have to do which you don’t enjoy as much as the other stuff but do nonetheless because of dignity, love, pride and a desire to always keep trying to do better. Isn’t that creative? Isn’t that, ultimately, a success?

This report underlines the fact that many people live in a fantasy world (one that is largely unquestioned by the media) where people earning £40,000 are ‘average earners’, class is dead and London is a place of wealth and aspiration. As I’ve argued before, I sincerely believe that teaching children (and indeed the wider population) about median incomes, poverty levels, homelessness and such would be a huge step towards transforming this country. From Parliament down we are fed a distorted, disconnected view of society so that people in the top 25% of earners are embarrassed over how ‘little’ they earn and the poor are blamed for their own ‘condition’.

London’s poverty profile