Owen Jones is correct about the need for a left-wing populism. As I argued in the wake of Thatcher’s death last year, reactively firefighting an agenda set by the right will keep us on the backfoot forever. Having the best arguments is only part of the battle; what the right – even this degenerate, incompetent, barely functional right – understands is the incantatory power of repeating a simple message ad nauseam: politics as neurolinguistic programming.
However, if the explosion of experimental popular culture in the second half of the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible to be popular without being populist. Conversely, it’s possible to be populist without being popular. Isn’t this, in fact, the formula for capitalist realist culture since Blairism? Blair wins election after election, but by the end he is widely detested – especially among those who have reluctantly voted for him. Exploitative reality TV continues to command large – if now waning – audiences, but many of the people who loathe the programmes are also those who avidly watch them. Similarly, many of those who protest the arrival of Tesco in their town also end up shopping in the stores when they arrive. To call this hypocrisy is to miss the eminently dialectical ambivalence of these entanglements. In watching the X Factor or shopping in Tesco, there is often some lingering desire for mass mediated technological modernity to be better than it is, whereas those who have retired into private space with their DVD box sets and ethically sourced goods have given up on this possibility, if they ever cared about it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about The Jam. I like Gang of Four as much as the next person, but if you’re talking about the political possibilities of popular music, then I maintain that The Jam are more sophisticated and more interesting – politically, culturally, aesthetically – than their more lauded postpunk counterparts. I can’t say I was ever a Jam fan as such – but then some of the music that most matters to me has come from artists to whom I’ve never pledged a fan’s fidelity, and there are times when I’ve listened to nothing else but The Jam for weeks on end. The Jam disintegrated at practically the moment I was coming to musical consciousness and, besides, it wasn’t necessary to be a fan – The Jam were public property, and that was the point. I still remember the time I first heard ‘The Eton Rifles’ and ‘Town Called Malice’ – the former in a barber’s shop, the latter at home on the BBC Top Forty countdown when it came in straight at number one. The Jam thrived in public space, on public service broadcasting. It mattered that they were popular; the records gained in intensity when you knew that they were number one, when you saw them on Top of the Pops – because it wasn’t only you and fellow initiates who heard the music; the (big) Other heard it too. This effect was maximised in The Jam’s case because their best work happened in the three minute single. At that point, singles staked a place in the mainstream, directly affecting the conditions of possibilities for popular culture. What we witnessed with punk and postpunk – or more broadly, with the whole efflorescence of popular modernism since the 50s – was an ‘affective contagion’, to use a term discussed in Frederic Jameson’s enthralling new book The Antinomies of Realism. One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed – by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies – but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently. And you could say that all of this was self-consciously worked through by Weller, with his Mod(ernist) affiliation, and its hunger for new sensations.
As Marcello Carlin put it in a post that is as moving an account of a fan going back to a former obsession as you’ll ever see, it’s now unbelievable that something like ‘Start’ – a record ‘which goes so far as to debate with its listener what a pop single might be for, and that it might actually be a stepping stone in helping people get along and bond better’ – could ever have been a number one record. I’m pretty sure that this song about a fugitive encounter in enemy territory – which contained the line, ‘knowing someone in this life/ who feels as desperate as me’ – was another one of the Jam records I first heard when it was played on Top of the Pops.
I took The Jam for granted, but the thirty odd years since they ruled the charts have been a painful process of watching what we once took for granted being taken away from us. Seeing – and working with – John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation and The Stuart Hall Project has prompted many thoughts, one of which concerns confronting just this process of watching the taken for granted become the (retrospectively) impossible. The way to avoid nostalgia is to look for the lost possibilities in any era, and Hall’s work – from his earliest writings on Cool jazz and Colin MaccInes in the late 50s, through to his New Times essays at the tail end of the 80s – alerts us to a persistent failure to make connections between left-wing politics and the popular culture, even when both were much stronger than they are today. Parliamentary socialism could never come to terms with, still less hegemonise, the new energies that had come out of jazz, the Sixties counterculture, or punk. By the time that explicit attempts were made to link the parliamentary left and rock/pop – in the earnest hamfistedness of Red Wedge – it was already too late. Blair’s Britpop flirtations, meanwhile, were like a double death, (the end of) history laughing at us: the corpse of white lad rock summoned to serenade socialism succumbing to capitalist realism.
I thought of Hall a great deal when reading Ian Penman’s essay on Mod in the LRB, one of my favourite pieces of writing from 2013.’The early Mods,’ Ian wrote,
were navigators, Magellans of the postwar field of leisure time, which had to be imagined, cast in this or that shape. Everything was up for grabs: music and clothes, sex and sexuality; the speech and language of put-down and put-on and pop fandom; transport and travel; nights out and nights in. Everything, in fact, we now take for granted as ‘youth culture’. It was a heady time of redefinition; but we also get the first migraine flash of a paradox that would split Mod, and define other subcultures: what began as a principled refusal of the nine-to-five wage-slave grind found its most vivid street-level expression in avid consumerism.
Ian could be describing here the terrain that both Hall and Weller were working in/on/through. The title of All Mod Cons caught the contradictions of this new space almost too exquisitely: the modern(ist) landscape that offered unprecedented freedoms, novelties and conveniences came booby-trapped with the same old tricks and betrayals. ‘When You’re Young’ could almost be the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ theses on subculture – the idea that subcultural revolt represented the thwarted attempts of a subjugated class to escape its subordination – (hard)boiled down into three and a bit minutes of sheer frustration. ‘It’s got you in its grip before you’re born … it makes you think you’re a king but you’re really a pawn.’ In those days before the endless false promises of retraining or second-rate higher education courses leading nowhere, working class youth was in a desperate hurry to cram in as much experience as possible before the speed-fuelled all-nighters and weekenders would give way to the sisyphean repetitions of the 9-5: struggle after struggle, year after year, scrimping and saving and crossing off lists, the boredom and the drudgery relieved only by watching the TV and thinking about your holidays. On the face of it, ‘Whey You’re Young’ was a requiem for doomed youth as bleak as anything Ian Curtis wrote – but while Joy Division reclined into glacial fatalism, Weller spat and snarled at the traps which snared him. Here were two working class takes on popular modernism – Joy Division drawing on Conrad, Kafka, Burroughs, Ballard and art film; The Jam looking to Orwell, MaccInnes and Shelley, with existentialism as the thing that the two groups shared in common. Curtis had a depressive’s eerie composure, an infinite resignation, but Weller sought to escape his fate in the very act of describing it. For class consciousness is never a mere matter of identifying a state of affairs that already exists; the making visible of the structures that produce subordination immediately de-naturalises those structures, and changes the way in which subjugation is experienced. When that learned sense of inferiority is rejected, who knows what can happen?
The Jam, like The Who before them, drew their power from an auto-destructive paradox: they were fuelled by a frustration, a tension, a blocked energy, a jam. Discharging this tension in catharsis would destroy the very libidinal blockages on which the music depended – and this self-cancelling logic of desire reached its necessary conclusion in The Who’s smashing of their instruments. Weller sang through a lockjaw of frustration, a rictus of rage and gum-chewing Mod cool, which meant that some of his best lines got lost, caught in his throat or spat out in unintelligible gobbets of disaffection. But this only opened up another paradox (which, again, can be traced back to The Who – ‘I Can’t Explain’): inarticulacy and blockage were more expressive than the best-written words (and no-one in British music wrote better lyrics than Weller). The problem that Weller encountered after The Jam – the reason that nothing he ever did after they finished would ever reach this pitch again – no doubt came from his desire to dissolve those blockages and antagonisms too quickly. The Jam tracks that really connect are the very opposite of fluid, and those, like ‘Precious’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’,which aspired to Brit-funk fluency never quite convinced. ‘The Eton Rifles’ and ‘Going Underground’, meanwhile, sound like they have been rough-hewn out of motorway flyover concrete.
We can apprehend yet another paradox here. What made this music culture so positive was its capacity to express negativity – a negativity that was thereby de-privatised as well as de-naturalised. In the lack of such outlets, negative affect now is internalised, or else it bleeds into the ostensibly hedonic, generating a suppressed sadness that lurks behind a mandatory enjoyment.
Paradox is also opportunity – someone, I don’t recall who, said that paradoxes are emissaries from another world where things work differently. If popular modernism’s attempts to resolve the paradox of political commitment and consumer pleasure now seem hopelessly naive, that’s more a testament to the disavowed depressive conditions of our current moment than a dispassionate assessment of the possibilities. In our world, so it would seem, popular culture’s embrace of consumerism leads ineluctably to the decomposition of class consciousness and the arrival of capitalist realism. In another world – the world that Stuart Hall tried to theorise, and to instigate – consumer desire and class consciousness could not only be reconciled, but would actually require one another. The political significance of working class creativity in popular music was that it gave us vivid glimpses and tastes of this other world, a world that, via these anticipations and rehearsals, at least intersected with ours, or became ours, intermittently yet insistently.
Weller’s identification with/ as Mod only amped up the contradictions; for by then this was Mod revival – post-Mod if you like – and was that even possible except as a betrayal of (original) Mod’s scorched earth search for the eternally new? So Weller made a bid to both continue Mod and curate it, a conflicted desire that , once the contradictions were smoothed out, prepared the way for him to become Britpop’s Modfather and the prime patriarch of Dad-rock. Marcello is right to argue that the common ancestor of Blur and Oasis is none other than The Jam, and it’s no accident that Ian’s LRB essay on Mod also has cause to mention the same miserable pairing, but everything important is lost in the descent from 70s-80s Weller to 90s Britpop. ‘Oasis,’ Marcello wrote, ‘would represent the stubborn Weller, always a Mod, always respectful of the past, of the Rock Footprint, and mindful of the need not to violate it (and, by extension, not to make it interesting in any useful new way), whereas Blur would stand for the anxious, impatient 1982 Paul Weller, hearing all these old records, all this (to him) new music, wanting to move on and loudly desperate to break away and cut himself free.’ This is true provided that we remember that Blur simulated a postpunk attitude of impatience with the past much more than they ever attempted to practise it. But the Blur/Oasis dyad – which set a condescending mockney reheating of art pop against artless neanderthal rock retreads – also represented a return of the very class stratification which had been so exhilaratingly dissolved by the whole lineage from The Kinks and The Who through to The Jam . Besides, The Jam’s best moments were at least the equal of what had inspired them; a working through of influences rather than their pastiche reiteration. The Jam’s repurposings of The Beatles, Motown and Sixties iconography were meant to be heard as such, signs and sounds worn like so many badges on a lapel, or elements in a Pop Art collage. ‘Start”s impossible to miss revisiting of the Beatles’ ‘Taxman’ begs us to make the comparison between the Wilsonian white heat of the mid-Sixties and the fear and misery of the (then) new Thatcherite moment. The Motown echoes in ‘Town Called Malice’ – like a transistor tinnily playing The Supremes on some half-abandoned council estate – contrast the promises of Northern Soul and social democracy with the bitter winds blowing in from a neoliberal (no) future. Compared with all this, what were Blur and Oasis’s photocopies of photocopies if not confidence tricks which borrowed yesterday’s inventions and half-heartedly passed them off as today’s swagger, beginning the erasure of historicity which eventually led to music’s current arrested temporality?
Then there’s ‘The Eton Rifles’, which David Cameron, – infamously, and to Weller’s disgust – claimed was one of his favourite songs. ‘I was one,’ he said, speaking of the elite school’s cadet corps after which the song was named. ‘It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs.’ What can we put this down to: a stupidity so colossal it is barely fathomable; a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds, that seeks to deny us even our class rage? If it is stupidity, however, it is a functional stupidity, functional for an ideology which has subdued class antagonism to the extent that the Bullingdon boys can pose as everymen, and say – with straight faces – that we are all in this together.
What did the young David Cameron hear when ‘The Eton Rifles’ played? He says ‘protest’, but what did he imagine the song was protesting against, if not himself? Yet the whole concept of ‘protest’ is inadequate for grasp what is at stake in ‘The Eton Rifles’. For isn’t the song – inspired by Weller’s hearing of Eton schoolboys jeering Right To Work marchers – about the failure, the impasses, of protest? The song stages an antagonism in which there is no neutral big Other to which one could direct protest, there are only partisans in a class struggle. The undernourished, ragtag marchers, facing inevitable defeat at the hands of a well-trained elite protected by the magical insignia of class power: ‘all that rugby puts hairs on your chest/ what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?’
Weller uses the Right To Work march as only the main thread in a tangle of implied narratives. It’s as if a whole Alan Bleasdale TV series or a David Peace novel has been compressed into three minutes. Weller feeds us the story in fragments of class betrayal, shame and recrimination. Listen to the way that one of the characters – a working class revolutionary abandoned by former comrades too easily bought off by the temptations of parliamentary power – is ‘left standing like a guilty schoolboy’.’The Eton Rifles’ was a grim kind of prophecy: the onlooking public schoolboys presaging a defeat of the working class -‘we were no match for their untamed wit’ – and the eventual disappearance of class struggle itself, with Cameron’s dumb enthusiasm for the song a confirmation that his class would have the last laugh. Now, when class power goes open-necked, you don’t see the tie and the crest, but of course they don’t need to be visible to retain their ritual power. Now, you can hear class much more than you can see it. But there is a dissonance between Cameron and Johnson’s plummy vowels and what they say, how they hail us. They talk of ‘aspiration’, and claim that ‘hard graft’ is the route to all riches – a route available to all those willing to put the effort in. As Jo Littler argues it in her crucial essay ‘Meritocracy as Pluocracy: The Marketising of “Equality” Under Neoliberalism’ from the essential New Formations issue on Neoliberal Culture, ‘It is notable that plenty of millionaires who inherited their wealth, including Boris Johnson and David Cameron, conveniently promote hard work as the most influential factor in social mobility. Such discourses simultaneously helps to erase any image of over-privileged indolence by from the speaker’s persona whilst interpellating the listener as able to achieve a similar social status: a degree of social mobility which is in practice only attainable to a tiny minority.’ This raising of false hopes is also a lowering of expectations, with the dismal blandishments of bourgeois achievement held up as the only possible model of success. While failure is guaranteed for most, success offers only a dreary treadmill of over-work, empty status symbols, and anxiety about getting your kids into the right schools. What’s been lost is the Promethean working class ambition to produce a world that exceeds – existentially, aesthetically, as well as politically – the miserable confines of bourgeois culture. This would be a world beyond work, but also beyond a merely convalescent use of leisure, where pacifying entertainment functions as the obverse of alienated labour. This other world was the terra nova charted and projected by the ‘Magellans of postwar leisure time’; a world in which the old dandy-flaneur ambition for life to become a work of art would be democratised, where the mass produced and the bespoke would combine in unexpected ways, where no detail was too small to be attended to, and fashion would be as significant as fine art. This was the future that popular modernism prefigured and made available in flashes. The future that actually arrived was more like the existential cul-de-sac Weller sketched in ‘Town Called Malice’: ‘the ghost of a steam train … bound for nowhere – just going round and round/ Playground kids and creaking swings/ Lost laughter in the breeze’. The quiet desperation of a world that is totally dominated by work, especially for those who don’t have it; where the domestic labour of ‘lonely housewives’ never ends, where shiftless men bred for work in factories that have closed down forever sit morosely on hire-purchase sofas they can no longer afford, in endless grey afternoons that promise only more of the same, forever. It is made just about liveable by the anti-depressants and the alcohol: scores of clone towns descending into a stone cold dead downer haze, softened up for wave after wave of neoliberal shock doctrine ‘reforms’, as mass culture degenerates into comfort food lowest common denominator entertainment.
How did it come to this? It’s ‘Going Underground’, that anthem of de-activation, that provided the answer, and still has everything to tell us about our current predicament. You could hear it as a very early response to Thatcherism, or, perhaps more pertinently, as an analysis of why the working class was too exhausted and disillusioned to muster a concerted response to Thatcher’s neoliberalism. The song sees the working class retreating into embattled private space, becoming a silent majority of individuals fatalistically watching as everything gets worse. ‘The public gets what the public wants/ but I want nothing this society’s got …’ In conditions like this, all you can do – so the song’s narrator tries to convince us (and himself) – is dodge the flak, protect yourself, bunker down. Weller’s guitar keeps erupting like a series of controlled detonations, while his narrator, lurching through what sounds like a minefield, pretends to a poise and an equanimity he doesn’t possess. He keeps telling us he’s hap-py, but he spits out the word like it’s a curse. He repeats casual commonplaces to exorcise the guilt that dogs his every step, but also because they are true. Yet they are only true because – and he knows this – people like him have withdrawn, waiting for the VHS recorders, the Sky TV and all the other consumer durables that are supposed to compensate for the total devastation of public space, the disappearance of solidarity. ‘The public gets what the public wants’ becomes ‘the public wants what the public gets’, with Weller’s narrator dodging between self-justification and self-deception, between shrugs of resignation and disgusted taunts. When he shifts into second person – ‘you’ve made your bed/ you better lie in it’ – it’s like Weller has broken out of character, and down broken the fourth wall so that he can address us directly. Listen to the malicious, leering masochism in his delivery of that line – as if imagining the worst is the only way to make the despair and the disappointment bearable. And in the background, all through the song, you can hear the marching bands of authoritarian populism massing …
‘Going Underground’ threw down a challenge to left-wing politics that it didn’t solve. Blairite capitalist realism was effectively a declaration that the Labour Party would no longer even attempt a solution. Anti-capitalism, meanwhile, has been based on the assumption that most of the working class will remain in a state of de-activation. It now seems scarcely credible that a group like The Jam could have found a mass audience. Certainly, the conditions for this kind of working class creative autonomy have been systematically eroded as capitalist realism has taken hold. But that is far from saying that those conditions, or something like them, could not be produced again. And it is worth remembering that there never was a left-wing politics that had any sort of fit with 60s-80s popular modernism. As Hall warned, socialism by the end of the 70s was caught in a backward looking traditionalism which had no purchase on the libidinal field opened up by post-Fordist capitalism. Blairism merely capitulated to that form of capitalism, so the challenge of constructing a left-wing politics for these ‘new times’ is still ahead of us. But, in some respects, the conditions for such a renewal have never been better. The organised working class institutions have been reduced to rumps, but that also means that the old obstructions that they put up to renewal no longer obtain. Blairite ‘modernisation’ is now as outdated as it is discredited. Perhaps now is the moment when New Times can finally happen – if we can emerge, blinking, from our barricaded (but now extensively connected) cellars, and step out into the desert of a destituted public world, into a mass culture reduced to bland hedonic homogeneity by corporate depredation. Yes, this is hostile country, occupied territory. But how well defended is it? What possibilities are there for us here, now? What could happen, that is to say, if we go overground?