Books to Read

In Pursuit of Happiness

Cameron wants to measure our happiness. He is going to start now, while happiness is at its lowest ebb, so that every day of his premiership we will just seem happier and happier. He hasn’t realised, of course, that we are just going to get angrier and angrier. Honestly, I’m finding commentating on this nonsense harder and harder. The students have got it about right. They’re not writing about this crap, or singing songs about it. They’re trashing Conservative Party HQ.

Anyway, if we’re busy pursuing happiness, we might as well do it properly. Mark Kingwell did the research so that you don’t have to:

 

Read his book. He’s a Canadian philosopher with punk rock credentials (you will know him from that The Corporation film, where they prove that corporations, were they people, would be classified as psychopaths). He went out and tried all the different possible routes to happiness. It’s the book for people who hate self-help books. He doesn’t give you any answers. But he asks some excellent questions, and you’re going to feel a hell of a lot more affinity with him in your pursuit of happiness than you are with Cameron and his cronies.

Honestly, this coalition makes me ill. Kingwell tries prozac as one of his potential routes to happiness. Where can we get some? Does it make Tory governments seem less depressing?

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The Baffler

At the DDRofR&B we spend a lot of time reading, and talking about what we’ve read. While we were going through, and polishing up, the tapes of At Ebbw Vale last week, Dai Nasty mentioned an essay by Steve Albini that appeared in The Baffler about 17 years ago. You probably know the one – where he employs the analogy of a trench full of shit and uses it to explain the whole ‘band meets A&R man, band gets signed, band records record, band gets dropped’ saga that happens to everyone who chooses the major label route to misfortune.

Anyway, I suddenly realised that the essay in question has been reprinted a million and one times, in a million and one places. So, though you’ll all doubtless have read it, you may not have read it in The Baffler. Indeed, you may not be aware of The Baffler. And you really do need to be aware of The Baffler.

The Baffler is probably the finest journal of our times. Under the stewardship of Thomas Frank, it explores the themes that Frank’s own work, both scholarly and popular, has always explored: that of the business of culture. Back in the early 80s people never understood why Thee Faction had no interest in being co-opted into the culture industry, despite the recording contracts, music press cover stories and concert promotions everyone assumed we would take ‘advantage’ of. An issue or two of The Baffler should help you understand why we steered well clear.

Between 1988 and now, The Baffler has been irregularly published, hard to get hold of – even from the leftest of left wing news stands – and under horrific financial pressures – not least when its offices mysteriously caught fire about 10 years ago. But every time you’ve been able to get a copy, you’ve been provided with an absolute treat. The culture industry, the culture of business, the business of culture – each has been picked apart by a posse of the finest minds the American left has to offer. And, in the tradition of Marx, they don’t just moan or mock – they look at how the world might be, and what we need to do to get there.

At the root of Frank’s work, and that of The Baffler, is a pretty simply premise: rebellious consumption is nigh on impossible. All that counter-cultural stuff that you buy into? It’s The Man’s idea. He’s planned it, promoted it, and now reaps the benefits of it. A flick through Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool – a scholarly work, impeccably referenced, which rips apart the myth of the counter-culture – gives you a clear idea of what to expect. You can read Chapter One of it here. If you bought into punk, as brought to you by Virgin, CBS and McLaren, or grunge, as brought to you by Geffen and MTV, or if you have been buying into Wired’s high-tech utopia, you might not fancy delving too deeply into Frank and friends….you’re going to be pretty disappointed in yourself. But be brave. We were, thanks to a recommendation from Comrade “Doc” Fraser back in the early 90s, and since then we’ve redoubled our efforts in this war of position we find ourselves in.

Thee Faction have made no secret of their aim of building a genuinely counter-hegemonic movement – one that can’t be co-opted or bought by The Man. It’s possible. The contributors to The Baffler know it’s possible. But it’s very hard, and it requires us all to stay one step ahead of The Man at all times. Thomas Frank and his huge team of comrades help us do that, by giving us a much clearer understanding of how The Man works, and how to spot bogus counter-cultural activity from a  mile away. It is essential reading for all of you, brothers and sisters.

It’s pretty difficult getting hold of copies of The Baffler. But you should be able to find yourself a copy of the first compendium of Baffler articles, from the first 9 years of the magazine (from 1988 to 1997). It’s called Commodify Your Dissent, is published by Norton in the UK, and is full of brilliant articles that make you simultaneously: hate yourself for caving in to The Man in your weakest moments, clutch your head at the sheer brilliance of what you are reading, and hurl the book down, pick up a pick axe handle, and staff a barricade.

For those of you who (wrongly) think reading the classical texts is a bit boring, or for those who (equally wrongly) feel that the old guard (Marx, Trotsky, Gramsci and co)  are a bit outdated and don’t really address contemporary capitalism, this is the stuff you need to be reading. Seriously. Read it now. Cos this speaks to you, directly, about the era of capitalism we live in, now, and about the kind of future we should be planning for, tomorrow. And it does it in a funny, biting, satirical way, in exactly the language you and your friends dissect the state and civil society in around pub tables before a Thee Faction show.

You genuinely need to read as much of this stuff as you can. Now. The future depends on it.

What will it be like after the revolution, Daddy?

Marx gave us a great big bag of tools for looking at the world, and an understanding of how history works. What he didn’t do much of is tell us what it’s all going to be like once the age of capital is done and dusted. We’ve seen one attempt at it – the Stalinist one – and it wasn’t a lot of fun. But that particular branch of Marxism-Leninism has never been our only option. There’s tons of really fun-looking post-capitalist visions. We in Thee Faction have a tendency to concentrate on the analysis of the now, and counter-hegemonic strategies that might get us to the world of joy and hope which will follow. But we don’t, perhaps, talk enough about how we might design that vision of a better tomorrow.

We have all, of course, waded through libraries’ worth of books on this stuff. We don’t necessarily recommend that you do the same. Instead, our old friend and comrade Darrow Schecter has written a book (well, he wrote it 15 or so years ago), which handily digests lots of these competing ideas into one beautifully written guide to our options for the post-capitalist world, concentrating on the politicisation of civil society as the means towards it. That is to say, Comrade Schecter is well and truly with us on the Gramscian counter-hegemonic strategy front.

Thee Faction make no secret of their own preference for Guild Socialism, of course – and there’s a splendid chapter on that peculiarly British vision of a socialist society. As Bertrand Russell put it: ” The best practicable system, to my mind, is Guild Socialism, which concedes what is valid both in the claims of the State socialists and in the syndicalist fear of the State, by adopting a system of federalism among trades for reasons similar to those which are recommending federalism among nations.” This is, perhaps, our main reason for including a portrait of Russell on the walls of the DDRofR&B, along with other socialist and R&B figures of note. Ruskin, Morris, Penty and, perhaps most importantly, GDH Cole, all contributed to the formation of this set of ideas which look most attractive to Thee Faction as a post-capitalist way of life. Indeed, we try to organise Thee Faction along guild socialist lines.

But it isn’t up to us, any more than it’s up to these fellas at their university desks. It’s up to you to build post-revolutionary society. Comrade Schecter’s book just gives you some ideas. He takes us a on a tour of: revolutionary syndicalism, anarchism, council communism, guild socialism, market socialism and green, post-industrial socialism. You can treat it as a pick’n’mix, brothers and sisters. No need to pick one of these wholesale. When capitalism falls there will be much talking and debating, and all of these ideas will be in the mix. But now is as good a time as any to start planning. It won’t be long now.

Comrade Schecter has always been a Chicago punk-rock kind of guy – he always preferred The Effigies or Naked Raygun to Thee Faction back in the day. But we’re pretty sure there’s still room in his heart, along with all the space taken up by GDH Cole and Antonio Gramsci, for some Socialist R&B. Comrade Schecter, we salute your handy guide to post-revolutionary society.

Rocking the State

As most of you know, we’re not allowed to say too much about what happened to us on our Eastern European tour back in ’85. But you don’t need to know about us. Obsessing about what Thee Faction did is akin to buying into some sort of ‘Great Men’ theory of history. We all know that’s not how it works. The shifting of the tectonic plates of history never comes down to individual agents. But it can come down to mass movements.

That’s why we recommend this book: Rocking The State – rock music and politics in Eastern Europe and Russia. It’s edited by Sabrina Petra Ramet and was published by Westview in 1994. Don’t know if it’s still in print – we got ours back in 1995.

The trick, when overthrowing regimes and systems, is to take over civil society first. Once you’ve got that, the state topples pretty painlessly. That, in a nutshell, is why most of the Central European revolutions in 1989 were fairly bloodless. Civil Society had been lost by the State in the decades leading up to 1989. In one of my favourite remarks by Antonio Gramsci he points out why the Bolsheviks had to attack the State in 1917, rather than win hearts and minds in civil society. There was no civil society:

“In the East the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks”

Rock music played a huge part in taking over the fortresses and earthworks of civil society in the years leading up to 1989. Civil society was still massively under-developed in Central and Eastern Europe – indeed, strip out the Anglo-Saxon propaganda of the time and you’ll see that very few people wanted a capitalist economy. They wanted freedom within civil society. Freedom to negotiate. Freedom to aggregate public opinion. Freedom to express themselves. That’s what the movements we knew were all about – they were building civil society, creating a space between the individual and the state, an oppositional space where, safe from state interference, people could express themselves . Everyone knows about Solidarnosc, or Charter 77. Fewer recognise the part that Polite Refusal, Televizor, Bravo or any of the other revolutionary rock bands played in creating this space.

This book documents all of that, and brings perfectly to life the history, and the possibility, of rock bands embedding themselves within a counter-hegemonic movement, and being a joyful part of its fulfillment. Thee Faction aren’t mentioned directly – perhaps surprisingly – but there are enough oblique references to us to leave you in no doubt of our role.

Beg, steal or borrow a copy, and witness how rock music can not just fight, but beat, the power. And then join Thee Faction in helping history to repeat itself: this time in the West.

There is also, incidentally, a fascinating chapter on Dean Reed, the American singer who chose to live in the German Democratic Republic.

Don’t Sell Your Consent

The day Thee Faction reconvened to sort through the tapes for ‘At Ebbw Vale’ was a hot July day, notable for the death of Raoul Moat, a “gunman” who shot three people.

Moat had been pursued by the Police in the small northern English hamlet of Rothbury for the best part of a week, AND, of course had also been pursued by rolling news media. We watched for days, knowing we were a long way from the story, sympathising with the local folks yet grateful it did not concern us, happy to see news services were ‘keeping us informed’ but most of all, looking forward to Mr Moat carrying out his threat of blowing his head off, live on TV.

One of the songs involved in the At Ebbw Vale sessions deals with exactly this salacious desire to have the bourgeois idea of ‘importance’ bought to us, we feel we are being looked after at the same time as feeling nervous that at any point we could be attacked: it is this dichotomy which keeps us quiet and oppressed.

This “propaganda model” as an alternative to the conception of the media as “adversarial,” the one to which journalists, jurists, and communication scholars typically subscribe, is beautifully outlined by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media [Pantheon, 1988/2002].

The propaganda model as outlined herein depicts the media system as having a series of five successive filters through which the “raw material of news” must pass, leaving a “cleansed residue” of what “news is fit to print, marginalizing dissent, and allowing the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public”:
(1) a focus on profitability by and the increasingly concentrated
industry that has close ties to the government and is in a position by sheer volume to overwhelm dissenting media voices;
(2) the dependence of these media organizations on funding through advertising, leading them to head towards content likely to appeal to the
affluent;
(3) the dependence of journalists who work for the media on information from sources that constitute, collectively, a powerful/prestigious establishment;
(4) commercial interests that make the media vulnerable to “flak” and criticism from groups and institutions with the power to generate criticism and protest to which they respond with caution; and, finally,
(5) anti-socialism – one standard to those on “our” side and a quite different one to “enemies.” (e.g “the war against terror”).

Chomsky contends that media providers “narrow the range of news that passes through the gates and even more sharply limit what can become ‘big news’ subject to sustained news campaigns.” Far from being autonomous creations, media systems reflect, the distribution of economic, political, and symbolic power in society. Those at the top, and especially the government with its huge public relations apparatus, hold a strategic advantage. The result is the “manufacture of consent” for government policies and the capitalist average which advances the goals of corporations and preserve the system.

“Facts” become simply a consideration of the relation between the “evidence available”. Credibility of sources and their accounts varies, and “slow” the flow of news. Most “stories” survive only as long as they appear timely and until displaced by other more interesting or important happenings. Those which turn out to have a longer life are sustained by the chain of responses generated by an initial report.

TV News, hampered by the need for pictures is literally, produced. The need for a moving image to illustrate dominates TV news’s agenda, thus turning it into a simple television programme, with conflict, a narrative: almost as a sport.

The practice of appealing to the public on all sorts of intricate matters means almost always a desire to escape criticism from those who know by enlisting a large majority which has had no chance to know. The verdict is made to depend on who has the loudest or the most entrancing voice, the most skillful or the most brazen PR “guru” the best access to the most space in the newspapers. For even when the editor is scrupulously fair to “the other side,” fairness is not enough. There may be other sides, unmentioned by any of the organized, financed and active partisans.

The advocate of popular government has also to come to terms with the fact that on political questions there is rarely a single version of the truth. The relevance and significance of the “facts” is often disputed while typical citizens, in view of the many competing demands of family and job, not to speak of an inherent right to pursue their own “happiness,” have little time and limited inclination to educate themselves on the many, often complicated issues that regularly command the attention of public bodies. As Rousseau recognized long ago, the “people” refers in the last analysis to an existing majority.

There is no rule for resolving disputes democratically other than to grant the majority authority over the rest. Implementation of its decisions requires additional rules formulated so as to protect the fundamental rights of everyone.

There is of course in the UK the BBC and the allegedly “liberal” media – but these are in constant danger from political conservatives who, by controlling the terms of the debate, have succeeded in moving the political “centre” several steps to the right. These attacks, more than anything else, have moved some who would protect press freedom to defend some media practices behind the rampart of apolitical “objectivity.”

Critics of current policies have become more circumspect as administration supporters package patently conservative comment into the news, which gives government a freer hand.

Thee Faction believe that commercial news providers yield a propaganda result that a totalitarian state would be hard put to surpass. (Whilst appreciating that this very treatise is our propaganda!)

Thee Faction urge you to question the news media you are being fed, especially from TV. Beware of “experts” and “statistics”. The bourgeoisie manufacture your consent by making decisions for you, in the same way religion, school or parents do when you are a child. Question everything, read and discuss. Grow up.

Don’t sell your consent, it’s very valuable.