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Out To Lunch: The 60s Counterculture, and the Culture of the Left

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Out To Lunch’s Contribution to the Panel at Spring Conference, Salford 17 May 2014,  on ‘The 60s Counter Culture, and the Culture of the Left’ with Mark Fisher and Ashley Frawley

Down with Decadeology!

Spring Conference May 2014 IconDecadology is to journalism what stageism is to Stalinism: a defence of stupidity, mediocrity and ‘business as usual’. Stageism is failing to understand that words like feudalism and capitalism and socialism represent processes at work on each other, not discrete historical periods. By fixing these analytical concepts into a narrative schema — similar to the ‘king lists’ of old — the Stalinists deprived them of their revolutionary charge and made us spectators of history, rather than actors. This is beloved of the timid, reactionary and defeated who praise ‘the 60s’ in The Guardian order to bury them. “We cannot muster these energies today” says Mark Fisher. What he means is, he cannot muster these energies today. The AMM and the Psychedelic Bolsheviks can! I notice that the Spring Conference organisers have placed a comma after ‘The 60s Counterculture’ as if to prevent it infecting ‘the Culture of the Left’, but can they really exist in isolation? I’d argue they can’t. The idea that certain ideas belong to certain decades and are therefore ‘not possible’ today is met everywhere. I hear that’s the gist of Mark’s Capitalist Realism. The person who says, “I don’t agree with you! You are an enemy! I oppose you!”, is an obstacle, sure, but they’ll make themselves unpopular with their reactionary views, and you can organise against them. The person who says, “I agree with you in principle, but you are going about it the wrong way …” is more insidious, and often winds up as more effective reaction. They praise your ‘intentions’ in order to vaporise them into morals, and then add with a sigh, ” … but the Real World does not work like that”. In 1850, writing in the Red Republican, Helen Macfarlane called the liberal reformists of the nineteenth century — those who called for selective Electoral Reform (1832) or repeal of the Corn Laws (1846) — ‘false friends’ to working people. Pundits who ‘love the 60s’, but say those times are now over are just that — false friends.

The 60s

Something extraordinary certainly did happen in the decade which led up to 1968. Civil Rights, Rock’n’Roll, the movement against the Vietnam War and Women’s Liberation were global mass phenomena. They had a massive impact on the Soviet block and on China, proving that these states, rather than isolatedly ‘communist’, were state-capitalist, i.e. fully part of an international capitalist economy. A book like Vodka-Cola by Charles Levinson (Gordon and Cremonesi, 1979), still makes for a shocking read today: at the height of the Cold War, American and European corporations were making super profits from cheap labour supplied by so-called communist regimes. Over the course of the 60s, the global masses discovered the inner self, previously the domain of the privileged bourgeois individual. Those who sought to use the formal methods of Beethoven to realise world-historic music were flummoxed; this was being carried out by improvisors using electricity and selling pieces of plastic imprinted with soundwaves, a mountain of music whose twin peaks were Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane.

The best articulation of this process is not to be found in surveys of chart music or jazz, but in Marxism and Freedom by Raya Dunayevskaya, published in 1958. At its best, philosophy anticipates real world developments, and in her critique of automation and what it was doing to the lives of Detroit auto-workers, Dunayevskaya discovered that dialectical philosophy was not simply a handbook for politicians (John Rees’s ‘algebra of revolution’), but a direct examination of the possibilities and limits of everyday life. Her thesis was borne out by the cultural and political events of the 60s. Journalistic commentary rewrites the world according to its own power structure, seeing decades as a meaningless sequence of looks and differently-styled consumer items, ignoring the real story, which is the accumulation of capital and the crises and resistance this produces. Although understandable as a way of stageing this debate, the polarisation of ‘Counter’ and ‘Left’ culture does not work. It assumes that culture is something you consume rather than produce, and that political ideas are separate from everyday life. In fact, we can only make ‘politics’ happen it makes us happy, if we are discovering our subjectivities reflected in each other.

The crisis of the SWP has meant a generation recognising that there are no short-cuts to revolution, you cannot develop a revolutionary current like a small, aggressive business, dependent on dogma, money and managed reputations. But this also means that dissident SWP members, long kept from the centres of supposedly-revolutionary power, are now making friends and influencing people. At the AMM, we decided — a view long held by Andy Wilson, who attempted to start a cultural magazine for SWP members in the 1980s — that the paranoia about cultural consumption in the party clearly signaled its top-down, non-working-class, managerial attitude, where ‘culture’ is perceived as a matter of bourgeois refinement rather than of visceral necessity. If this view — that we do not need to be afraid of our desires, but of their repression — belongs to ‘the 60s’, then we in the AMM are ’60s revivalists’, but we actually find the same doctrine in William Blake, Helen Macfarlane and Bishop Brown, none of whom lived and wrote in that decade.

Frank Zappa versus the 60s

The Counter Culture of the 60s was not a homegenous entity which we can adopt or discard at will, preferring maybe the Existentialism of the 50s or the Millennial Raves of the 80s. If a volcano erupts it doesn’t make sense to say, well that was a Sunday thing, it’s not an eruption day today. We’ve got to find out where the architectonic plates are and what the tensions are in the ground. The Counter Culture was an assault on capitalism which used all that we have — the products of the enemy. This is one reason the AMM likes to brandish Frank Zappa at those who would prefer revolutionary politics to be a historical re-enactment society, and glory in the days when workers queued up to hear the Comrade Professor talk about Shakespeare. Zappa explodes ready-made categories, forcing us to think on their feet, make our concepts dance, reveal ourselves.

So let’s look at a song Zappa wrote about ‘the 60s’, a decade lazy journalists take him as an ‘icon’ for. Steve Vai, who went on to become a guitar star in his own right, was in Zappa’s band at the time, and confessed it was the only song in the book he found offensive. It’s directed against the Baby Boomer generation for whom the 60s is a sacred moment of love, peace and experimentation, before (as good Democrats) they buckled down to the task of running capitalism efficiently and fighting wars for oil. But the reason Zappa is interesting is because his critique of mass culture is what Adorno called ‘imminent’, it emerged from inside the beast. It’s not a matter of us, as politically-minded people, at last finding some pop music we can ‘agree with’ because it fits our politics … only to find it’s actually been marketed at us, with all the manipulation and contempt for people which ‘marketing’ implies.

They took a whole bunch of acid
So they could see where it's at (It's over there, over there, Over there, over there And under here also)
Doont, da-doodem doodem!
They lived on a whole bunch of nothing
They thought they looked very good
They'd never ever worry
They were always in a hurry
To convince themselves that what they were Was really very groovy
Yes, they believed in all the papers
And the magazines that defined their folklore
They could never laugh At who or what they thought they were
Or even what they thought They sorta oughta be
They were totally empty (Totally empty)
And their lives were really useless
So what the fuck?
They didn't have no sense of humor (Oodly-oodly-yeah!)
Now they got nothing left To laugh about Including themselves

Turn turn Turn turn
We're turning again
Turn turn Turn turn
We're turning again

Michael Tencer calls the target of ‘We’re Turning Again’ the ‘deificatory nostalgia’ of Rolling Stone and the mainstream rock radio of the 80s (the song was released in 1985), a nostalgia which effectively blocked out creative contemporary music (as a music journalist I spent the 80s proselytizing for a kind of music called Harmolodics which I thought could have been as popular and revolutionary as Hendrix, but which was spurned by corporate taste setters). The song ends with jokes about the deaths of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and Mama Cass. If these jokes felt like blasphemy, it showed how these icons of rock were being venerated like saints (Zappa’s reaction to his Catholic upbringing is one of his most powerful psycho-political motivations). The song concludes:

Everybody come back
No one can do it like you used to
If you listen to the radio
And what they play today
You can tell right away:
All those assholes really need you!

If you like, you can do what James Eaden did in Socialist Review, and simply mock me for being a sad Zappa fan, stuck in the 60s or the 80s or the 90s, or whatever decade Zappa is meant to ‘belong’ to, but it seems to me that without Zappa — the ‘negation of the negation’ to put it in Hegelian terms — judgments of the 60s Counter Culture devolve into either nostalgia (from the doyens of the culture industry) or moralism (from the politicians). In ‘We’re Turning Again’, Zappa performs an exposure of the way established interests use culture. He’s cricitising veneration of the dead — a key part of Nazi ritual, and used to the hilt by our own Establishment on Armistic Day — in a way that can be assigned to neither culture or politics. If ‘Marxists’ are so blinkered by their own terminology — or by narrow, bourgeois definitions of ‘politics’ — that they can’t see that Zappa is resisting Capital’s appropriation of our creativity and labour, then Marxism has become very boring: a dogma for cults and sects best avoided by civilians. It’s not so much that the Left can vote on ‘what to include and what to discard’ from the Counter Culture: it hasn’t really got anything else to go with.

One Comment

  • Hektor Rottweiler says:

    An epically lousy choice of whipping-boy in Ludwig van:

    “For Adorno, in Beethoven ‘the development becomes the focal point of the entire form’. At the same time, development recalls the older procedure of variation – the technique whereby a theme or idea undergoes change while nevertheless retaining its original identity. Expressly invoking Hegel’s subject-object dialectic, Adorno never hesitates in referring the composer’s original theme – the product of inspiration (“Einfall”) – as the ‘musical subject’: ‘ “Einfall” is not just a psychological category, a matter of ‘inspiration’, but a moment in the dialectical process manifest in musical form. Conversely, the technique of developing variation – the ‘working out’ of the theme – ‘represents the process of objectivity and the process of becoming’. To achieve a synthesis of these moments is to reconcile the dialectical opposites of subjective freedom and objective reality; in Adorno’s view the semblance of such a reconciliation arises in the music of Beethoven’s second period, but it was never to be achieved again.”

    Janet Schmalfeldt, “In the Process of Becoming: Analytic and Philosophical Perspectives on Form in Early Nineteenth-century Music” (Oxford, 2011).

    “In Beethoven … the form IS process.”

    Carl Dahlhaus, “Ludwig Van Beethoven: Approaches to his Music” (Oxford, 1991)

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