09 June 2013

Culture as a Historical Problem, Part I: The Folk Tradition of the Classical Workers’ Movement

Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong!”
Ralph Chaplin/Traditional

We all shall die.”

I once heard a prominent leftist academic suggest that “the problem with the left today is that it has no soundtrack.” For whatever reason, that has stuck with me over the years, and this post is an initial attempt to understand why that might be so.

Skepticism is warranted. Of course it would be absurd to reduce the whole complex problem of the left’s dysfunctionality to the question of a shared culture. That’s certainly not the idea here. Instead, I’d like to pose a few questions that have to do with culture and radical politics, and hopefully set the stage for further reflection on the relationship between them in a way that throws light on our current predicament.

That predicament will have been evident to anyone who participated in the Occupy movement during late 2011 and early 2012. While it was in many ways a remarkable moment, it had some considerable problems. One such problem was its inability to successfully articulate its fragmentary, disjointed social basis into an enduring political force. Radicalized or left-liberal students, radical journalists, various disaffected youth, pseudo-hippies, baby-boomers who had lost their jobs and were indignant about it, a smattering of unionized workers, and many people who had just been politicized or radicalized for the first time and were looking for their political voice: the movement was very much a patchwork of different groups who didn’t always see eye-to-eye about short-term goals, much less overarching, long-term strategies.

Any social movement worthy of the name will necessarily represent a diverse cross-section of the social body, and Occupy was no exception. But its various parts, which occupiers went to great lengths to hold together through strict dedication to the general assembly form, never really seemed to blend into an organic whole. A shared ideological substance was conspicuously lacking, as was the most basic requirement of agreement on a shared enemy. Without a clear conception of a common enemy, such as was provided by the hatred of the bosses and the brutality of the industrial factory floor during the labor struggles of the liberal period, or by a state that endorsed the vicious racism of Jim Crow and the genocidal imperialism of Vietnam during late Fordism, it is extremely difficult for a movement to orient and impart to itself a sense of direction. This is partially due to the specific sociohistorical conditions wrought by neoliberal capitalism, as Occupy emerged from a social and ideological terrain uniquely shaped by a slick phenomenological veneer of gee-whiz technological sophistication and individual empowerment. Ideological characteristics like these make it more difficult to concretize social domination than it was during past periods, much less bring the structural whole itself into focus.

But further than this, the current moment also lacks another crucial dimension relative to earlier periods of mass struggle. It lacks the considerable binding power of a shared milieu of creative practices and expressive forms that, for a lack of a better term, we can call “culture.” The historical work of cultural expression as a part of left politics has been to synthesize the diverse backgrounds and attitudes of its participants into a common experiential context, to provisionally submerge ethnic, generational, religious, and other differences in a collective identity through participation in a shared aesthetic medium. What would something like this look like for the neoliberal age, and what conditions would have to be met for its emergence?

The following comments reflect on the classical industrial workers’ movement and the role of music and song within it, while the next part will discuss the same question within the context of the revolutionary 1960s.


During the whole period of classical liberalism leading up to the massive meltdown of global capitalism that was the Great Depression, revolutionary anti-capitalism was, at its core, defined by the consciousness that one was a member of a collective body of industrial laborers who had nothing in common with the capitalist class. Consequently it made sense to oppose them and, at the most intense periods of struggle, to conclude that the capitalist class was superfluous, and that by simply removing them the working class could accede to its rightful position at the helm of industry. In the classical liberal period the decision that one could and should struggle against industrial capitalism as such was always taken on the basis of a powerful shared experience, namely the organization of industrial production itself. The spatial fixity and temporal regularity of the process, along with the requirement that the capitalist bring together, under the roof of one factory, what was often a numerically massive workforce virtually guaranteed that working people would eventually reflect on their individual circumstances from the perspective of a large and powerful collective subject.

However, the class consciousness, such as it was, of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century industrial working class was not a mechanical reflex of its historical conditions. It was also partly, but importantly, mediated through a rich folk tradition of song. During meetings at the union hall, at lunch breaks, and especially when workers marched out together to the picket line to confront company guards or the ordered bayonets of the state, work and protest songs were frequently a major aspect of working class life. Both of the major early models of industrial unionism that emerged in the United States, the Knights of Labor and the I.W.W., were singing unions who drew on music to bring workers together in a shared sense of struggle and to clarify their class position in society. The Wobblies were particularly renowned for using the oral media of speech and song to steel the resolve of nervous strikers, e.g. the Lawrence textile strike of 1912. (check out this superb documentary, available—for the moment—online). They were also pretty resourceful: because bosses kept calling in the Salvation Army band to play Christian hymns or patriotic tunes to drown out their songs, Wobbly organizers simply adapted their songs to the band’s melodies. Incidentally, this is why all of the Wobblies’ songs satirize traditional Christian hymns, e.g. “There’ll Be Pie in the Sky When You Die” is sung to the tune of “In the Sweet By and By.”

Striking textile workers, Lawrence, MA, 1912.

The specifically oral medium of the working-class folk tradition was both a reflection of and an adaptation to its historical circumstances. Almost always lacking musical instruments of its own, much less a full band, the collective voice enunciated by the working-class through its culture of song was available to any laborer with working vocal chords. Regardless of language barriers, religious affiliation, ethnicity, or any other source of difference, shared participation in rhythm and tone can create a sense of common purpose and situation even if one doesn’t understand the lyrical theme. Such group practices persuade in a manner that is different from written speech or straightforward verbal argument, though this is not to say that they themselves are not argumentative. The oral folk tradition mediated the very experience of work itself by helping to define it as a political space, as a space that is constituted not through merely “material relations between people,” but one that is profoundly social and thus open to transformation by human action. In short, the singing union and the singing strike were forms of cultural expression that worked simultaneously to politically articulate a collective subject and to mediate a historical formation of the relations of production.

Now obviously it would be absurd to see the fortunes of the labor movement in this period entirely as a result of its folk culture. The workers attempting to organize industry during the liberal period were entangled within a globalized system of production that remained opaque for the vast majority of people within it, and organized labor’s decisive victory would not come until an organizing strategy based upon an adequate understanding of its historical context came into focus. Under these circumstances the bonds of culture only play a limited role, but they do play a role, one that has less to do with causality than with functionality. The oral culture of song worked in a particular way for the industrial working class, bolstering its sense of collective identity and common cause despite differences in location, craft, language, and skill. Like virtually all working-class consciousness of the era, it was conceptually limited by its valorization of labor as the ontological source of all wealth, and by its tendency to understand labor as an identity category, rather than as an integral moment in the reproduction of the capitalist system. But it also worked to remove the fog from the battlefield of the industrial class war, clarifying its stakes and removing all ambiguity as to the identity of the enemy. In that sense the classical folk culture played an important part in “filling out” or constituting the collective identity of the working class.

In reviewing this history, I’m trying to throw into relief what seems to me to be an acute absence felt within the present and open up a certain problematic. The texture of everyday experience within neoliberal society, while varying widely depending on one’s social position within it, is ineluctably shaped by an internationalized and highly financialized structure of capital accumulation that colors the experience of social domination even as it veils its own form as a historical totality. Under such conditions, what cultural medium or set of practices are in a position to “fill out” the self-understanding of a radical left collective subject capable of successfully opposing neoliberal capitalism? Put differently: what forms of cultural production could work in the present to synthesize a mass subject in a way analogous to the function of the folk tradition in the classical workers’ movement, but adequate to neoliberal society? It may be the case that it no longer makes sense to pose the question in this way, but if that is true then we need to consider alternative formulations that could capture the complexities and contradictions of cultural production today, as well as its relationship—both possible and actual—to radical political consciousness.


  1. To what extent is the resurgence of a genuinely anti-capitalist culture dependent on a thorough critical examination and exposition of what is often referred to on this blog as neoliberal subjectivity? To what extent is such a critical undertaking synonymous with the initiation of such a cultural resurgence?

    I share your impression that the failure of the Occupy protests to cohere into an effective anti-capitalist social movement was due in part "to the specific sociohistorical conditions wrought by neoliberal capitalism, as Occupy emerged from a social and ideological terrain uniquely shaped by a slick phenomenological veneer of gee-whiz technological sophistication and individual empowerment. Ideological characteristics like these make it more difficult to concretize social domination than it was during past periods, much less bring the structural whole itself into focus." Of course police repression stopped whatever political consciousness the Occupy milieu was beginning to precipitate before it ever really had a chance to coalesce into a coherent ideology, but it is equally significant that such consciousness did not emerge more quickly or decisively. I think I agree that the robust culture of past anti-capitalist struggles was made possible in part by a much more acute sense of class antagonism, but I have to ask to what extent such class-consciousness was the product of cultural work, rather than simply providing a basis for it. It seems today that the possibility for a truly anti-capitalist culture that will sustain resistance is dependent more than ever on a critical awareness of capitalism itself.

  2. Those are good questions, Ben. Apologies for the length of what follows.

    "To what extent is the resurgence of a genuinely anti-capitalist culture dependent on a thorough critical examination and exposition of...neoliberal subjectivity?"

    It's not very dependent on that, I don't think. As an incredibly contradictory and destructive form of organizing society, capital inescapably sews the seeds of discontent wherever it goes, but such discontent is not always expressed in a way that takes aim at the system as a system. Though the industrial working class expressed a much sharper sense of anti-capitalism than do progressives today, it's also true that their struggles very frequently took the form of "workers versus bosses," or "labor versus capital," rather than of a struggle against the whole system as such. Such binaries were concretizations of the system, though, and focused the struggle in powerful ways that eventually led to epochal shifts in the system itself during the 1930s and early 40s.

    So, moving forward to the present moment, it's not the case in my opinion that any theoretical definition of "neoliberal subjectivity" is going to unlock a mass anti-capitalist struggle, but having a robust conception of the typical forms subjectivity takes within the current formation of capitalism can offer clues as to what kinds of "concretizations" of the system might be legible and sensible for a very wide range of disaffected people today.

    Second question: "To what extent is such a critical undertaking synonymous with the initiation of such a cultural resurgence?"

    Again, not very. I don't think the forms of cultural practice that could potentially synthesize a mass anti-capitalist subject today are going to descend to the streets from the airy heights of this blog, or any other blog. Again I do think, though, that analysis can clarify the present in certain ways that give people a sharper sense of what to look for and offer suggestions, however schematic, for what kind of practice, institution, subject, or whatever is most needed by the left in the current moment. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on these questions, though.

    Lastly: "I have to ask to what extent such class-consciousness was the product of cultural work, rather than simply providing a basis for it."

    As I tried to say, I didn't want to assert that the class consciousness of the industrial working class was somehow a direct expression of cultural forms. It wasn't, it was the unique product of its sociohistorical context, the organization of production, the ideological possibilities this opened up, and so on. But I think cultural and aesthetic expression did play an important role in facilitating this consciousness and carrying it through time, especially through the extended periods of reaction and defeat that were fairly common throughout this historical period.

    Today it is not as if we're in an immediately analogous situation, but it seems clear that in order to successfully oppose capitalism, capitalism itself has to be made legible as a system of domination to a much larger number of people than it currently is. I think one thing this blog is trying to do is inquire into the conditions for the creation of a new kind of popular "common sense" that would be capable of doing this. If that's a useful project, then the question of aesthetics, experience, and cultural expression become pretty important.

  3. "[I]t seems clear that in order to successfully oppose capitalism, capitalism itself has to be made legible as a system of domination to a much larger number of people than it currently is."

    I think this is my point. How do we make it legible? What barriers stand in the way to its legibility? What forms of cultural expression can make it manifest to those who refuse to see it? You suggest that the "ideological context" of neoliberalism was a barrier to the formation of political consciousness and unity in Occupy, which is why I'm suggesting that anti-capitalist culture must begin to produce itself through a confrontation with neoliberal subjectivity. That subjectivity is an objective factor actively reproducing the ideological context as much as it's also a result of the context in which it forms.

  4. I'm not trying to promote abstract theoreticism here. Capitalism is made of real people whose perception of their social context actively shapes that context. In order to promote alternate forms of perception or just plain common sense, we have to come to grips with the dominant forms of perception under neoliberal capitalism and how they reinforce the system as a whole.

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  6. Along these lines, if the historical study of anti-capitalist culture is going to play a part in the reconstruction of anti-capitalist culture today, then such a study should thematize not only the ways in which anti-capitalist culture has affirmed a sense of collective identity for those struggling to overcome capitalism but also the ways in which it has critically exposed the falsehoods on which capitalist exploitation rests.

  7. "...we have to come to grips with the dominant forms of perception under neoliberal capitalism and how they reinforce the system as a whole...the historical study of anti-capitalist culture...should thematize...the ways in which it has critically exposed the falsehoods on which capitalist exploitation rests."

    I totally agree. The idea of casting a glance back at history is ultimately meant to help illuminate the present. We've done some initial work on the constitution and apparent limitations of subjectivity within neoliberal society, but much remains to be thought through, especially regarding the kind of ideological and cultural work that could overcome or obviate those limits. This post was meant as an initial tentative step in that direction, and there'll be more to come.

  8. I really liked this post and I’m excited to see this conversation going here. I hope you don’t mind if I take some devil’s advocate positions. At least part of what is interesting about looking at these past forms of anti-capitalist culture (and I'm thinking ahead to the culture of the 1960s as well) is in considering the way that they ultimately contributed to the rise of a constellation of capitalist relations. I would venture that all culture since the generalization of the commodity form has been a set of practices of the reproduction of capitalist society. These cultures certainly contained anti-capitalist sentiments, but I think that the predominance of a cultural standpoint for a critique of capitalist society is itself a sign of the inadequacy of said critique. Capital can't be overcome with culture, but only through practices of free collaboration in consciously mediating the reproduction of society. I don’t have an amazing definition of culture to proffer, but it seems that culture must be, at base, a mystification of the actual human relationships that constitute capitalist society, while what we must strive for is the self-consciousness of those relationships.

    How plausible does culture now seem as a way of uniting an anti-capitalist movement at this time. While society is hopefully headed in a more tolerant direction—there are clear indications of this, but there is also great potential for regression—this tolerance might argue that there is actually less possibility for uniting around a culture of resistance or anti-capitalism. Culture certainly isn’t going anywhere, but maybe we need to be considering different kinds of social practices with more potential for bridging cultural divides. Why not some kind of cosmopolitanism or pan-culturalism instead, to unite the incredibly fragmented group of people who have, for example, been thrown into existential uncertainty by the crisis of work in the US, not to mention beyond? Or to consider a different possibility, what if the culture that is most relevant to the analysis of the contemporary moment is actually the least ‘authentic’ form of culture, namely popular culture, which does have a broad or even global reach?

    What I think is very promising about the critical examination of culture is the potential to get at these practices of social reproduction in a way that isn’t normally done, and to echo comments above, as a way of shedding light on the present. My thought is that as we go forward we should focus more on form over content, that is to say on seeing culture as a set of dynamics practices, rather than more or less static identities or world views. It is interesting how workers articulated their dissatisfaction with class domination, etc., but how did the practices of their resistance reflect their reproduction of the capitalist system and even prefigure the forms that it would later come to take?

  9. Deckard's question shows just how ambivalent "culture" is in a capitalist society. On one hand, it is the product of deliberate attempts by vast industrial complexes to ideologize people and shape their behavior, as Hollywood has done around the world. But culture can also be used in vanguard attempts to create class consciousness, as the Soviets did with agit-prop, photomontage, constructivism and dialectical cinema, then later as Lukács theorized it and as the Mexican muralists or the Federal Theater project practiced it in the 1930s. Finally, the power of co-optation in capitalist societies is so strong that initially emancipatory or solidarity-building practices can easily become integrated as a source of dynamism in a new redeployment of capitalism. The French Situationists focused on co-optation in the 1960s, as if by anticipation. In fact, their own practices and many others were integrated into the common stock of neoliberal culture, as analyzed in an essay like "The Flexible Personality" that made the rounds ten years ago.

    In Italy and Spain from 2003 onward, then throughout Western Europe, deliberate attempts were made to use vanguard art practices to help bring to consciousness the existence of a new class fraction: the "precarious worker" under a flexible contract regime, in welfare states exposed to continual draconian cuts. The focus was the reinvention of the Mayday demonstration by and for precarious youth. The aesthetic forms of the demonstrations and the communication and organizing techniques were derived from the counter-globalization cycle of 1999 to 2003 (which was more intense in Europe because the repressive consequences of 9-11 were lower). A text by Alex Foti describes the project, along with other texts collected here: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704. A film with Foti in it can be accessed here: http://db.tt/5kySZCQm.

    These demonstrations were conceived as expressive "machines" (or communicational assemblages) with a strong critical component focusing both on concrete working conditions and on the co-optation strategies of gentrification processes. They were cross-class to the extent that they were addressed to office and technology workers, chain-store and logistics workers, and migrants doing all kinds of contract work including domestic labor. The Old Left considered them middle-class, undisciplined, neoliberal. In the US before 2007 it was typically said that no one cared about precarious labor or recognized themselves in that category. Subsequently that has changed. The precarity movements have provided the foundation for the Indignado movement in Spain and its prolongations throughout Europe. The student-debt movement coming out of Occupy has made some similar uses of expressive/ communicational practices. I don't think this work should be dismissed out of hand. At least it can provide a touchstone for a discussion of left culture in the era of the falling middle classes.

  10. Interesting comment, Paul C. I have a slightly different idea about what has happened to cultural resistance or opposition movements. It's not so much that they were co-opted as that they co-opted the rest of society. They succeeded in a very real sense in revolutionizing society, but they hadn't properly understood the nature of the system they confronted, for instance thinking that culture was independent of the practices of the reproduction of capital. Therefore they could recognize neither their victory, the strange world they made, nor even themselves.

    I think this narrative is nicely reflected in the fall out of the oppositional culture of the 60s in America, as powerfully communicated through the work of artists like Neil Young and Philip K. Dick, as well as through the collapse of liberatory movements into terrorism or alternative culture that slowly withered on the fringes of society. But what is even more shocking is that the oppositional cultures and ideas of the past have now become our mainstream culture!

    As I mentioned there is now much more tolerance for difference (gender, race, ethnicity, reifications all, of course) which is a good that should not be discounted, but embedded as it is in a contradictory society, it is possible to see this tolerance as a sham. The movements that fought for this acceptance of difference thought that having achieved it, at least some of the fundamental problems of their society would be solved, but they failed to recognize that problems that manifest themselves through reified form can't be solved as such. Hence, as the movements waned, an epic bummer set in. Some of the 'hippies' that stuck it out came out of the other end as our tech-nerd billionaires. Others followed their genuine disappointment with the degradation of their ideals into an embrace of 'fundamentals,' for example Neil Young's dalliance with Reganism. American hard core punk rock might be profitably analyzed through the lens of an alternative embrace of so called fundamentals that was equally a rejection of the failure of the American New Left.

    Having said that, the point certainly isn't to be dismissive, but to learn from past failures. Without judging them as failures, we have no basis to understand our goals and we will repeat the failure, or debase our understanding of success. I think that the problem is much worse than simply resolving to craft a better understanding of capitalist society to inform our efforts. The problem is fundamentally bringing the self-awareness of our society into being through changes to the system itself. But changes to the system that will produce the result we want will also require greater consciousness. So there is no mechanistic way to approach this dialectical process, and we need to recognize our fundamentally limited agency without being paralyzed by it.

  11. Well, unfortunately I just wrote a pretty detailed comment that was summarily banished to the nether-regions of the interwebs, so I'll try to summarize what I was saying as best I can.

    Basically this is exactly the discussion I was trying to open up. I think Deckard's emphasis on "form" is what I was trying to get at with the piece, which pointed to the specific material characteristics of the Old Left folk culture as a communicative practice - or, in Paul C's terms, a communicative assemblage - that was specifically adapted to its sociohistorical context. The question is, what would be an analogous form of expression for the qualitatively different conditions of the present, if any?

    From the piece by Foti that Paul C referenced:

    "In 1905, American wobblies were able to assemble a new industrial union, both anarchist and socialist in its orientation, that organized unskilled workers from all ethnic and racial backgrounds. What would be the equivalent of industrial unionism a century later, when socialism is a dying ideology and anarchism little more than existential rebellion?"

    This is essentially the exact question I'm trying to ask. This is where questions of social theory, political organizing, and aesthetics in the most general sense come together - that is, aesthetics as having anything to do with the meaning, shape, and synthesis of lived experience. Paul C's reference to the movement to organize a newly conscious precariat across Europe and the forms of cultural expression that are being deployed there provide a very interesting case, particularly the creation of a popular icon - "Saint Precario" - to channel widespread and diverse social discontent in a focused way. The deployment of the popular icon is a trope that is increasingly visible in mass mobilizations today, as evidenced most recently and vividly in the insurrection in Turkey.

    The cultural logic of neoliberalism is grounded in the all-pervasive presence of the image, and the symbolic grammar of the image is something the left has to get a handle on. This is especially crucial for the internationalism question insofar as certain images have an uncanny ability to migrate across national borders, at least to a certain extent.

    One question to ask would be: to what extent could an international organizing campaign focus on collectively articulating, say, the growing ranks of youth and former students who are now coming to discover their superfluity to the neoliberal economy, and the legions of retail and service workers who are realizing they don't have much to lose by fighting for better working conditions since existing conditions for them are already so abysmal? In other words what kinds of communicative assemblages or aesthetic forms could articulate these two massive and massively dissatisfied class-fractions on an international scale?

  12. Those are, effectively, the questions that were posed by the precarity movements - except they added migrants to the list of subjects, in the attempt to reach the global scale. I think it would be great to look at both the strengths and shortcomings of those movements, now, when the conditions of exploitation they were describing have grown more intense. I don't see those movements as entirely successful: they depended largely on the articulation of critical intellectuals and marginalized anarchist types of the "social centers" (squats devoted to culture rather than just lodging). Added to the list of questions would be: how to take a critical culture mainstream? The movements of the last fifteen years have produced very sophisticated combinations of aesthetics, critical theory, communications and organizational capacity; but they have worn their alienation on their sleeve, in recognizable post-68 forms, and have not penetrated mass culture.