“Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong!”
“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.