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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Grateful Dead 1972

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Infinite vortex

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bloody revolutions and the price of bread

Bloody revolutions

August is the cruellest month, setting fires which can’t be put out. So what does it mean, all this chaos and disorder? Perhaps it means nothing. A moment of madness unleashing a frenzy of theft. But if it means nothing, isn’t that more frightening than if it meant something? Is it possible for something to have no meaning, no structure, no cause, no narrative?

Which comes first, law or order? For there to be laws, there must first be some concept or idea of order, of regularity. In a totally random/chaotic situation there would be no regularities, no fixed points from which the idea/ potential/ possibility of laws could be generated/conceived.

The deep structure of reality is probably random and chaotic. Out of this structurlessness a tiny point of coherence randomly emerged- and survived. Out of the sea of infinite possibilities such a possibility may have occurred many times, to be rapidly extinguished. But when one such possibility survived, time and history could begin. An ordered and ordering reality could crystallise out of chaos.

We are the descendants of that initial moment of being/ moment of meaning and of the subsequent and similar emergence of life out of the lesser chaos of physical/chemical/ molecular reality. Only a moment ago- compared with the billions of years the universe and life on earth have existed- did we realise/ recognise/ discover the scientific laws which appear to structure and order reality. Even here there is still some confusion. Could other realities/ other universes exist with different scientific laws?

These are speculative questions, but have relevance to our situation. What is the relationship between the ordering of society and its laws?

For a start it is not very scientific. You can’t break the laws of science. If you do, and can repeat the trick, then the scientific law you have broken will have to be changed. The laws of science are describe what happens, based on lots of observations. The laws of society are based on what the people who make the laws want to happen (or not happen).

Who makes the laws? Once upon a time it was god/ the gods, or the ancestors through traditions. Until writing was invented about 5000 years ago, laws couldn’t be written down so they were passed on from generation to generation through myths and stories. Writing and written laws emerged out of a revolution- the farming revolution which domesticated plants and animals. This allowed people to settle in one place. First in villages, then in towns and cities. Domesticated crops like barley and wheat, rice and maize produced a surplus which could be stored. This allowed a division of labour and the beginnings of hierarchical society, where farmers produced food for people who weren’t farmers to eat.

The earliest known writing are lists of the food stored in a temple in Sumer in what is now Iraq. One of the earliest law codes also comes from Sumer. This gives a sequence in which there is first a new ordering of society - through the farming revolution- which gives rise to writing. Then through writing the ordering of society begins to become fixed in a set of laws.

So the phrase ’law and order’ is the wrong way round. First there is order, then there are laws. Laws on their own cannot create social order. When there is a ’breakdown of law and order’ this really means there has been a breakdown of the social order, a failure in /of society not a failure of the law.

Human beings are sociable animals. Breakdowns of social order are deeply distressing to us so there is an instinctive urge to punish those who threaten the social order. Against this instinct is our awareness or consciousness of history - the sum of knowledge accumulated since the invention of writing.

This form of social awareness/ collective consciousness has taught us that even the most seemingly stable and secure forms of social order can break down permanently. The world is littered with ruins of ancient civilisations and the recent past has added others. Some forms of social structure were overthrown by outside forces, but others collapsed in on themselves.

Internal collapse can take the form of a revolution. Revolutions occur when the cohesion of an existing social structure fails. This is often related to the laws of the existing social structure. A shift occurs when the relationship between social order and the law diverge so that laws are used/ enforced to try and check or hold back changes in the social order.

Revolutions occur when the attempts to hold back social change fail and a period of chaos (often involving a highly destructive civil war) ensues before a new form of social order emerges.

The problem with historical consciousness is that while it can make sense of / construct a meaning for events that have happened, it is not a predictive tool. Some outbreaks of rioting and looting precede/ lead to revolutions, but most do not. A lot seems to depend on the responses of the ruling elite. In Britain, Charles I lost his head and James II/VI lost his throne because they refused to compromise with the forces of social change and lost the confidence of all but their most loyal supporters.

The situation today is more complex and confused. The stresses on the social order are being created by global economic forces, by the neo-liberal form of capitalism. The fires of August were not ‘political’ -they were sparked by a short-circuiting of consumerism..

Since capitalism began in England, in late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century Manchester, that the breakdown of ‘law and order’ focussed on shops rather than political targets is significant. It means that in their moment of excess, those involved refused to be distracted by politics but went straight to the economic heart of the matter.

If actions speak louder than words, then this frenzy for the possession of fetishised commodities has revealed the poverty of politics. Or, as Guy Debord said in 1967 “ As soon as society discovers that it depends on the economy, the economy, in fact, depends on society.”

The laws now so strongly enforced on the looters are not based on the need to maintain social order, but on the need to maintain economic order and reflect the subservience of politics to economics. But, as first Hegel and then Marx explained, this subservience of the political ordering of society to economic ’laws’ is ultimately irrational, increasing rather than decreasing social disorder.

Marx anticipated that the progressive disordering of society would create the conditions for a revolutionary re-ordering. This would have to be a social rather than a political revolution, since simply changing the ruling elite would not alter the economic basis of society.

Until recently, the possibility of such a deep rooted re-ordering of social reality seemed unlikely. The neo-liberal form of capitalism seemed to be able to maintain itself through the production and consumption of an endless stream of fetishised commodities. While the accumulation of such commodities continues, problems with their distribution and consumption are beginning to arise.

Rioting and looting following the threatened closure of a circus can be discounted as just noise. But what if the price of bread continues to rise?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How to create a criminal underclass

This is a pretty rapid response to the mass outbreak of criminal looting which has occurred in England. I have shoved my conclusion up front.

My conclusion is there is a direct link to the kettling of student protests earlier this year./ late last year. In particular the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance was a kick in the teeth to the students and their families who saw education as a way out of inner city gang/ drug  culture. The cuts have also alienated middle class community workers, teachers, social workers etc who support the aspirations of such 'respectable' working class students and families. 

By kettling/ criminalising legitimate protest, the seeds were sown for a nihilistic outbreak of illegitimate  and genuinely criminal protest through mass looting. The mass media coverage of the student protests also informed thousands of young ( and not so young) people about police riot control tactics and how to evade them.

The brightest and the best/ hard working / aspirational  of young people were treated like criminal scum a few months ago. Now the kettle has boiled over.

1. The initial spark was the breakdown in police/ community communications in Tottenham over the death of Mark Duggan on Thursday 4 August. Duggan was shot dead by the police in circumstances which are not yet clear. The problem seems to have been that the Independent Police Complaints Commission are in charge of the investigation -so the police cannot comment on or discuss what happened. But the IPPCC have been involved in several high profile cases recently and are seen as a toothless body.

On Friday 5 August There was a peaceful protest outside Tottenham police station, but after five hours an attempt was made to disperse the crowd. This went wrong and turned into an angry/ violent confrontation. Usually such events are contained by the police within the immediate area. This did not happen.

2. Why did a minor riot turn into a mass frenzy of looting across London and other parts of England?

In ordinary riots, most of the rioters energy is taken up by attempts to attack the police - the police act as the focus for the rioters anger and aggression. Looting often occurs around the edges of such riots as people who are not interested in fight the police take advantage of the situation to steal what ever they can from nearby shops.

What has happened this time is that a large number of people have jumped straight to the looting. Rather than confront the police, they evade them, jumping straight to any unprotected shops. As soon as the police arrive, they move off somewhere else. In some cases, which is the most worrying/ frightening part, the shops are set on fire.

This pattern of looting with out rioting is new. It is more like what can happen after a natural disaster or a prolonged power blackout than any form of the ’political’ rioting. It is a breakdown of social order on large scale. It is not just a few criminals taking advantage of a temporary situation. Thousands of people have been involved.

3. Why now?

For ’law and order’ to have broken down so swiftly and across such a wide area (not just in inner city areas) there must be some underlying/ structural problem. Even if, as many say, a ‘criminal underclass’ are responsible, why has the behaviour of this underclass suddenly changed? If it is not the work of a criminal underclass, then why have so many ‘ordinary’ people suddenly taken to crime on such a large scale?

My suggestion is that the situation has been building up for a long time. The neo-liberal economic policies which Tory and Labour governments have pursued for the past 30 years have created unequal society. So long as the economy was growing, there was always the hope that individuals could escape (relative) poverty -through education for example. Under Labour, although they did not challenge neo-liberalism, they did make sure that some wealth, through public spending, trickled down to poorer sections of society.

Then came the 2008 economic crisis and the belief that public spending had to be cut. The Conservative/ Lib Dem coalition have pursued this policy vigorously. For the actual ‘criminal underclass’ (Marx’s lumpen proletariat ) such changes are irrelevant. But for the respectable working class and the lower middle class, it suddenly seemed like a door closing on their future. Wage cuts and unemployment loomed.

So long as this group felt they had some stake in the future, their positive values and aspirations offered an alternative to the nihilistic despair of the ‘criminal underclass’. They held in check and contained social disorder in their communities. An image is of control rods in a nuclear reactor.

For this huge outbreak of looting to take place, the respectable working class and lower middle class did not themselves have to do anything - they just had to stop caring, stop trying to keep a lid on things, stop trying to pretend at least some young people in their communities had a future.

A sign of the trouble to come came with the student protests earlier this year/ late last year. In particular the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance. For motivated but poor school kids and students, this was a life line, a potential escape route from the world of the ‘criminal underclass’.

The heavy handed response to the student protests did not just affect those directly involved. It ‘sent a message’ to parents, teachers, social workers, community workers etc. The message was ‘We don’t care about your aspirations, your hard work, your attempts to help young people escape a life of crime’…

For thirty years the possibility for a better, a different life was a safety valve, releasing just enough pressure to prevent the riots of 1981 returning. By kettling the student protests, by treating the protestors as rioters and criminals, the police and government closed off that safety valve. They treated ordinary young people like ‘scum’ .

Now the lid has blown off the kettle.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Prog rock and the counterculture

Rocking the Classics English progressive rock and the counterculture

Update - extensive preview on Google books- spotted by Rich Cross.

So what was progressive rock all about then? Edward Macan has the answers.
In Rocking the Classics - English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (published in 1997) he does a pretty through job of taking prog rock apart to see how it worked.

I started buying records when I was 13 (1971/2) and soon had quite a few prog rock classics- Close to the Edge by Yes, Foxtrot by Genesis- which has Suppers Ready on it

Trilogy by ELP and a Van der Graaf Generator compilation… so I thought I knew all about prog rock. But I didn’t.

Macan is a musicologist and musician. Looking at the origins of prog rock, he finds them amongst the middle class youth of south-east England. As they were growing up in the fifties, future prog rock musicians would have listened to classical music at home- and been familiar with church (of England) music. A few, including Peter Gabriel of Genesis were choirboys.

So when they started to make music in the sixties, it was natural for them to draw on their musical roots, fusing classical and church music with rock. Their privileged background (fee-paying schools) also meant that they were drawn to the spiritual/ religious/mystical/ anti-materialism of the psychedelic counterculture rather than its radical politics. So if they had not invented progressive rock, they might have become dope-smoking trendy vicars…

Macan goes on to point out that even before punk came along to attack the trendy vicars of prog rock, the music had been criticised from its beginnings for its lack of ‘authenticity’ and its use of classical music themes and structures. Macan argues against this trendy sociologists approach to music. He points out that the same critics who said prog rock was ‘too complex, too grandiose, too ambitious’ also hated heavy metal because it was too dumb and stupid… and equally lacking in political consciousness.

So that if punk hadn’t existed, trendy sociologists would have had to invent it … which Ken Gelder [Subcultures Cultural histories and social practices, 2007, p 92-5] pretty much accuses Dick Hebdige of doing with his Subculture-the meaning of style in 1978. [OK Hebdige didn’t invent punk, but he re-constructed it for cultural studies text books.]

To finish up - here are a few quotes/ points from Macan’s book. 

for the bulk of its participants  the counterculture was ultimately  more about spiritual transformation than political revolution. Materialism  was seen as the root of  all evil, the source of greed, violence, and social inequality...Indeed, the hippies were convinced that  the material world was essentially unreal (an attitude that was strongly fostered by their drug use), and believed that attempts to change this exterior world were ultimately useless.(p.76)

Such beliefs in 'inner transformation or spiritual evolution rather than political activity' influenced progressive rock lyrics.

These beliefs also influenced the musical structures of progressive rock, which drew on classical music and  

the Anglican liturgical experience made a profound impression on future progressive rock musicians. (p.150)

Classical music and the music of the Church of England was part of the social background of prog rock musicians and their first audiences - who were drawn from the prosperous/ comfortable middle classes of south-east England.  The same background is likely to account for the lack of interest in the radical political aspects of the UK counterculture, which emerged (at the same time) out of the squats of west London- but no mention of this is made in the book so Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies [who were west London based]are not mentioned even in passing.

This idea of prog rock as emerging from a post-psychedelic English mysticism makes me think of John Michell's work- his books The Flying Saucer Vision, the Holy Grail Restored (1967), The View over Atlantis (1969) and the City of Revelation (1972) came out as prog rock was emerging - and were books I read while listening to the music. But again they are not mentioned by Macan.

In Albion Dreaming, Andy Roberts does discuss John Michell -and how his books provided the more mystical members of the UK counterculture with an alternative to taking the hippy trial to India - by locating powerful spiritual/ magical landscape in England itself, around Glastonbury and Stonehenge.

But rather than becoming part of the free festival circuit, the prog rock groups found a new audience in the USA. Macan suggests that this popularity came from the ability of progressive rock's English/ British 'nationalism' 

provided a a kind of surrogate ethnic identity for to its young white [American] audience at a time when (for the first time in American history) the question of what it means to be a white person in America was coming under scrutiny  (p155)

The huge popularity of Led Zeppelin's most prog rock song -Stairway to Heaven [eg no. 1 in a Detroit rock station poll of listener's favourite songs in 1978] is used to illustrate the point.

However by becoming stadium rock groups, the creativity of ELP, Gensis, Yes, Pink Floyd etc was slowly lost, so although their popularity peaked in the later  seventies, their most artistically satisfying and 'progressive' albums were recorded between 1970 and 1974. Macan notes that Robert Fripp pulled the plug on King Crimson in 1974. Later Fripp said

The band ceased to exist in September 1974 which is when all English bands in that genre should have ceased to exist. (p.206)