There’s the 1%, the 0.01%, with their Trump Towers and their blasphemy laws, their supersized yachts and private jets, their armies and spies. They own newspapers; they decide what gets taught in schools; they own the money we use but they kindly allow us to borrow it; they’ve invested rather a lot in fossil-fuels so we’ll be continuing to emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide for the foreseeable future. The Power Elite, the Ruling Class: entrenched in their vast and forbidding citadel, their fortress built on privilege and other people’s labour, their great castle protected by barbed-wire and helicopter gunships but with just one minor structural flaw, which is that the front-door is wide open.
Let’s come back to that in a minute, I want to talk about something else first. There’s a picture you might have seen, from an old Punk zine: there’s a diagram of a guitar-chord and next to it the words “Here’s a chord,” and under that another diagram, “Here’s another chord,” one more, “Here’s a third” and then: “Now start a band.” And it worked: with stuff like that and the energy of The Sex Pistols in particular, people started bands, people who couldn’t play instruments picked up instruments and played them anyway, that created a Movement which fit into this procession of countercultures, Punk was of course to an extent a reaction against the Hippies who were a blossoming of the Beats who in turn had their own roots, then after Punk you got the Rave scene which was partly a synthesis of the Punk and Hippie energies, and then after Rave…
Well: not so much. Obviously in the past couple of decades there have been all sorts of interesting, rebellious, progressive individuals and groups, there have been bubbles of counterculture, but we haven’t had any cohesive, unifying Movement, it’s been a long time since there was a real sense of an Underground threatening to turn the world upside-down. Why?
Hunter S. Thompson was asked that question, in the late ’90s someone asked him why weren’t the kids in America rebelling? There were personal, local acts of subversion but why wasn’t that adding up to a collective, focussed attitude of rebellion? And Hunter S. Thompson said, it’s because “the dark side of America is in control now.” So that’s a vision of counterculture as having been neutralised, bought and sold, co-opted, corrupted…
But maybe that isn’t actually the case. “Here’s a chord, here’s another, here’s a third,” so you grab a guitar and… make jingly-jangly noises, one of your mates goes bang-bang-bang on the drums, someone else can sing or shout or scream into a microphone, and for a while that is revolutionary, you’re not consuming culture you’re creating culture, you’re not idolising distant superstars you’re your own superstar, you’re challenging authority in your lyrics and your stance, you’re connecting with others who think the same, so you all get together, and you… make jingly-jangly noises. Subcultures have formed around the arts, mostly around music, and although music as music will always be powerful and relevant and important, maybe as a tool for provoking social and political change it has its limits. We can raise the consciousness of everyone whose consciousness can be raised, we can spread the message, but having done that, all artists can then do is find new ways to repeat the message to each other. So maybe, without quite realising it, we have just lived through the peak and subsequent decline of counterculture.
And at the same time we’ve witnessed what I think will be seen as the historic failure of the Left. In the first half of the 20th Century, Communism was a spectre haunting the world: societies shook, governments fell, there were Revolutions and the Revolutions were shit: Marx understood economics but he didn’t understand power, he didn’t understand that a dictatorship of the proletariat would function as a dictatorship full stop. And elsewhere, the Revolutions failed: America and France in particular, around 1968, were in a condition of, basically, civil-war; and one side won and the other side lost. It’s obvious really: Revolution is defining the State as an enemy and challenging it to a fight, but then as per duelling rules they get to choose the weapons… Post-1968, the Left has mostly degenerated into expressions of protest, and the authorities are fine with that, they’ll help organise marches against themselves, yeah go on a big demonstration and you feel like you’re doing something, you’re confronting power, you’re fighting power, you’re advancing your agenda but what you really are on a protest-march is, you’re some people saying some words in a street, that’s all. But go along and let off steam, shout at some buildings, maybe scuffle with the police then head home and sign another bloody petition and unwind with some songs that are really powerfully passionately slagging off those authorities who are ever more entrenched in their position. Thatcher said in the ’80s “There’s no such thing as society,” that’s where we’re at, we live in a society whose architects do not believe in society. “Greed is good”: the Yuppies won and a Yuppie victory – look around – it’s mean it’s dull it’s dispiriting it’s stagnant, and nothing has worked against them and things are getting worse.
So: what if we took democracy at its word?
Participatory democracy has been a progressive force at points throughout history, maybe that engine’s got some juice left in it. Whereas Revolutionary politics, okay so you overthrow the State, well done you, yeah yeah yeah, then there’s that Post-Revolutionary phase which tends to be a bit grim but you navigate your way through that and then, the day-to-day politics then, in this future world or this escapist fantasy utopia world, are pretty much identical to the day-to-day politics now. Down this street there are all these properties, the people in them expect that when they turn their taps water will come out, the water needs to be clean and to drain away into a sewage-system; they put their bin-bags out on the street, that rubbish has to be collected, that street might have issues with litter or potholes or accidents, what’s your strategy for preventing accidents, maybe you can put in traffic-lights or a zebra-crossing or even speed-cameras although even in a post-Capitalist society there’s still the question of the allocation of resources and if you put these things here you might not also be able to put them over there where they’ve got the same problems and also over there’s the hospital, there’s the schools, there’s… It’s so boring! and it goes on and on and on: most politics is dull, you get your moments, you get your scandals, your causes and clashes and controversies, mostly though politics is endless fucking boring meetings about fucking boring things which are fundamentally necessary to our civilisation.
Almost exactly a decade ago, I got this idea to try and create a new political-party, I’d started thinking there was something inherently progressive and energising in that, create a political-party, I really thought I was committed to taking it seriously, standing in elections, but almost straight away the weight of that tedium crushed me and I fucked off and did other stuff instead.
But, that is why the Right Wing wins, that’s why they’re winning: because the authoritarian mind has a higher tolerance for boredom than we do. Most people, given the choice between spending tonight studying a thousand-page document relating to where to put streetlights, and then debating the matter with other people who’ve read those thousand pages but have come to a different conclusion, or swallowing a pill and dancing all night in a fucking forest, getting stoned and fantasising about being a Jedi knight… Some people thrive on the boring stuff: and by involving themselves with the minor low-level politics they naturally get into positions where they end up dealing with the major politics, why shouldn’t they? Because conversely, if we don’t or we can’t or we won’t engage with this world as it is, as we find it, why should we then expect to deserve to ever get the chance to engage with the world as we would prefer it to be?
Just over a year ago I got invited to a meeting of the Green Party, I went along, I wasn’t massively interested, like I say I had this idea that political-parties are the McDonalds and Burger King of democracy, everyone should be their own political-party, and even though I had tried that and abjectly failed, still I figured somewhere up ahead it’s the way forwards. But I went to this Green Party meeting and to an extent it was the same old boredom, agenda and minutes and apologies for absence and treasurer’s report and blah blah blah… But anyway I liked the group and I didn’t disagree with any of their policies so I suffered through the boring bits, and I ended up standing as a candidate in the elections this May, just the council elections not the big Parliamentary ones. I live in Southend, it’s a large town but I can’t speak definitively about London or the major cities, I imagine though that Southend is a microcosm and there the smaller parties – which are still very large as cultural entities, everyone’s heard of the Green Party, everyone’s heard of UKIP, you may even have heard of the Liberal Democrats – they have a constant ongoing need for people to represent them. Southend is divided into seventeen wards, there’s a local election most years, so pretty much every year every party is looking for seventeen people to stand for them. The bigger parties have would-be career-politicians queuing up to join them but the smaller parties don’t, they’re desperate for people! Being a candidate in local elections doesn’t cost anything but you need to collect signatures from people who live in the ward and you need to fill in zillions of forms, one advantage of political-parties is that they have election-agents to help with that. And then… If you do stand it opens some very interesting doors, both for you as an individual looking for new challenges, new routes to explore; and as someone wanting to represent and advance a social/political agenda; and also from an artistic point of view.
For instance, the first thing I did as a candidate in my ward was I designed a leaflet, two sides of A4 to post through a few thousand letterboxes. On my front page I somewhat controversially attacked our local football-team’s threats to build a new stadium in an area that’s currently all fields, Southend’s already got a football-stadium but they want to build a new one, this new stadium would be built alongside a proposed “retail park,” we’ve got more than enough shops and vacant units and brown-field sites, what we don’t have is clean air, like London Southend’s air-pollution levels have reached illegally high levels but yeah, concrete over what fields we’ve got left, create an out-of-town shopping-complex that you can only get to by driving: genius! And what I’m planning to do in a future leaflet is, because the Green Party obviously opposes the bullshit “War On Drugs,” I’m intending to stick into people houses a leaflet that’ll have a picture of a cannabis-leaf on and some text relating to that. Personally I don’t think there’s anything going on in any music-scene or art-gallery that’s as potentially subversive as that: you might see or hear wild, shocking things in those places but you’re in an environment where the wild and the shocking is expected and encouraged and therefore banal; but treating people’s letterboxes, their doormats as your venue, that’s some whole other thing…
And of course you can go further. It’s something I haven’t done yet, I think you need to build up to it, but… It’d be crazy for any of us to just decide one day that we could or we would go and knock on some random door, and some complete stranger opens it and we’re like, “Hey let’s talk about politics!” – but you pin a fucking rosette to your lapel and you can do that! The person who opens the door, they might want you to sod right off, or they might be happy to see you cos they agree with everything you say, or they might be happy to see you cos they disagree with everything you say and they want you to know it! You have to construct for yourself a politician persona that’s able to improvise through whatever comes up, that is a performance. If we see ourselves as being any sort of artist we have to believe we are communicators and we have something worth communicating; there are dimensions to that we haven’t begun to explore.
Another thing, that I have been doing, I was quite cynical about it at first, I figured the sort of people who vote in local elections are the sort of people who read the local paper, so I started getting it and writing them endless letters to get my name out there, but I’ve gotten really into this. Obviously a daily newspaper has articles about all sorts of things, and the other letter-writers are talking about all sorts of topics, so you have to keep formulating your thoughts on all these different subjects and then try to express them in a very condensed, very pointed way. It’s satisfying as well because the local paper isn’t just read by the sort of people who vote in local elections but also by the people who stand in them, so if a councillor says or does something stupid and you come up with a particularly biting way of calling them out on that, it’s a good feeling seeing it printed on the page and knowing that – unlike if you’d dashed off a poem or a song – they’re reading it.
Another thing is, if in the lead-up to an election a group, a Residents’ Association or whatever, organises a public meeting of the candidates, you’re all invited. I had this back in April, I’d never done anything like it: there was a bunch of us sat at a table, the Labour candidate, the Independent, me, the UKIP and Tory guys, we had to give speeches and answer questions, there wasn’t a huge turnout but some residents of the ward showed up as did representatives from most of the political-parties, the politics editor from the local paper was there; it was intense.
But… The 1%, the Power Elite, the Ruling Class: we’re not going to be politely debating face-to-face with them anytime soon, we’re not going to be writing letters that they read. If they can crush armies, if they can infiltrate would-be armies to stop them forming in the first place, if they can get Johnny Rotten doing adverts, surely they’d be able to neutralise anything we could do within mere politics. Let me give you two brief examples of why I don’t think that’s necessarily wholly the case. In 1969 the age at which you could vote was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen: who were the first political-party to argue for that and put that in their manifesto? It was the Monster Raving Loony Party, they were calling themselves something different then but it was the same bunch. Obviously there wasn’t a direct causal link: the Monster Raving Loony Party says this therefore this happens, but there is such a thing as the zeitgeist: the Monster Raving lot used the political process to amplify their voice and that way they helped shape the 1969 Youth Culture zeitgeist which fed back into the political system and changed it. More recently, who ever actually wanted a referendum on Europe? Only UKIP; and what UKIP didn’t do was, they didn’t marginalise themselves, they didn’t locate the Establishment over there, as something they were disenfranchised from and oppressed by, they didn’t howl from the fringes with banners and placards about how much they wanted their referendum, no they got as close as they could to the Establishment, they got as close as they could to where power resides, to where decisions are made, and in doing that they got what they wanted.
Ultimately the future of British politics, one way or another, is us, it’s all of us: and I think one route from where we are now to a better future, a better politics, a better Britain is for us to try and invest in the political process some fraction of the energy we all currently give to watching fucking superhero movies and writing poems about what rebels and renegades we supposedly are. Because otherwise, if all the interesting people keep out of politics then politics can only get ever more even more boring. If the smart, passionate, arty people abandon the political mainstream then the mainstream will be crass, passionless and uninspired.