Sony is toasting a chart double whammy this weekend. The X Factor's Joe McElderry (protege of entertainment's Prince of Darkness, Simon Cowell) managed the number two spot in the UK top 40, while Rage Against the Machine hit number one with their anti-corporate anthem, Killing in the Name. One strange feature of the internet and media circus surrounding the contest was communists and anarchists acting as unpaid marketing folk for one of the world's largest record companies. What a lovely irony.
But I'm not interested in being sniffy about the result. Afterall, it's just a bit of festive fun and it raised £60 grand for Shelter. Plus RATM are a great band (I have many happy memories associated with their eponymous debut). But does the victory of RATM in the battle for singles' chart dominance signify anything deeper? Is it the cultural signal of the revolutionary noise to come? Of course not. RATM's Tom Morello is probably right when he says the campaign "tapped into the silent majority of the people in the UK who are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another".
Some certainly didn't see it that way. I've seen more than one tweet that portrayed this as a battle in the cultural wars against global capital. As capitalism is an anarchic system of production and cannot meet all its ideological needs no more than it can provide everyone a decent standard of living, it occasionally finds its short term goals of turning a buck conflicting with its systemic preferences for bourgeois ideologies. Over the course of their career, Sony have made a mint out of RATM while simultaneously the latter have added to anti-corporate and counter-cultural trends in popular culture. That is the contradictory nature of the beast - and why "revolutionary" critiques of society that credit the media with all-encompassing brainwashing powers are so far off the mark.
Nevertheless, while this is no Gramscian victory over corporate cultural dominance and has zero bearing on the coming of the New Society, the campaign behind RATM is interesting in its own right. If only because, once again, it demonstrates the power - if it can be called that - of the emergent internet radicalism. We have seen before with the Jan Moir debacle, Twitter vs Trafigura/Carter-Ruck, the storm around Daniel Hannan and the NHS, and the craze for turning your Twitter avatars green in solidarity with Iranian protesters how particular memes can seize hold of the internet-going public's imagination. With very little time and cost, people are able to register their protest/opposition without the rigmarole of standing in the rain, listening to boring speeches, and beating off the desperate efforts of Trot paper sellers. And what is more, in so doing everyone else can see them "making a stand" too.
What these issues have in common is that for those who participate in this form of internet radicalism, their proximity to the media means the actions they are protesting against appear more immediate and "relevant". This is why the Twitterati were outraged by Jan Moir's attack on Stephen Gately, but not so moved when Ian Baynham was beaten to death in a homophobic hate crime. It's not because people don't give a shit - it's that media-saturated societies collapse social distance in online cyberspaces and via TV, managing in some cases to create an illusion of involvement - of having a stake in a programme, celebrity or media event. It's one reason why young folk are more likely to vote in Big Brother and X Factor phone-ins than in local elections, for example.
Seeing as politics and culture in this country are very heavily mediated (with political parties, companies and celebrities utterly obsessed with media management) this kind of radicalism of the spectacle can have a limited impact in the real world. But it is not and can never be a substitute for the real graft of political struggle.