Saturday 10 August 2019

Cancelling Cancelled Culture

The future is indefinitely delayed and may never arrive. I haven't written much/at all about Mark Fisher's work for no particular reason, but I've often thought along the same lines as Magdalen Rose, that postwar popular culture had certain themes lending itself to easy periodisation, but you can't say the same for the 00s and this decade (we can't even reach a consensus about what we should call it). For example, when you think about the 1980s the popular imagination is littered with hair spray, neon, electropop and stadium rock, arcade and video games, and catalogues stuffed with an overabundance of gender normative toys. All of it the glitzy and kitsch accompaniment to a grimy decade of intense class conflict and right wing revanchism. It might be too early to talk about the 2010s, but the 2000s lie 10 years in the past and we lack a retrospective consensus about its highlights and themes (reality TV? The PlayStation 2?). It's all uncertain and a bit baffling. Instead, the two decades bleed together in a continuum of incremental change, a sort of an eternal present.

As far as Mark was concerned, the idea that the future could be different and would be different has been suspended. Despite the coming of the internet and the proliferation of social media, the gloomy prognosis is, effectively and culturally speaking, we're living the long 90s. The USSR fell, markets are everywhere and, to pinch Fredric Jameson's much quoted line , it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The permanent present is postmodernism on steroids. Everything has become utterly fragmented, our ontologies are centred on the individual, consequently meaning there is no point everyone can cohere around. Decentering and contradictory cultural flows are the moment. No wonder even Twitter tribes are identity anchors for some. Therefore in retrospect, the postmodernism debates of the 80s and 90s only identified the trends and tendencies that have come to fruition since the turn of the century. And so with the splintering of culture, so the broad characterisations that were possible in prior decades no longer pertain. The cultural conformism Adorno and Marcuse worried about has become something more insidious: the generalisation of individuated choice within a limited, market-driven purview.

Two very brief points. One confirming and inviting further investigation of the genesis and sustenance of capitalist realism and its culture without a horizon, and a critical, more hopeful note against overstating it.

One of the consequences of Thatcher's dismantling of the post-war settlement was the virtual liquidation of the industrial working class and the break up of its communities. Capital was relieved of its responsibilities to provide decent standards of living and acquired a footloose mobility that pulled manufacturing plant out of the UK and exported jobs to the low waged economies of the East, and got stuck into speculating for short-term profits. The production of socially useful use values did not offer the same rewards. The superficial dynamism of capital found its dizzying corollary in the hyper stylised cultural churn of the 80s: neoliberal yuppie culture with its wine bars and shoulder pads, the rise of the geeks and the nerds, the cultivation of the irreverent spirit, the mainstreaming of queer cultures and diasporic influences, these all grabbed (analytical) attention, but this movement masked the solidification of something else. While class was in ferment and undergoing the process of recomposition, in another sense it was grinding to a halt. Just as Thatcher's housing revolution bequeathed a crisis two decades after she left office, remodelling the social in capital's image and working to inculcate bourgeois habits meant class seized up too. Officially concerned politicians have made careers presiding over social mobility commissions and banging on about aspiration, almost as if the reason why the professions are dominated by the literal children of professionals is because working class people aren't ambitious enough.

The rest is for another time, but when it comes to cultural production the same applies. While the internet has afforded new outlets for music, entertainment and the ghastly "influencers", this goes hand in hand with celebrity culture and the gate-keeping roles still played by the big ents companies. And what do we see here? The former has also seized up, with either the offspring of the famous becoming famous or, increasingly, younger actors, singers, and screen writers getting disproportionately drawn from privileged, affluent, and bourgeois layers. This is partly thanks to the decimation of arts education in schools, but also the punitive work policies overseen by successive governments. As Tony Blair courted the cream of Britpop and desperately sought inclusion in the Cool Britannia moment, his workfare approach to social security meant budding working class talent were forced into jobs at the expense of perfecting their craft. In an ancient NME interview, Richard Ashcroft said in his experience the dole worked as a sort of arts subsidy and gave The Verve space to do their thing. New Labour in its pledge to eradicate youth unemployment ensured this avenue of social mobility was shut down. And the consequence? Fewer people from working class backgrounds are entering the halls of cultural production, which are becoming increasingly hallowed, and so the children of the well remunerated are filling it instead. The consequence is a certain narrowness in mainstream cultural production. If the privileged are telling the stories, certain tales will never get told. The future is cancelled because they, as beneficiaries of the system, cannot see beyond the eternal present.

What went before was no golden age as it came with its own sexual and racialised exclusions. Nevertheless, the post-war period and rising affluence did see real social mobility (often wrongly attributed to grammar schools), but no more. The upper echelons of all walks of life are increasingly restricted to those who start from positions of economic and social advantage, and this is as true of key figures on the left as anywhere else.

A reason to be gloomy then? No. I do wonder what Mark would have made of Corbynism's success at the last general election and the optimism it stoked up on the left. Because it is easy to overstate cancelled culture and negated futures. As I write, the left wing Labour Party is a mass organisation that reaches into every community and every social circle in the land. It is truly a beast which, when mobilised, is a factor in electoral politics in and of itself. And it has transformed consciousness. For the first time since the 1980s socialism is mainstream and even communism is abroad. A new generation of leftist thinkers and writers have broken through and built large followings, the sorts of strategic debates about class and identity politics that exercised many a dusty academic tome in the 1990s command mass participation, and there is an upwelling of working class youth movements. The inner city origins of dubstep, grime, trap and deep house predate Corbynism and, arguably, helped lay some of the groundwork for it. These are as much moments of cultural production from below as punk, the Chicago/Detroit house scene, and acid house were. This does not prevent its co-option and repackaging by big capital (after all, Wiley has a MBE), but it demonstrates the continued vitality of the subaltern and the impossibility of its horizons getting swamped and subsumed by the mainstream in all aspects. The experience of becoming the classed other to cancelled culture always carries the promise of its negating the negated future of capitalist realism to itself, and exploding its reach as the infrastructure of a generalised counter-hegemony and alternative to official cultural production.

The cancellation of cancelled culture? We could be heading that way. The increased reliance of capital on immaterial labour, the movement away from "classical" surplus extraction to new vectors of capitalist exploitation, and all in the context of the attention economy introduces a new dynamic of tendency in class relations. The growing dependence of capital on labour's cognitive and social capacities as opposed to the physicality of bodies, the fact the increasingly dominant force of production - the mass employment of human brains - is hired and not owned by capital, the skills and knowledge labour acquires in the immaterial "production" process exceeds work and effectively becomes part of the common social store, able to be deployed elsewhere for payment or enjoyment; and the intangibility and, often, infinite reproducibility of commodities makes warehousing - the control of supply - exceptionally difficult. Capital has to and is developing new forms of capture to hold all this down and sustain the class relations underpinning it: the production of neoliberal subjectivity, the dissemination of capitalist realism, the stripping back of workers' rights and inducing greater precarity into labour markets, are all effects and responses to the tendency to capitalist self-cancellation. Yet all this does is increase the bind - constricting cognitive labour has the knock on of reducing the capacities of the immaterial labour on which it depends, which knocks on to surplus extraction and profits, while letting it be increases the potentials of it becoming something other than a vector of capitalist exploitation.

Politically our job is to critique and contest the encroachments of capital and its logics, increase the possibilities of cultural production against the market and bourgeois culture, and organise to mobilise for our party, our institutions, and our ways of being and becoming. The cancellation of cancelled culture, of reclaiming, rethinking, and restating the possibility of a better future is entirely doable. After all, they need us. We do not need them.


Sam said...

Love this post Phil, I think it's beautifully written.
I have a problem with your analysis of the new immaterial-labour class settlement however: when you discuss this new and structurally libertarian socialism potentiality being constructed you never seem to analyse it in (except here! Where you touch on the dismantlement and export of industrial jobs to the South) the context of imperialism, in creating and sustaining this new educated liberal immaterial economy.
We've not been freed from the need for manual labour and industrial manufacturing by some fantastic new automative technologies combined with renewable materials which have freed us from drudge work, the drudge work has just continued to be be moved on to the backs of 6 billion Southerners. That's what's allowing the west (and the UK in particular) to be employed as personal trainers, accountants, and brand managers.

How is this liberal state of affairs to be maintained if socialism comes to be in the West and imperialism ended? How is an immaterial socialism come before its technological basis, built instead on global exploitation, any better than the liberalism of the Victorian gentry?

DFTM said...

Marx once said nothing human is alien to me, but then he never lived to see Jedward.

But is it me or do Jedward see normal these days! Twitter influencers indeed!

I am almost minded to think we left bourgeois 'culture' behind from the 60's, and I think we live in some sort of proletarian culture, deformed by the fact that we still live in a bourgeois value system.

I think capitalism is a fetter for many reasons, the culture being one of them.

Dialectician1 said...

Thanks Phil, another interesting article on the mutating relationship between cultural formations and capitalism. I understand the background to Mark Fisher's work and his focus on (as you describe it) the 'permanence of postmodernism on steroids.'

However, I take issue with you on social mobility and the demise of working class in defining cultural change: “Fewer people from working class backgrounds are entering the halls of cultural production, which are becoming increasingly hallowed, and so the children of the well remunerated are filling it instead.”

The post-war period and rising affluence did NOT see a rise real social mobility. This is a myth perpetuated by both commentators on the right and the liberal left. Social mobility in the post-war years stayed relatively the same as the pre-war years. What changed was the economy. With post-industrialisation, there were simply more (immaterial?) middle class type jobs and people from adjacent classes filled them. There is no evidence of absolute mobility. Those in the higher classes continued to dominate both financially and culturally.

I think you (we) over-egg the cultural pudding about the influence of working class on mainstream culture: the authentic voice from the council estates. There is a nostalgia industry out there perpetuating the myth of the 60s as a time when plucky working class kids escaped their class by playing guitars, taking photographs, writing plays etc. thereby creating a counter cultural space for the transformation of society. They didn't. As now, the working class were pariahs, a persistent problem that needed disciplining.

There is an interesting anthropology in the persistent ‘fable of social mobility’. The abundant stories of the ‘local boy does well’ are regurgitated endlessly but these stories do not equate to the statistical reality. For some reason, we appear to need these stories to be told and re-told, otherwise we would all lose faith. Look what happened to Mark Fisher!

Anonymous said...

There was study done in the 1990's that placed the USA and Britain at the very bottom of the social mobility league tables, and the more social democratic nations such as Sweden, Finland were at the top.

The cornerstone of Thatcherite and Reaganite ideology was built on a pile of horseshit, if the study is to be believed.

Phil said...

You're probably right, Dialectician. The expansion of the state certainly allowed more people to move up. But what I was thinking of primarily in this instance were what we now today fetishise as "creatives" - there have always been middle class and posh pop stars, for instance, but there appears to be more of them now proportionally than was the case. This, it has to be said is an impression and would require more investigating.

And yes Sam, you're right. Immaterial labour has been facilitated by the export of jobs and cheap labour elsewhere. And, interestingly, this isn't the first time this happened. After the 1830s and up until the 1930s Britain's industrial development effectively stalled as better profits could be accrued from rent seeking (in Ireland) and colonial adventures overseas. What happened to the working class? Famously, when Marx was writing Capital there were more domestic workers than there were industrial workers. clearly we have to think about the immaterial labour of the past and how it fit into class rule strategies as a means of supporting our thinking about it in the present.