Friday, March 6, 2020

Wood for the Trees: The Art of Cynicism (2020)

The Wood for the Trees Column from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Those who might be unaware of it can be confidently assured that we live in a ‘Golden Age of Rock Music’. The music of bands like: Disturbed, Ghost, Godsmack, Rammstein, Epica, Kamelot, Nightwish and Band-Maid represent my evidence for this. The last two bands have released new singles that have rekindled the old debate between the cynical and the hopeful. Some see Nightwish’s Noise and Band-Maid’s The Dragon Cries as merely profiting on the environmentalist zeitgeist whereas others hope that these tunes represent the political integrity of the respective bands and will help create political change. Obviously these videos and the music that they promote are extremely costly and can only be made within the capitalist context because they represent a commodity that will, for the investors, sell at a profit. However this fact, beloved of the cynics who choose to believe that nothing will ever change, does not exclude the possibility that the nature of that commodity might itself become subversive of the system which helped create it. Change, for good or ill, is inevitable and we can ask what role music and the arts play within our culture’s restless history.

Nightwish have a long track record of using their music to communicate a political perspective. It is only recently that this Finnish band, courtesy of the internet, has started reaching a global mass audience. They have become commercially powerful enough to only create the music that they want to make rather than bow to the commercial pressures incarnated by studio execs, producers and owners of record companies. The Japanese Band-Maid, although very popular with the rock cognoscenti online have not reached a similar stage of commercial ‘independence’. Their single The Dragon Cries is their first overtly political song but because it was produced in the USA and is sung in English some suspect it of cynically exploiting the environmental and political concerns of its intended youthful listeners. What is beyond dispute is the quality of musicianship that produces the aesthetic catharsis so essential to great rock music (or any art form). Another possible avenue for a cynical critique is the appearance of the band. They wear doll-like house maid uniforms which emphasize the extreme feminine quality of many young Japanese women. Again whether this is purely a commercial decision to attract male audiences or whether it represents an intriguing antithesis to the macho posing and costumes of the traditional purveyors of heavy rock music is debatable. If we like a band we feel the need to defend it against criticism, whether justifiable or not, but is it necessary or important to do so?

Art, as with all concepts, is full of dialectical contradictions; it can serve the powerful or it can subvert their power. It can also, if it’s any good, contradict the intentions of the artist through the interpretation of its audience. Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen became, famously, an anthem for patriots despite the composer’s opposite intentions. In his effort to communicate with a global audience Bob Marley, according to some, sold his soul to Island Records. Art seems quickly to become independent once it leaves its creators hands. We use the word zeitgeist to emphasise this phenomenon in an attempt to understand why some art becomes iconic whilst other art, despite being of equal aesthetic quality, drifts into historical obscurity. Of course without the artist, recording technology, capital investment, the internet etc. we wouldn’t have any art to discuss but although the motivation, inspiration and integrity of those concerned in its creation is intriguing it is not the most decisive factor in the political and historical fate of any work of art.

In America the music of Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, The Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival all fed the anti-Vietnam War zeitgeist that helped to end the conflict. The music of James Brown, Gil Scott Heron, War, the Temptations and Harold Melvin all strengthened the Civil Rights movement in the US. Not that this represented the cause of any political improvement but it would be foolish to deny that it helped create a cultural background for change. Perhaps the reason that we see such a flourishing of rock music is because of another surge of political discontent? Another irony is that many of these bands no longer come from rock’s birthplace (the USA) and oppose its economic and cultural imperialism. The German band Rammstein have said that they will never use English in their lyrics for this reason. Ironically seventy years on from the end of the Second World War we see a young band from Germany’s old axis ally Japan having to make the decision of whether to confront (like Rammstein) the contemporary icon of capitalism and its destructive values or try to subvert it – that is if they do indeed possess the political integrity one might wish them to have. It has always been challenging to believe that those with extraordinary talent might have no moral integrity or political good will and would sell themselves to the highest bidder but, to misquote the lyrics of another great rock band, ‘we’ve all been fooled before’.

Russia: Revolution and after. (1905)

Editorial from the February 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

The entry of Russia into the stage of machine production and international commercial inter-communication made it essential that there should be a limitation of the aristocracy which had hitherto dominated that empire. To engage in competition for foreign and neutral markets with other commercial countries rendered it necessary that the press should be removed from the censorship of the ruling class, so that the widest publicity should be given to matters concerning commerce; that education should become more general, so that the worker might become a more efficient machine minder; that freedom of contract should be exhibited in all trade relations between merchants and manufacturers, so as to secure equality of competition.

With an autocracy interfering in all matters, private or public, these freedoms desired by the middle-class could not be secured, so that it was but a question of time how soon the growing middle-class would seek to secure political power for itself. This could only be obtained by the establishment of a constitutional government, either of the republican or of the monarchical form.

Against this desire the autocracy exercised all its powers. The knout, the mines, Siberia – these were some of the powers they used, and used mercilessly. As a result the agitation of the middle-class was driven below the surface. Secret societies, Nihilists societies were but the expression of the objects of the middle-class. True! they sometimes had the support of working men, but it was nevertheless a middle-class movement. The members were mainly from the commercial class, the professions, the students at the universities. These formed the centre of the movement. Any support they received from the landed aristocracy, or from the uneducated working masses, was of minor import.

At the same time that this movement was going on, taxation in Russia was excessive. The autocracy, knowing that its only hope for the maintenance of its stability was imperial aggrandisement, carried on wars against the weak and incoherent races of Asia, built railways at immense cost for the furtherance of those warlike designs. The ruling class, financially corrupt, and financially bankrupt, carrying on their schemes with borrowed money, found it necessary to levy heavy taxes to pay such portion of the interest of such borrowed money as was not itself paid with the borrowed money.

The result was great distress among many of the trading sections of the community, and among many of the members of the agricultural communes. The Mir, instead of being a commune carried on for the benefit of its members, was maintained as a machine for facilitating the collecting of taxes.

The distress was greatly augmented by the war with Japan, and recently hardly a week has passed without hearing of men mutilating themselves to prevent their being taken as soldiers, of wholesale emigration from Russia, of murders of governors of towns and provinces.

The working-class, too, – that class which has to carry on the battles of its masters – began to manifest signs of unrest. Strike has followed strike in all parts of Russia. The desires expressed have been for economic and political reform on the part of the workers, for political reform on the part of the middle-class.

In order to gain those desires a large number of the discontented wished to make a peaceful demonstration before the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. These were no revolutionists! They did not belong to Socialist Societies, nor did they believe in Socialist principles! They were but unlettered working men with middle-class leaders, who believed that the Czar – the father of his people – had but to learn of their wrongs to redress them.

Poor misguided workers! Foolish you, to believe that you could gain redress except from among yourselves. A ruling class whose interests are opposed unto yours will do nothing for YOU. You must emancipate yourselves.

This lesson taught the workers in many countries, had yet to be learnt by the Russian working-class. They had not sufficiently learnt that in other countries the military was a weapon used to quell strikes. Men and women shot down in Milan and Turin during the grain riots, when Leiter tried to corner the world’s supply of wheat; men struck down in the recent general strike in Italy; innocent men shot down in Featherstone; gunboats sent to Hull during the dock strike, and to Grimsby, and soldiers to Penrhyn during the strike there; martial law declared in Colorado; men tortured to death in the Monjuich Prison at Barcelona; Pinkertons used to shoot down the strikers at the steel works of Carnegie at Homestead; strikers bludgeoned in the streets of Rosario. Everywhere the same civilised methods have been used, and will be used, when the workers strive to endanger the stability of commercial society by securing a greater quantity of the products of their own labour for their own consumption.

Now this lesson is being taught in autocratic Russia, as it has been taught in Monarchical England and Republican France. Hundreds of men, women and children have been butchered in the streets of St. Petersburg. In other centres, too, a like answer has been given to the demands of the workers. The class struggle manifests itself clearly, and what will be the result in Russia? We fear that the result will be but the victory of the middle-class. The Constitutionalists in Russia in 1905 will, like the Liberals in England in 1831, and the French middle-class in 1789, 1830, and 1848, use the working-class for their own ends, and then throw them over. The Russian worker is, we fear, too illiterate to understand clearly his own class interest, and will, therefore, need years of education before he takes his place with the vanguard of the international working-class revolution.

We think the result will be the disruption of the Russian empire into middle-class republics. Although to-day the revolutionaries in Finland will join with those in Poland, or Lithuania, and in the other Russian provinces in the same way as middle-class and working-class will combine in opposition to the ruling class, yet no sooner will they have achieved their victory, and desire to carry on the constructive work of government then all the disharmony of jarring interests will be manifested. Then, too, one section of the vast empire will be found more advanced than another, and agreement will be obtained only by separation.

Be this as it may, it is for the Russian Socialist, as for the Socialist everywhere, to recognise that it is for him to carry on his propaganda. He must use every phase of the movement for the furtherance of his ideal, always remembering that neither the rule of the Zemstovs, nor of any other middle-class government, will mean emancipation for him from his economic bondage. His hope must be in propagating his principles, in making capital out of every mistake of his enemies, in organising the workers to seize hold of the reigns of government, in teaching them how best to use that government when they have it in their possession.

Whether this should be now, or should be later, they should clearly recognise that the best wishes of the international Socialist movement is with them, for the victory of the Socialist movement in Russia will be a victory for it everywhere, and would lend fresh hopes, and give fresh incentive to their comrades throughout the world. The interests of the workers of all countries are the same – the establishment of the Socialist Republic.

Physical Deterioration and Education. (1905)

From the February 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is frequently asserted by patrons of monopoly that the educating of the masses has been a dismal failure. The snob-employer says it resentfully when dismissing some audacious demand for wage increase, the patrician superciliously when some hireling makes him aware of the rights of men. The cleric contemplating his empty conventicle likewise laments the disastrous results of education. Each and all ascribe the lamentable condition of revolt to the dangerousness of a little learning. Viewed with capitalist eyes, if Education evokes class-consciousness it is indeed anathema, but to the Socialist the murmur of the master is a message of hope.

Is, or is not, compulsory education a waste of public funds?

Under existing conditions a vast amount of expenditure receives no ultimate return whatever. Statistics of five years back proved that 75% of the lowest class who had passed through all the standards of school had great difficulty to write legibly and read unstumblingly when the age of thirty was attained. Only this last week in discussion with an enthusiast on education who has much practical experience in slum schools and is quite anti-socialistic, the following valuable admission was made: "Nothing can be done to obtain happier results unless the surroundings of the pupils are materially altered."

This current year in one of the poorer schools an inspector contrasted the work done by children of eleven with the studies easily understood by his young daughter of nine. The elder— offspring of the picker-up of a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence—lagged far behind the junior whose childhood was unharassed by trade fluctuations. If it be true that "Where Care lodges, Sleep will not lie" verily it is daily proven that study and worry have no dealings one with another. How is it conceivable that the horrors of the home can be superseded by the joys of knowledge ? For instance, our little ones come to morning session mainly breakfast-less, certainly lacking a nourishing meal after a night of unrefreshing repose: children and adults alike occupy one bed in the vitiated atmosphere of the one room constituting their "home" situated in some airless slum—Short's Gardens, Lamb's Conduit Passage, Betterton Street, alleys in the New Cut and Canning Town. One child in the Third Standard three weeks ago awoke to find her mother dead by her side. Such shocks as these are not conducive to alertness of apprehension or retention of facts.

Again, compare the average age of scholars in higher grade and very poor schools. It is two years behind in the latter case; and then, too, the middle-class school displays no such divisions as are found in the less favoured one. Here the pupils are classified thus—An intelligent majority, who, by dint of incessant drudgery will be capable of passing up one standard every twelve months, then the obviously dull, who will be tutored in same class two or more years,— sometimes when the age-limit of fourteen is reached the child is still in the Second Standard, —thirdly, those most pathetic specimens, pupils passed on from our defective centres. Very few people have any idea of the vast expense of these little citizens to the nation !

Although the Code of Instruction is supposed to be compiled for all schools under Government there is a significant clause in it to the effect that all regulations shall be enforced "as far as circumstances will permit." After arduous attempts to adopt the full curriculum the exemption has over and over again had to be claimed, owing to the total inability of the learners to grasp more than the merest rudiments. Inspectors will discourage the ambitions of a freshly installed head-teacher who places before them for their approval a most comprehensive syllabus. One who has just retired after many years service said that it was a sheer impossibility and absurdity to seek to compel such stunted capacities to comprehend anything which required concentration of thought.

Various illustrations can be cited of teachers who have believed not these reports, but, with a faith in their own powers beautiful to behold, have made a brave fight to establish more advanced subjects,—several of such disillusioned ones are personally known to the penner,—who after strenuous struggles have abandoned the position : beating the air is a singularly disheartening process. Even in lessons such as Drill when acumen is not demanded the body-conquering is noticeable. In every class there are children too weak to take muscular exercise, and many of the others are utterly wearied by half-an-hour's training.

In conclusion, we admit the failure but do not attribute it to the causes so frequently assigned, but to the dwarfing due to semi-starvation. Reforming the methods employed, altering the requirements, or any reform whatever will be futile : the sound, healthy body and teachable mind cannot be the lot of the youth of the nation under Capitalsm.
Kate Hawkins