For the past few months I have been slowly wending my way through Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (Picador, 2017), Daniel Rachel’s oral history of the Red Wedge, Rock Against Racisim (RAR), and 2 Tone youth music and cultural movements that arose to oppose Thatcherism, nationalism, racism, and fascism in the UK of the 1970s and ’80s. Blame moves and other unpleasantries for the extra time taken to read such an engaging book. What is so wonderful and important about this book chronicling the social movement that galvanized, in part, after a racist speech Eric Clapton delivered, is that it succeeds in establishing the political power and the importance of cultural movements undertaken by ordinary, ethically motivated individuals off the street, and it also in clarifies the possibility and real efficacy such grassroots cultural movements can bring to bear on the constant struggle against fascism, nationalism, and alienation advanced by late neoliberal capitalism.
The book follows the format famously employed by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in their oral history of New York-centric Punk, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove/Atlantic 1996/2016). In Rachel’s book, interviews with a pantheon of scene personages, demiurges, and provocateurs of the British Punk and social progressive scenes are edited together thematically and chronologically to tell a cohesive story, wherein a Socialist Workers Party operative’s narrative thread will be woven into the tale spun by musicians from bands like Steel Pulse or Stiff Little Fingers, then patched back into into firsthand testimony from Rock Against Racism event organizers and spearheads. In McNeil and McCain’s book, however, the political background of and impetus
for the American musical and cultural history that was being made by the American punk-rockers whose scene Please Kill Me chronicles only seldom manages to emerge, and then only incidentally. An example of this is Dennis Thompson’s short description of the MC5’s experience fleeing the police violence at the concert held at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:
“When I saw all those cops, the only thing I could think was, Jesus Christ, if this is the revolution, we lost…Chicago was supposed to be a show of solidarity, goddamn it. This is the alternative culture? Come on. Where were the other bands? No one showed up but us. That’s what pissed me off. I knew the revolution was over at that moment—I looked over my shoulder, and no one else was there. We were the ones who were gonna get hanged. I said, “This is it. There ain’t no revolution. It doesn’t exist. It’s bullshit. The movement is dead”1
And perhaps the reason that even this minor irruption of the actually political made it onto the pages of McNeil and McCain’s book is that it carried such a nihilist, even cynical tone; As filmmaker Adam Curtis points out in his film Hypernormalisation, a documentary history of our amnesiac era of neoliberalism, the portion of the American Punk scene featured in Please Kill Me is the same arts scene he critiques for embracing a radical, apolitical individualism that includes artists and hipsters such as Patti Smith admiring the decay of society as though from afar.
In contrast, despite the fact that Rachel may have availed himself of the same device for organizing and presenting the story of punk in the UK as did McNeil and McCain in their book about punk in the U.S., Rachel’s is an overtly political, socially and politically engaged, and hopeful undertaking. The weight of the verisimilitude imparted by the documentary collage style of the book isn’t used merely to give the reader a titillating thrill at being on hand as spectator to the anarchic excesses of rock ‘n roll lifestyles, but instead to clearly make the point that there was another time and place where the right wing, fueled and encouraged by the policies of neoliberalism, made a public push to normalize xenophobia, homophobia, racism, reactionary violence, and institutionally imposed inequality, and this wave was pushed back by the persevering application of simple, if staunch, humanity. It is a book that shows that the destabilization of society on the cultural and institutional levels such as we are witnessing in the United States today has happened before in Western societies within very recent living memory, and that there is the real possibility that such debasement of the public sphere can be definitively repulsed through cultural engagement. As visionary songwriter and firebrand Billy Bragg, speaking about his experience of the Anti-Nazi League/RAR-organized Victoria Park Carnival concert of April 30, 1978, puts it:
We were standing under a banner that said ‘Gays Against the Nazis’ and when Tom sang Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay, all these blokes around us started kissing each other on the lips. I’d never seen an out gay man before. My immediate thought was, ‘What are they doing here? This is about black people.’ And literally in the course of that afternoon I came to realize that actually the fascists were against anybody who was in any way different and just liking black music and being a punk rocker was sufficiently different for the National Front to be the enemy. I realized this was how my generation were going to define themselves, in opposition to discrimination of all kinds. This was our Vietnam; our Ban the Bomb. It had a very powerful effect on me.2
Neoliberalism in practice is profoundly stupid. It cannot abide nuance or difference. In the neoliberal vision, society is supplanted by a brutally simplified field of self-interested competitors, all bent on maximizing their own returns. A liberal society is a technology based on the awareness and minimization of the possibility of individuals’ suffering, which is the basis of rights. Therefore, liberal societies manifest a regulatory government whose primary mission is to limit the harm that self-interested competitors and their market logic can do to real people who, unlike simple competitors, are defined by unquantifiable factors such as desires, friends, family, and the social context these provide. Neoliberalism turns the tables. Under neoliberalism, it is instead the market that regulates the newly limited realms within which government is allowed to function. Naturally, or rather unnaturally, the protective, conservationist functions of the state that formerly ensured the well-being of individuals, such as education, health care, or environmental protection, are whittled away. The market, taking all social authority unto itself, leaves open to the government only the peripheral functions separating people who are favored and those who are not— the policing, military, and penal functions. What is left of the government is all borders and punishment and the free labor that generates, with stakeholder profit on the back end. The individual with all its rights becomes an inadmissible category in public discourse,3 and the gambling competitor, the player, slave-like,4 who is without identity because the neoliberal subject is absolutely anyone whoever playing a zero-sum game, is the only assumed denizen of the razed public sphere. Here the state no longer curries the favor of the governed with the classical contract to protect its citizens in exchange for legitimizing its reign, and it instead cooperates to widen social divisions. And here is where neoliberalism is actually, lacking any better word, stupid. In bypassing appeal to any type of intelligence or sensible argument, its aim is to mechanically force individuals by circumstance to become competitors through lack, fear, and suspicion. It engineers the famine that makes markets real. In a positive feedback reaction loop, the further right vested forces push discourse and policy, the further right the ever more alienated and bereft populace tends to believe it must move to survive. Mere survival forces the transformation of individuals into competitors.
Taken in this context, Daniel Rachel’s book is so very important because it does not depict a youth cultural scene obsessed with aesthetics or fashion or music alone; it does not depict the actions of political idealists, ideologues, or candidates succeeding on their merit or purity alone; it does not reduce the period and its struggles to the circumstances’ applicability to the identity just one or another alienated and disenfranchised group affected by Thatcherite, corporatist, or right-wing policies alone. It depicts a moment in living memory when several groups of concerned human beings eschewed the reduction of their own politics to aesthetic competition amongst themselves, and instead worked together in the common cause of humanity to reject the right-wing attempt to dismantle culture. They did this with the gravitas and common cause of an anti-reductionist ethical social context behind them. They did this by clearly articulating their unifying principles at all of their events, by organizing politically, by fielding candidates, by demonstrating, and by organizing to protect one another when the very real physical threats from the right were imminent. The fascist, neoliberal right, after all, adheres to the letter of market stupidity, and admits no nuance. In such a reductionist view of society, wherein there is only one acceptable interpretation of reality, everything is flattened and made aesthetic, competitive, and material. To zealots of reductionist competition whose worldview is limited to the existence of ruthlessly self-interested actors alone, all perceived threats, whether conceptual, rhetorical, or physical, are categorically identical. There is no room for empathy or understanding when, like those on the right, you stand on sides. However you relate, haters are only gonna hate.
Although Walls Come Tumbling Down is, in part, about the fun of music and rock stars and youth joyfully coming together, at this frightening moment in U.S. history, saturated with police violence, an atmosphere of militarism that spawns a gun and policing culture that is out of control, and emboldened fascist elements, this book gives readers more than a playful romp through a bygone hipster scene of detached and politically demobilized cool. This is not a portrait of outsiders in competition for the crown of alterity. The thorough picture of the political climate it instead provides does even more than provide mere hope for our troubled times. It provides a blueprint on which, once again, a solidarity can be built to push back on the awful state of American politics and society today. It must be done, and, importantly, it can be done. After all, as Daniel Rachel has so rousingly and meticulously illustrated in Walls Come Tumbling Down, it has been done before.
- Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, pp. 44-5.
- Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, and Red Wedge by Daniel Rachel, pp. 145-46.
- As an aside, this is where the well-meaning but passive gesture of displaying yard-signs, coffee mugs, T-shirts, etc. with this slogan insisting on the existence of the category of the individual is ineffective. In the neoliberal mind, the individual already does not exist, but competition and the circulation of empty symbolism does. Aesthetic displays without mobilization do nothing to change the field that neoliberalism dictates.
- For more in-depth discussion on the role of anonymity and the decontextualization of individual identity in sustaining slavery, read David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years