The future will only contain what we put into it now

Fredric Jameson described one of the impasses of postmodern culture as the inability ‘to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.’ The past keeps coming back because the present cannot be remembered.

Mark Fisher: Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures

It’s hard to find traction these days. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, they slip out of your grasp or melt away to nothing. So it’s easier to cling to the past. Safer, too. If you want an aesthetic representation of our own current experience, perhaps you can find it in Bake-Off, Brexit or the latest reboot from Hollywood.

The fact that the past keeps coming back seems to be part of the post-modern condition, the sense that the present is somehow broken or inaccessible. As such, it’s inescapably bound up with the logic of advanced capitalism. Neoliberal principles are being relentlessly applied to the field of art and culture, asset-stripping recent history for bite-sized chunks that can be sold back to us. It’s a vicious circle because this then feeds into a cynical (half-assed) subjectivity which is quick to embrace lazy, cut-price nostalgia – like those never-ending “Do you remember Spangles and Spacehoppers?” TV shows. This is culture as comfort-food, an oppressive regurgitation of the same pap masquerading as something different. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re running on the spot, fiddling while Rome burns.

But just as there’s more than one past to excavate, there’s also a different sort of looking back. Sometimes you need to reflect precisely in order to go forward. We’ve been raking over the bones of our own dead – writing about 1980s anarcho-punk for a new collection by Minor Compositions as a way of writing about the political impasse of 2016.

Like punk, anarcho-punk had a conflicted relationship with the past. While it liked to position itself as a rupture, a break with all that had gone before, there was also a clear continuity with many aspects of 1960s counterculture – something which Crass would make explicit later on. In The Kids Was Just Crass we argue that whatever the claims of any pop-cultural revolution, there can be no wiping out of the past, no Year Zero. Instead, “moments of excess open up the future precisely by reconfiguring the past, unclogging history and opening up new lines of continuity”.

Perhaps there are now other lines of continuity to explore. Anarcho-punk emerged some 35 years ago under conditions which seem eerily familiar – a rampant Tory government, a deepening economic depression, a grassroots Labour left under attack from its own party, a groundswell of racism fuelled by fears over immigration, etc – all played out against a backdrop of impending global apocalypse. The word ‘crisis’ loomed large then, just as it does now. Crisis? Yeah, sometimes it feels like we’re always living through a crisis – if not a crisis of the state, then a crisis of the economy, or a crisis of movement. But in the early 1980s it definitely felt like we were living at the fag-end of an era. And in retrospect that’s exactly how it turned out. There’s something similar about 2016, a sense that our world has been interrupted, put on hold.

In the years following the defeat of the Paris Commune, Stephane Mallarmé defined the era as inert time, a period when “a present is lacking.” That also seems fitting today: the present cannot be remembered because it barely exists. It’s hardly surprising that the past keeps coming back to haunt us as we try to work out how to step into the future.

future contain




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Rediscovering Red Plenty

red plenty right not to work

Pop culture has always fascinated us. Partly because popular music was the background to our lives growing up, but also because popular culture is an essential counterpoint to the (mostly) marginal political spaces we inhabit. And there’s a tension between the two. Sometimes they clash, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes – just sometimes – they pulsate together in the most incredible way, throwing new light on the past and revealing different visions of the future.

Recently we contributed to Notes From Technotopia, an exhibition in Bradford which pulls together a number of different artists who “offer different ways in which to think or dream about the future through the lens of past and present trends in technological development”. Our piece, Rediscovering Red Plenty, was prompted by our interview with F.A.L.C.O. where the singer mentioned the early ’80s Futurist Oi! band Red Plenty as an inspiration.

When a musician in 2015 makes a reference to a band from 1981, it pushes all our buttons: Gang of Four, Public Image, the Raincoats, Wire… they’ve all been cited recently. But Red Plenty? They were a band we’d vaguely heard of when we were growing up — and following punk and its various sub-genres — but had pretty much forgotten. Maybe F.A.L.C.O.’s singer stumbled over them while rifling through her dad’s record collection, but that wasn’t the whole story. Why would a record from that era resonate so much nearly 35 years later? So we decided to do some further digging.

We soon encountered a major problem: 1981 is pre-internet so there was almost nothing to see when we started googling the band. We had to switch to a more analogue route, hooking up with old mates, tracking down friends of friends, and trying to unearth people from a lifetime ago.

So here are the bare facts: as far as we can tell, Red Plenty were a four piece from Corby who produced just one four-track EP at the end of 1980 (‘Right Not To Work’, ‘Five Year Plan’, ‘Concrete Cow’, ‘New Future’). We found a few more tracks (‘We Want It All!’, ‘Assembly Line’ and ‘Ours Sincerely’) on a 1983(?) compilation tape but they don’t seem to be on vinyl anywhere.

The label ‘Futurist Oi!’ might put you in mind of something daringly experimental – like Cabaret Voltaire on speed? – but there’s nothing challenging about Red Plenty. At a time when bands like the Mekons, PIL or the Pop Group were transforming our idea of what music could do, ‘Right Not To Work’ is straight-up, formulaic guitar-bass-drums stuff: ‘street punk’ as Suzy Perry called it in the NME at the time. The lyrics are equally pedestrian: “Trouble in the factory / Trouble in the mill / Machines are taking over / We got nowhere to go…” At times they make Crass sound like a nuanced exercise in dialectics.


So why the fuss? At the start of the 1980s every school in the UK probably had half a dozen bands who sounded exactly like Red Plenty. Was Zizek Stardust just being wilfully obscure, name-dropping the most arcane bands she could think of?

Then we came across a March 1981 gig review in Melody Maker which called Red Plenty “a band for the future”. It’s a throwaway line but it set us thinking about what sort of future this band from the past might represent. Viv Albertine also touched on it in her brilliant memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, where she talks about Red Plenty trying to “escape” the monotony of New Town life.

melody maker

Like other New Towns, Corby seemed to embody the values of modernity, social progress and cosmopolitanism in the booming 1960s. But all that changed when British Steel announced plans to close the steelworks with an estimated loss of 10,000 jobs. Overnight Corby became a byword for Thatcherism and a taste of what was to come for the rest of the working class. There was anger, hurt, and protest: the town was at the centre of the 1980 national steel strike. But Thatcher refused to intervene and in the following years unemployment in the town reached 30%, bringing a whole slew of social problems which still linger today (it’s regularly listed in the top ten of worst towns to live in).

So that’s the context out which Red Plenty emerged. Steel closures, job losses, an aggressive Tory government… It all sounds eerily familiar, and perhaps that helps to explain the resonance in 2015.

footballBut there’s more. While the left were marching to save jobs, Red Plenty were singing about the right not to work. While union leaders were denouncing a heartless government for throwing people “on the scrapheap”, Red Plenty were confidently celebrating a life against work. On ‘Five Year Plan’ they chant “Five year plan / Five year plan / We don’t want to work / Let the robots do it” (bizarrely it was a cry that seems to have been taken up at Corby Town FC matches, presumably by Red Plenty and their mates). When you set that against recent books by the likes of Paul Mason, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Red Plenty begin to appear utterly contemporary.

Rediscovering Red Plenty isn’t (just) about revealing a hidden history, the explosive promise of the post-punk era. It’s about the way Red Plenty reveal the promise of a different timeline, another history we could have lived through. At certain points, the possibilities of a non-capitalist life become blindingly obvious to a lot of people at the same time. Our horizons shift. As mass unemployment started to bite in the early 1980s, it felt like there was another, better world just out of reach. Thirty five years later, there’s something similar hanging in the air.

Maybe the lesson we learn from the story of Red Plenty is a very simple one: sometimes you have to go back before you can go forward.


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Dirty thoughts in a digital age

old papers

What we have lost, it can often seem, is the very possibility of loss. Digital archiving means that the fugitive evanescence that long ago used to characterise, for instance, the watching of television programmes – seen once, and then only remembered – has disappeared.
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life

I’ve been catching up with Mark Fisher’s latest collection and have been really struck by what he says about loss – or rather the loss of loss. I’m tempted to start banging on about Pogle’s Wood (a prime example of ‘fugitive evanescence’, in my life at least), but this sense of loss goes a lot further than TV programmes.

Like a lot of people I know, I’ve got 30 years of radical ephemera stored under my bed (see photo above). But these days if I want to dig something out, it’s usually quicker (and cleaner) to go straight to Google rather than sift through a dozen boxes full of dusty scraps of paper. And I think this has consequences – both in the material world (see the recent demise of schnews) and in the subjectivities we reproduce.

OK, I might be biased because I work in print design, but I think there’s still something special about the printed product: leaflets, flyers, magazines, newspapers, books…. Because these things are tangible objects, you have to engage with them in a quite different way from, say, something that falls into your inbox or pops up on your Facebook or Twitter. It might be a newspaper you bought, or a leaflet you picked up, or even an actual book in analogue format, but the way you relate to it will be qualitatively different from something that flashes across your smartphone. This shift in sensibility is, if anything, even more marked in music. In our house, I find that music is ‘on’ most of the time yet it’s the very opposite of the immersive experience I would have enjoyed thirty years ago. It starts to become seamless, muzak-like.

Here’s Fisher again, on a digital world where everything is always available, always on.

If anything is the signature of 21st century consumer culture, it is this feeling of a digitally upgraded normality – a perverse yet ultra-banal normality, from which all flaws have been erased.

Perhaps this links to a criticism a friend made of this blog. I’m paraphrasing but I think the gist was that our posts tend to be too crafted, too considered, too ‘perfect’. That threw me for a bit but I think what it means is this. The glossy interface of digital life doesn’t seem to leave room for mistakes, blemishes or stains. And it’s precisely those things which we need in order to get a purchase on something. The imperfections, the grubby in-between-places are where we can make our home. That’s where we find ourselves and find others.

How does all that relate to the stack of crap under my bed? Fisher once more:

Cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity.

That idea of linear development was always a myth (as if A would always lead to B and then to C), but there was still a sense of history piling up under our beds, on our walls, in our bodies. The newspapers and flyers are dated, literally. But that’s what also gives them some power: they can take us back to different places, different times, different conditions and then let us work out some other route which doesn’t bring us back to this awful place. Compared to that, the Wayback Machine seems positively puny.

All of which is somewhat ironic as this post is just an excuse to stick up those Fisher quotes so I don’t lose them… Ah well, if it ain’t contradictory, it ain’t worth a fuck.

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Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!

cameron salford lads

We’ve just had a short piece published in the Guardian which sets out to explain why so many of us get pissed off when the rich turn up to music festivals, claim to like ‘our’ music, and generally try to colonise ‘our’ culture.

No doubt some of this is good old-fashioned toff-bashing (aw, sorry, Benedict) which feeds into a wider anger about gentrification – the way that ‘raw’ culture gets domesticated, sanitised and sold back to us. But we think there’s also a more far-reaching point here. This colonisation is part of an attempt to wipe out the history of ‘popular modernism’.

It’s hard to remember now, but for much of the second half of the twentieth century working-class (and lower-middle-class) kids directly influenced the future direction of society by pioneering both culture and styles of living. From bebop to Mod, from punk to hip hop, kids weren’t content with inhabiting the world – they wanted to remake it. So when Cameron poses at the Salford Lads Club, he’s not just trying to claim that alternative history as his own: he’s also hoping to erase an entire history and all the alternative futures it embodied.

Why does this matter? Because a different sort of future can only come from below. For all its talk of creativity and innovation, the future that neoliberalism offers is one-dimensional: tomorrow will be the same as today, except with more shiny commodities.

It’s hard to imagine the shape that popular modernism might take in the twenty-first century but we’ve tried to think through some of the problems (and possibilities) in This is Not a Love Song.

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