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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An Explosion of Sincerity

Explosion of sincerity

So last Saturday three communists walked into Duffy’s bar in Leicester and started talking about economic crisis, pop music and comedy. Let me give you a summary.

The talk was in three sections. The first set the scene of pervasive crisis. Arguing that in this context we should expect the rise of characters who seem to signify the spirit of the times and that people identify with politically. In the crisis of the 1930s these figures tended to be political leaders but in the 1960s and 70s, after the birth of pop culture, such figures were equally likely to be pop stars. In the current crisis this seems to have changed. By raising the examples of Russell Brand, Beppe Grillo and Dieudonné we suggest that figures of political identification (on both the Left and the Right) are now more likely to be comedians than pop stars.

The second section charted the social and technological changes that make it much less likely that figures of political identification will arise from pop music. Exhibit one: last night’s celebration of bland at the Brit awards. Co-incidentally I spent yesterday evening listening to a talk by Viv Albertine, who raged long and hard about the poshification of pop and Thatcherism’s impulsion towards conformity. As the popular modernism of the 60s, 70s and 80s showed, freedom rests on material underpinnings. The subsequent removal of collective protection has produced more risk averse and defensive subjects.

The third section asks: if not pop stars then why comedians? Arguing that one contemporary mode of protection against risk has been the adoption of an all-pervasive posture of cynical irony. This hyper-ironisation of contemporary culture has made sincere statements of belief both hard to make and difficult to take seriously. Yet our condition of pervasive crisis has created an obscured desire for the kinds of change that can only be proposed through sincere statements. Within this frame the huge social movements of 2011 can be seen as ‘explosions of sincerity’. While those countries with no such explosions, E.G. Britain, France and Italy, must make do with seeing this desire reflected in the character of certain public figures. It is comedians who are most practiced at this dance between irony and sincerity and so it is they who are most likely to be figured.

For those interested the slides and text of our talk can be downloaded here.

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“An explosion in the heart of the commodity”


There’s a great interview here with Mark Stewart of early post-punks the Pop Group — by Diane Kamikaze on wfmu.

Can’t capture it all here, but the conversation ranges seamlessly across music, politics, culture, innovation, DIY, group dynamics, magic, ethics and the repetition of history. He even mentions zombies. As punk as fuck.

The interview alone is here (about 55 minutes); the full 3-hour show — with 7 or 8 Pop Group songs — is here.

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