Alex Niven’s book on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe is out now and worth your time. It’s a book about working-class art, working-class politics, and the decline of both in Britain since the 90s, but there’s no denying the fact that it’s also a book about Oasis. So for the purposes of this post, which isn’t about Oasis, let’s talk about Oasis first:
Yes, it’s alright if you think Oasis were shit. Yes, Oasis went downhill fast – almost immediately, in fact. Yes, Oasis were a more ‘authentic’ version of the freewheeling should-know-better casually chauvinist Lad that, in Niven’s term, the ‘bourgeois wing of Britpop’ attempted to pantomimically portray, and no, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Music press, tabloids and lad-mags in the 90s lionised the Gallaghers’ laddishness as part of a tediously retrograde cultural discourse that was intent on rolling back the ‘politically correct’ gains of the decades before. This same discourse imposed a false dichotomy of class, in which Oasis’ supposed proley authenticity was linked with loutish ignorance and excess, while experimentation, education and glorious pretentiousness were presented as the preserve of the middle class. So yes, Oasis were damaging. But more by accident – or by deliberate exploitation by a largely middle-class cultural industry – than by design.
And yes, there was more interesting, more progressive and more worthwhile stuff happening in the 90s. The issue here is that nothing else got anywhere near as big as Oasis, as fast as Oasis, and the question is whether anything interesting can be said to explain that phenomenal mass appeal – you know, beyond the not-even-trying paradigm of “people like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis; you can’t trust people, Jeremy”. The book’s background argument on this, to which I am a rock-solid subscriber, is that, as 90s politics capitulated to a post-Thatcher consensus, a more subversive, anti-establishment spirit persisted in early-90s pop culture – including early Oasis alongside the Manics, Pulp, Kenickie etc – which then got flattened under Cool Britannia, Blairism, and Britpop’s imperial stage. Overthinking it? Yeah, if you like. Better than underthinking it, mate.
(I’d like to stop talking about Oasis now. Thanks.)
The book also argues in favour of recovering a left-populist tradition, in and outside the Labour party, the existence of which the Blairite tendency attempted to wipe off the face of the earth and which now, when not entirely forgotten or overlooked, is presented in a distorted way by left and right, as mere nostalgic sentiment or as bigoted underclass resentment. That the book does this is great. What’s frustrating, though, is that this fairly mild, unapologetic call to remember, recover and revive a British tradition of grassroots socialism – more fully articulated in Niven’s debut Folk Opposition – has to appear in the form of cultural criticism, rather than in open debate in the mainstream of British politics.
It’s become almost impossible, in official political discourse, to even raise the possibility of an alternative to the currently collapsing capitalist consensus and the austerity needed to sustain it. Let’s not be mealy-mouthed here: the imposition of austerity is causing rising rates of homelessness, mental illness and (even) suicide, while the financial elite are becoming richer than ever and we are told to begrudge our neighbour their seventy quid a week living allowance. The Liberal Democrats, in their craven collaboration with the architects of this, have been worse than useless – though if you honestly expected anything more then you’re a first-time voter, a fool, or an SDP supporter manqué. But Labour, the ostensible official opposition, has been almost as bad on any alternative to austerity, clumsily planting their flag on an increasingly crowded scrap of right-wing ground while ignoring the vast expanse of room to manoeuvre that still exists to their left. The possibility of articulating a left-populist alternative is not just dismissed out of hand, but actively recoiled from with a knee-jerk fear out of all proportion to reality.
Part of the point of Nineties Revisionism, whether Niven’s or my own, is to challenge the received wisdom that the turn taken in the 90s was the only one possible, and that its ongoing negative results were regrettable but inevitable. Current austerity rhetoric is a similar kind of received wisdom, a refusal to consider or even admit alternatives, as depressingly prevalent in the Labour party as it is in the mainstream media. That the space for discussing and even recognizing alternatives exists only in the margins of cultural and political discourse is both a result of our neoliberal turn since the 90s and an indictment of it.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but, when deciding to write Clampdown – which is on one level an attempt to intervene in a left-wing politics that often ignores women, and a feminism that often ignores class – I didn’t see any viable space for writing about my particular political perspective and getting it into print. Certainly the prevailing impression, in the academic and post-academic left circles by whom I wished to be taken seriously, was that an unsophisticated, open subscription to the basic principles of socialism, and especially an unashamed focus on class identity, was hopelessly passé. Academia wasn’t immune to the 90s turn to class denial, seeing the direct articulation of class identity as not only outmoded but frankly embarrassing. I assume this distaste for discussing class stemmed in part from the end of the Cold War, and in more recent part from the erosion of working-class access to higher education. Regardless of its parts, as a whole it sucked.
The thing is, cultural studies in Britain has a proud, politically engaged history, from Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams on down. But in the 90s and after the discipline appeared to arrive at an unhelpful level of abstraction, where it sometimes seemed that any relation one’s analysis of culture might bear to the material world was an afterthought, rather than a driving-force. You could have all the theory you liked, as long as you never attempted to practically apply it. I don’t know how much of this was tied to the postmodern fear of being thought unsophisticated for acknowledging grand narratives, for remaining embarrassingly tied to ideology (but only to overtly left-wing ideology, curiously enough), or for giving credit to the continued existence of anything so vulgar as class struggle. The triumph of irony in the 90s made it uncool to even have convictions, let alone have the courage of them.
At any rate, two years ago I wrote a book, out of the wish to bring some of the vanished political aspects of my identity and heritage to wider attention (beyond the limited bounds of, like, my blog), to ask what had happened to their representation in politics and culture, and to engage with contemporary feminism outside of academia. Given the analyses I saw granted the most credence and consideration, I felt the only plausible way of doing this was through a kind of entryism. I felt the need to go undercover, to adopt a sleight-of-hand (“god Britpop, eh, what was that all about?”) through which to smuggle in questions of class and gender, and to focus on talking about pop culture as a proxy for politics, rather than talking straightforwardly about politics itself.
I managed it, of course (and sure enough, Clampdown‘s content got repeatedly described as “refreshing”, which is a highly relative term), so there’s a limit to how much I can complain. In fact, there’s an emergent set of criticism and commentary produced by those of us who came of age in the ’90s – from Owen Hatherley’s pioneering Militant Modernism to Agata Pyzik’s Poor But Sexy – which is concerned with scouring the 20th century to recover roads not taken, lost potential and missed opportunities, to point out that there were alternatives, and still can be. More power to the handful of publishers who enable such excavations. But why do you have to read a book on Oasis, or the Manics, or film, or architecture – or indeed write one – in order to see the vanished tradition of grassroots, collectivist, internationalist small-l labourism in this country even acknowledged, let alone presented positively? There is a constituency, an audience – a market, if we really must – for talking about socialism, and socialist feminism, and the interplay of class, race, and gender in culture and politics, even if the arenas of debate are small and scattered. Currently, in the absence of mainstream mass platforms, we take what we can get – small publishing deals, obscure blogs, niche music series – and we use it to lever open closed doors and closed-off discourses. This kind of interdisciplinary entryism is a means to an end, but it’s hardly helpful if the exploration of alternatives to the current regime stays backed into the cultural studies corner.