On talking about pop when you want to talk politics.

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.

From Olympia to the Valleys: What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do for Me

[This essay first published in the Wales Arts Review, with artwork by the tremendous Dean Lewis.]

 

With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.

I.

  The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.

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Brief note on the European elections

Fantastic to see the Lib Dem vote collapse. Depressing to see it attributed to their being pro-Europe, rather than their having been unrepentant Tory enablers for the past four years.

Similarly, given the tendency for UK voters to use European elections to make a point about domestic politics, the rise in support for UKIP needs to be interpreted with reference to the level of dissatisfaction with internal British politics – to the destructive effects of neoliberalism and austerity and the failure of mainstream parties to acknowledge, much less engage with them – and not merely to the party ‘s use of the EU as scapegoat.

Answers to some questions on what, why and how I write.

I am answering the following questions on my writing, having been handed the baton by scholar and poet Alex Niven, a man currently poised to rescue Oasis from the enormous condescension of posterity.

I now pass the baton to the eminent Victorianist Dr Sophie Duncan, and to Ireland’s foremost political satirist.
 

  • What am I working on?

Officially, I am working on a new cultural history of the Rebecca riots, as detailed in this post.

Unofficially – having gained the nichest of niche acclaim with Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, I am making life difficult for myself by changing tack from ~cultural ~studies to fiction, and currently have three novels on the go. Here follows, in brief, Not My Elevator Pitches:

Book A – Dystopian satire on this country’s likely future under Tory government. NB this book is full of things that I made up in order to illustrate the horrific and ludicrous nature of a near-future Britain. Roughly one third of these things are now actual government policy.

Book B – Much less pointed satire set in present-day and Old Weird London, centred on the mutually reluctant attraction between a girl on the disillusioned fringes of the anticapitalist left and a boy who is a Shoreditch twat. (If you know me, laughably autobiographical.)

Book C – Historical fiction set during the aforementioned Rebecca Riots. Not satire but an exploration of class struggle, sexual identity, and tremendous outfits.

I write things like this secure in the knowledge that commercial mainstream publishing is being ever more relentlessly filleted and focused on the search for the next 50 Shades of Grey or other soon-to-be phenomena that the online world under forty in fact got bored with weeks ago.

My only previously published fiction is of course the smash-hit satirical mash-up P G Wodehouse’s American Pyscho.

If I write anything more in the vein of Clampdown it will probably be a self-indulgent comic 90s memoir tentatively titled I Was a Teenage Manics Fan.

 

  • How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure that there are others of its genre – or indeed what its genre is to start with. Clampdown is a book that no publisher other than the small and heroic Zer0 Books would have taken a punt on, being as it is a blend of cultural criticism, class war, “angry” feminist intervention, incidental autobiography, excuse to fashion my aesthetic taste into socio-political critique, and love-letter to great but forgotten aspects of ’90s and ’00s music and culture. (Or ‘Chavs for girls’ as I think one review termed it. It’s not Chavs for girls.) It was mostly written as a caprice and I’m still surprised when it strikes a chord with people. If there are others like it, do send them my way.

 

  • Why do I write what I do?

I write what I do primarily because I do not see myself, my interests or my history adequately represented anywhere in current popular culture, politics, journalism or art. This doesn’t mean that I personally am a special snowflake, rather it means that these channels are increasingly closed-off in terms of influence and interest to whole swathes of this country.

Secondly, I write because political satire is currently noticeable by its absence. I think this is both a consequence of the complacency and lack of political engagement now prevalent in arts and media – which, again, may be related to their class composition – and because this government is so outrageously, casually, gleefully accelerationist that it manages to easily outpace anything satire can conjure up. When you have Cameron sitting on a golden throne while making a speech on how there’s no money left and we all need to tighten our belts, there’s little room left for satire to breathe.

Finally, I write because I was and am heavily influenced by the kind of cultural criticism in which the 90s music press often engaged, which talked about music (and film, and tv, and other objects of consumption) both on its own terms but also with one eye on its social, political and historical context, and which brought theory and critique to bear on pop culture in a way often derived from book-learning but accessibly and enlighteningly applied. It’s the main reason I began to write about music in the first place, but, aside from the occasional diamond, this kind of thing now seems to be a dying art.

 

  • How does my writing process work?

Like everyone else without independent wealth, I have been working for the past decade in high-street retail, admin, reception, customer service and similar jobs, and writing and studying around them. So I think of myself less as a writer and more as a worker who writes in their spare time.

Currently I work two jobs. In between, I co-edit New Left Project; write stuff I’d hesitate to call journalism for various print and online publications; research/write/edit the Rebecca riots manuscript due in December; and work on other arbitrary stuff, both fiction and non-fiction, whenever inspiration strikes. Ideally this would necessitate working on each thing in a methodical and disciplined manner in pre-planned, focused bursts of activity, but instead I have very little process or method other than to write when I feel I have something to write, and – more crucially – when I can find the time to write.

I start every week yearning for some free time – for more free time, to be exact – and at the end of every week I languish unfulfilled. I get ideas at inconvenient moments like on the shopfloor, or during the commute, which I find to be good times for thinking but not for writing down an idea in depth, as you lack the time to adequately put your thoughts into words. Then by the time you get the chance to do that, your initial inspiration’s dissipated and the idea sounds shite so you decide to forget about it – or worse, you’re sure the idea was pretty good but you can’t remember exactly what it was, and you’re too knackered to think straight and write well anyway.

I could pretend that all this plate-spinning and theft of time concentrates the mind marvellously, and encourages motivation and discipline in the free time I do have. I could pretend that having working hours and contracts that are unpredictable from one week or one month to the next makes life terribly exciting and lends a dusting of raffish bohemian glamour to the task of earning a living. But of course it doesn’t. Working to support oneself and trying to produce something creative in the cracks between is – as you’ll know if you do it yourself – exhausting and exasperating. (Or maybe I’m just making excuses for myself, eh, and should do the artistic equivalent of getting on my bike.)

On rereading, I see this answer got away from me somewhat. Oh – I tend to write drunk and edit hungover. Maybe that’s a better answer.

 

 

Borrowed Nostalgia for a Half-Remembered Nineties

You may be wondering why I haven’t leapt into the current wave of 90s/Britpop nostalgia with all the teeth-bared alacrity of a pseudo-academic Berserker, desperate to point out that the career of Alex James highlights everything wrong with the world. The reasons I haven’t are, broadly, that a) I desire a worthier opponent than Alex James; b) Britpop isn’t, and really never was, the problem. Anything I might want to say about Britpop is wider than Britpop itself and concerns the particular intertwined development of politics, culture and society in that weird and decisive decade.

The problem with the 90s wasn’t simply that “politics” (specifically, the recognition of class as a political identity) vanished from mainstream pop culture, but that it vanished from mainstream politics too. After the Tories’ scorched-earth approach to industry in the 80s, the 90s saw a salting of the ground though privatization of the railways and the coal industry – as though by removing a class’s economic basis for existence one could somehow magically remove the class itself. Meanwhile, the Labour Party saw Blair’s ascendancy and the ditching, along with Clause 4, of its traditional base of support. In the late 90s, Blair’s rictus-grinned insistence on liberal harmony had no more room for class conflict than Major’s early-90s confected nostalgia for a pre-Sixties (‘back-to-basics’) England. In both politics and pop culture, we were held to be all middle-class now: in the swirl of postmodern irony, nothing mattered – certainly not your socio-economic position – so everything was permitted. The fact that alternative guitar music ended up mirroring this short-term hedonism and boorish chauvinism, and abandoning its early-90s countercultural instinct, makes it more a victim of the era than a villain.

The 90s cultural studies bandwagon should not be allowed to flatten the complexities of those years in the same way that commercialization steamrollered early-Britpop’s interest and potential and left us with Cool Britannia. In the strange and significant year of 1994, as Alex Niven points out, the movement that became Britpop retained a lot of chippy subversiveness, earnest optimism, and creativity, which was later lost to money-making, irony, and formulaic blandness. While capitalism has always been able to commodify alternative culture, and rebellion has always been turned into money, the 90s set in motion a wider process whereby pursuits previously associated with collective enjoyment, escapism and improvement particularly for the working class – whether pop music, or football, or the Labour Party – were sanitized and made safe for those beyond their traditional pale. This would have mattered less had it not been accompanied by the rise of networks of nepotism and the spread of unpaid interning in arts, media and politics, which not only reduced the ability to compete but began edging the working-class and/or non-independently wealthy out of the arena entirely, to an extent that is now glaringly apparent. All this alongside a relentless pretence at meritocracy and a stress on individualism over collectivism, implying that dissatisfaction with your circumstances was not a result of structural conditions, but an individual failing that only you could change – by altering yourself and not the system.

Perhaps the Labour Party’s Blairite turn played into the shape that 90s opposition to the Tories took, being scrappy and direct – Reclaim the Streets, 1994’s Criminal Justice Bill protests – and displaying an attitude to constitutional politics that was at best distrustful and at worst disgustedly disenfranchised. The turn to direct action and civil disobedience rather than parliamentary politics grew throughout the 00s’ anticapitalist (‘anti-globalisation’, in the parlance of the day) movements, reaching its zenith perhaps in Occupy.

None of which should have happened at all, of course. What reasons did we 90s children have for dissatisfaction or dissent now that it wasn’t the 80s anymore? Another of this year’s anniversaries is of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, which should in theory have rendered us with nothing to protest about. The ‘end of history’ bore as much relation to reality as ‘we are all middle-class now’, but it fitted very well with the arrogant complacency with which the West began the 90s. It fitted in too with a Britain punch-drunk and reeling from the 80s but denied the means to articulate the fact that the fight was still on. Anxiety could be expressed in the 90s, and damage acknowledged, but only if framed in terms of emotion and not economics. This of course dovetailed with the erasure of class and the emphasis on individual striving and ambition as a cure-all, without reference to socio-economic conditions which might hinder an individual’s ability to achieve. So the 90s ideology claimed: if you couldn’t achieve, you needed to work on yourself and your sense of ambition and entitlement (after all, girls can do anything, just look at Thatcher!); if you were stuck on benefits then you probably preferred it that way, otherwise you would have striven and done something about it; and if at some point you wondered about any of this, if you were anxious or unsure, then again, you needed to treat yourself kindly, to be soothed, to consume, to empower yourself through earning and spending. You certainly didn’t need to conclude that the problems might (still) be systemic, still external, still political rather than personal.

Bonnets and Bolshevism

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1. For my next trick in the arena of niche overthinking-it monographs, I am going to be writing a book on the Rebecca riots. There have already been magisterial studies of the movement which have focused on its political and economic aspects, but I am going to look at its social and cultural aspects, and the ways in which it had more variety, more politics, and more of Old Weird Wales than is generally acknowledged.

To include: why there was a bit more to the movement than hill-farmers smashing up tollgates in bonnets, petticoats and false beards; the nature of Welsh resistance to early industrial capitalism (as touched on in this post); contemporary ideas of gender and the early Victorian undermining of female social and sexual agency; how Rebecca’s image became a national ‘idiom of defiance’ – basically, a meme – and wider issues hopefully relevant to today, eg “rough” versus “respectable” protest; the traditions of masked and anonymous protesting; and how popular culture can be integrated into popular resistance.

Don’t worry, I’m fully aware that this book will be of interest to about four people at a push.

*

2. The last time I was in the House of Commons in any official capacity, I was taking students to lobby against the introduction of top-up fees. Our side having narrowly lost that vote, I then got massively drunk in the ULU bar, decided to give up student politics as a mug’s game, ranted at a Sky News crew and eventually had to be carried out to a taxi by members of my delegation.

Last month I attempted to conduct myself with greater dignity, and spoke on this Zero Books panel. Strike! magazine wrote up the evening here.

 

Intersectional Feminism, Class, and Austerity

Last week I went to a conference at Manchester Met to speak (broadly) on intersectional feminism, alongside the excellent Reni Eddo-Lodge. The event had some useful and interesting contributions, given in an atmosphere notable for constructive and supportive discussion, and for critiquing work done previously rather than seeking to reinvent the feminist wheel. Below is a transcription of the talk I gave. It works as both a synthesis of things I’ve written previously on feminism and class, and as a step towards articulating how my own type of feminism developed (clue: this year it’s thirty years since the Miners’ Strike). It also, in a personal best, contains only one use of ‘autodidact’, none of ‘hegemony’, and no mention of the Manic Street Preachers.

 

Introduction

The concept of intersectionality has a long history, and has informed the political work of women from Sojourner Truth in 1851 to Selma James’s 1975 pamphlet ‘Sex, Race and Class’. In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use of the term emphasised how women of colour experience multiple systems of oppression, and how their experiences and voices are frequently marginalised or erased, even within feminist or anti-racist discourses which aim at justice or liberation. Intersectionality has been the subject of much recent discussion within feminism, some of which has dismissed the concept on the grounds of its supposed academic obscurity and irrelevance to ‘ordinary’ people. I will dispute this dismissal.

The aspect of intersectionality I’ve written most about is the tension between class politics and some of the ways in which contemporary UK feminism is expressed. I’m not suggesting that class is the only dimension of oppression, or the only one worth exploring, but I do see class as something fundamental, and as something which intersects significantly with both race and gender. These interactions are particularly visible in the debate on ‘chavs’, which I see as a point at which class prejudice crosses over with several others. I will look at that debate and at the surrounding context of neoliberalism and austerity in which it takes place. I will then look at how responses to this debate, in attempting to rehabilitate working-class identity, have instead constructed exclusionary models of class based around the idea of the white male worker. I will then finally talk about how the calls for feminism to make itself accessible beyond white and middle-class women, has tended to involve negative or condescending assumptions about working-class women and their capacity for education, political consciousness and organisation.

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