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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is Dawn Foster’s excellent piece on the idiocy of insisting that feminism must be dumbed down for the supposed benefit of its potential adherents among the working – for which read ‘thick and theoryless’ – classes. Something implicit in Foster’s argument, which would benefit from being more frequently and explicitly stated in wider debate, is the corrective it provides to current presentations of class vs identity politics as a zero-sum game.
As I wrote the last time Coslett and co. trotted out this line, a) being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid, and b) the problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional. As Foster describes, grassroots organisations and actions, from Women Against Pit Closures to Southall Black Sisters, are informed by awareness of how gender and/or race impacts on class, and how class impacts on race and/or gender. This is intersectionality experienced and practiced as a day-to-day reality, enforced by existing structures of power – not a distant and alien theory into which one chooses to opt. It offers a real-life, instinctive and logical practical application of the ideas and concepts that, apparently, are so complex as to be beyond the intellectual grasp of The Likes Of Them. This shit isn’t difficult, and it shouldn’t be presented as such.
Here we go again. Yes, the performance on primetime of fierce and unapologetic left-wing populism is both a relief and a cause for celebration (more because the media as well as politics itself has grown so defanged, timid and prone to paranoid self-policing over the past few decades, with those who vocally deviate from helpless/complacent acceptance or active reinforcement of a neoliberal consensus becoming such a rarity, than because Brand was all that small-r revolutionary in and of himself). No, the conversation doesn’t and shouldn’t end there.
It is not moralistic, irrelevant, or distracting to bring up Brand’s – to understate – frustrating attitude to women when evaluating his political intervention. It is in fact far more unhelpful to insist, in response to this criticism, that Brand’s class identity somehow gives him a pass on this stuff, as though attention to issues of liberation other than the economic is just too much to ask or expect of a working-class male, even one so clearly capable as Brand of holding more than one thought in his head at the same time. Yet again, well-meaning but paternalistic and patronizing ideas are pushed of what it is to be ‘working class’ – in this case, the idea that working-class men cannot be expected to recognise or interrogate their own chauvinism or that of others, or that their doing so is somehow unnecessary.
Moreover, to caricature any discomfort with Brand’s sexual politics as the preserve of joyless derailing middle-class Puritans, who simply cannot handle all this earthy proletarian jouissance, is to implicitly erase even the concept of women as part of the working class, let alone any concerns they may wish to raise. Much current backlash against identity politics is too often suffused with an unedifying and regressive glee at throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and does no one any favours. Equally, surely it’s common sense that oppression on the grounds of gender, race, disability or sexuality is fundamentally exacerbated or ameliorated by material inequality. These identities are mutually reinforcing and cumulative, not zero-sum.
I mean, we’ve been here only recently, and we’ve been here repeatedly before that. Expressing unease at an aspect of Brand’s politics shouldn’t be about imposing some absolutist hierarchy of oppressions – it is merely an obvious and necessary balancing act, a demand for more than the absolute basics from those lauded as representatives of the left, and a resistance to the imposition of restrictive ideas about class.
Is that the end of the conversation? No. What the conversation should have been about in the first place is resistance to the fact that we are being asked to accept, as ‘recovery’ and ‘return to normal’, an austerity-driven strategy of enforced impoverishment – stagnant wages that fail to keep pace with exorbitant costs of living, an explosion in the use of food banks and a breathtaking rolling back of employment rights. Opposing this does mean concentrating on material issues and class politics. Let’s just not be dicks about it.
Things I’ve written elsewhere:
- For the Wales Arts Review, What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do For Me: on female artistic expression, theory vs practice, post-punk, class and feminism, the 90s, adolescence, and Courtney Love, I think that’s everything.
- For Planet on the centenary of the Senghenydd colliery disaster, a piece about the issues it continues to raise around Welsh identity and the history of working-class exploitation and resistance.
We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.
- The Miners’ Next Step (1912)
Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)
On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:
While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.
… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:
“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…
I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”
Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).
I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.