form that is bound up with the failure to make it. The situation of Grime is an allegory of class destiny. Just as it’s possible for some to rise from the working class but not with it, so it’s possible to rise out of Grime (as artists such as Professor Green and Tinie Tempah have proven with their many crossover hits), but it’s not yet been possible for anyone to succeed as a Grime artist.
Paul Mason acknowledges his failure to correctly identify what was played at the 2010 protests in his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Notwithstanding his inability to track the changes in urban dance music, however, his original blog post was prophetic. After 9 December, the student protests lost momentum. The major moments of dissent in 2011 – which would also be the most powerful explosion of working class rage in the UK since the riots of the early 1980s – would come from the group Mason identified as “banlieue-style youth from places like Croydon and Peckham, or the council estates of Camden, Islington and Hackney”. As with some of the 1980s riots, the immediate cause for the UK’s first major uprising of 2011 was the death of a black person, Mark Duggan, shot by the police in Tottenham. “25 years ago police killed my grandma in her house in Tottenham and the whole ends rioted, 25 years on and they’re still keepin up fuckry,” tweeted Tottenham MC, Scorcher. His grandmother was Cynthia Jarrett, whose death prompted the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985.
Dan Hancox mentioned this tweet in a piece about British urban music and the riots for The Guardian, a crucial journalistic intervention at a vertiginously scary moment when the authoritarian and racist right were using the unrest as the pretext for reheating discourse that would have been deemed unacceptable only a week before. In an extraordinary but typically incoherent rant on the BBC’s Newsnight, TV historian David Starkey astonishingly blamed the riots on “black culture” – collapsing the whole of black culture into music, and all black music into a poorly understood version of gangster rap. Like much of what happened in 2011, his delirious diatribe is best understood as a symptom: in this case of ruling class panic and ignorance. Starkey dismissed the idea that the riots were political on the grounds that no public buildings were attacked – but what meaning do public buildings have for youth who were born into a social landscape in which the very concept of the public has all but disappeared under sustained ideological attack? The fact that the rioters targeted chain retail outlets was blamed on their ‘consumerism’; as if such ‘consumerism’ were some kind of collective moral failing rather than the inevitable consequence of immersion in late capitalism’s media culture.
As Owen Jones pointed out in his book Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class, work, not some lost moral sensibility, was once the source of working class discipline. But what happens to people with no expectation of work, or of any kind of meaningful future? “When the punks cried ‘No Future’, at the turning point of 1977, it seemed like a paradox that couldn’t be taken too seriously,” Italian theorist
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes in his most recent book After The Future. “Actually, it was the announcement of something quite important: the perception of the future was changing... Moderns are those who live time as the sphere of a progress towards perfection, or at least towards improvement, enrichment and rightness. Since the turning point of the century – which I like to place in 1977 – humankind has abandoned this illusion.”
From decrying the failure of the future, music has increasingly become part of this inertial temporality. Nothing symbolises mainstream music’s relationship to politics better than the BBC’s coverage of U2’s set at Glastonbury. The significance here was not the music – predictably moribund and lacklustre, no longer even capable of mustering the totalitarian pomp of yore – but the way in which the TV coverage ignored a protest launched by a group called Art Uncut. U2 were treated like dignitaries from the Chinese government: dissenters threatening to disrupt the empty rituals of the rock emperors wouldn’t be tolerated. Where once even the most incorporated rock registered something about the tensions and temperature of the times, now you go to rock to be insulated from the present. Both U2 and their fellow headliner Beyoncé made gestures to ‘politics’ in their sets – past struggles now reduced to an advertiser-friendly hopey-changey sentimentalism covering over a deeper, more pervasive sense that nothing of any consequence can ever change. Yet if mainstream pop has become a bubble impermeable to the new times, it’s not as if experimental culture has yet come up with forms capable of articulating the present, either. The art world’s political mobilisations – via groups such as Art Against Cuts – have been more impressive than much of the actual engaged art itself, which has too often remained caught in a mode of pious inconsequence and textural poverty.
What has been lost is the transit between experimental and popular culture which characterised earlier eras. But what the student movement has been trying to prevent is nothing less than the dismantling of the last elements of the infrastructure which made this exchange possible; free higher education, after all, was one of the means by which British music culture was indirectly funded. Perhaps that’s why Gang Of Four’s “He’d Send In The Army”, Mark Stewart And The Maffia’s As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade or Test Department’s The Unacceptable Face Of Freedom – records made more than 25 years ago – still have more purchase on the traumatic and tumultuous events of the year in the UK than anything produced by a white musician in 2011. Recalling a conversation with Green Gartside at The Wire’s Off The Page festival of music writing in February, it’s telling that today has no equivalent to Green’s post-punk anxieties about articulating new relationships between music and politics. Yet if this disconnection is bad for culture, it might be good for politics. For if music and subculture no longer act as effective mechanisms for controlled desublimation, converting disaffection into culture which can in turn be transformed into entertainment – feeding what Jean-François Lyotard memorably called the “Tungsten-Carbide stomach” of Capital, which omnivorously consumes anything, and excretes it as commodities – then discontent can appear in a rawer form. This might be the reason that über-reactionary Jeremy Clarkson has urged those at St Paul’s to stop camping and start writing protest songs.
It could be, however, that our thinking about the problem is wrong-headed. It isn’t that music is lagging behind politics; the politics itself is missing. The major political event of the year in the UK was the riots, but they were political in a negative sense. Reactionary commentators attempted to evacuate the riots of any political content by classifying them as an outburst of criminality. But even if we reject this for the absurdity it plainly is, it’s possible to regard the riots as symptomatic – a symptom, precisely, of the failure of politics. “Harming one’s own community is entirely mindless, but why would someone care for a community that doesn’t care for him?” Professor Green asked Dan Hancox. “They might think of this as an uprising, but the anger is misdirected and conveyed in such a way as will not have any kind of positive effect.” Wiley also saw the riots as a sign of impotence: “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to do what we want!’ – and I’m thinking ‘No you’re not, because when the police get a grip on it, you’re going to be either banged up, or dead’.” With the draconian prison sentences imposed on many of those who played even a minor role in the riots, Wiley’s prediction has been vindicated. Ceasing to be a symptom is one definition of achieving political agency, and – in a world where professional politicians look like inert mannequins incapable of preventing multiple impending catastrophes – nothing could be more urgent than this.
It’s clear that this agency will not in the first instance be achieved through the hollowed-out, decadent spaces of parliamentary politics. The political movement with which Franco Berardi is most associated, autonomism, has assumed a central importance amongst the political struggles that are coalescing in the UK and elsewhere. Consider, for example, the autonomist-influenced ‘ultra-leftist propaganda machine’ called Deterritorial Support Group, whose blog became a crucial hub for new political thinking in the UK. Steeped in electronic music culture, DSG are as significant for their political aesthetics as for any substantive political position they present: what they offer is a new form of political antagonism far beyond the folksiness of ‘protest music’, capable of operating across the cyberspatial, mediamatic and designer terrains of contemporary culture. This is politics as Underground Resistance’s Electronic Warfare. In the era of hacking collectives such as LulzSec, Anonymous and Wikileaks, DSG recognise that cyber-insurgency can open up a new kind of political insurgency. With the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, not to mention Mayan prophecies of apocalypse, 2012 is shaping up to be the most symbolically charged year in the UK since 1977. Is this the year when No Future will finally come to an end?
2011 Rewind | The Wire | 39