On my bedroom wall I have a signed poster of Billy Bragg. This suggests that I am a Billy Bragg fan, which is something about which I feel a certain awkwardness. To be a Billy Bragg fan is to associate oneself with someone always seen by many as gruff, proletarian, sexless, musically staid, and chippy. But nevertheless it remains a fact that the first single and album I bought were both his, his play ‘Pressure Drop’ was one of my highlights of last year, and I kicked myself recently on learning I’d missed his national tour, which ended last week. I’ve always felt an admiration with his seemingly boundless wit and warmth, and partly thanks to these qualities, and partly due to having, like that other group my fanship of whom has always occasioned a certain embarrassment, the Pet Shop Boys, he has managed to hang around just within public sight for over twenty five years without pissing off everyone too much and has in middle age been achieved the status of avuncular national treasure. Nevertheless like any uncle some of his pronouncements over the last few years have been somewhat dubious and increasingly conservative, especially around the questions of English national identity and tactical voting. There is an unpleasant element of both left-baiting in his relentless scorn for the far-left, and a not unrelated level of anti-intellectualism, both of which were evident in a Guardian interview published yesterday.
It is touching to read about his enthusiasm for the student protests, although predictably he also uses it as an excuse to indulge in some cheap digs at the far-left and anyone who tries to apply the lessons of the past to the present situation. There are signs that Bragg’s long-standing embarrassment with the legacy of socialism and communism colours his view of how things should develop, an awkwardness has always led him to temper his radicalism and try to sell it as instinctive, and organic, rather than intellectual. It seems churlish to point out that Bragg did not go to university and seems to harbour a certain resentment against those whose ideas for changing the world derive from detailed and patient analysis of complex ideas about society and how to change it. He is a proselytiser of what José Saramago used to call ‘hormonal’ socialism, although he now prefers to avoid the word itself if at all possible:
‘The people out protesting now, Bragg says, are the first generation ever to be able to talk about socialism without having the long shadow of Karl Marx hanging over them. If, indeed, they even describe it as such. “To be honest, I don’t care if it’s called socialism,” he says. “Anyway, what is socialism but organised compassion…They (the students) are making their own connections, and at the bottom of them all is an absolute sense of unfairness. That’s what’s politicised them. Not some abstract interest in dialectical materialism…We’ve got a lot to learn from them – their ability to join things up, take the initiative, not hang around and see what Marx would have said.”
He has also engaged in these debates in the last week or so, making very similar points on the already seminal Comment is Free piece by Laurie Penny:
“I now understand that what annoys you about Laurie and her generation is their refusal to be kettled in by either the Metropolitan Police or by the SWP and their ideological bedfellows.
Whether we like it or not, we are currently living in a post-ideological era. The language of Marxism is dead. Don’t mourn, organise! That’s what the students are doing – in a manner that is both different and challenging to those of us whose politics were forged in the 20th century.
We can either carp from the sidelines or join them as they take action.”
And is righteously smacked down:
“Laurie Penny, and in fact everyone ‘resisting’ the coalition’s education reform agenda, frequently draws on Marxism, even if she/they don’t know that that is what they are doing. And I don’t blame them, because if they want to talk about the ‘marketisation’ (i.e. commodification) of higher education, then they are de facto drawing on Marx! So to argue that the langauge of Marxism is dead is just a laughably ill-informed comment to make. It beggars belief.” (oxymoronic)
One wonders if Bragg has also been following that other debate about the meaning of communism and the role of Communist ideas in the struggle for a different world sparked off by Alain Badiou’s article in the New Left Review two years ago. The conference which that article inspired took place in the Logan Hall of the Institute of Education, the same venue as last year’s Compass conference, which Billy was at; but I suspect that the On the Idea of Communism event may have been anathema to him, given that it featured a series of Marxist intellectuals, two words guaranteed to provoke a spluttering splenetic reaction. It would be a shame if he hadn’t at least read Badiou’s article, because his aversion to the very names of Communism and Socialism is not uncommon, but to really think about what we do need to retain from the past, indeed to insist upon, and what we need to jettison, and who is this ‘we’ that needs to find answers to these questions, is an intellectual process, which demands that we analyse in depth revolutionary ideas and practices from the past. It is perhaps too easy to see Bragg’s dismissal of such debates of symptomatic of a British culture of anti-intellectualism, but it is highly likely that the experience of ferocious debates with SWP student firebrands on the Red Wedge tour in the 1980s traumatised the man and provoked this very evident revulsion at the very mention of revolutionary politics.
As I mentioned at the start, I love the wit and warmth at the heart of the best of Bragg’s music. Growing up I even preferred his poetry to that of Morrissey, someone who had a more grandiose emotional range which I as a teenager couldn’t yet aspire to. There was something in the combination of plaintiveness and gruffness in songs like ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ and ‘A Lover Sings’ which echoed my more stoical sense of myself. Morrissey seemed too much at home in his outsiderness, seemed to enjoy his symptoms too much, while Bragg was (for me) comfortingly gauche in his sense of romance and bitter at the world. I recognised myself in his songs, and admired his sense of engagement.
This heightened poetic sense can lead to political confusion, however. In yesterday’s interview he draws an analogy which seems to work beautifully at first, but quickly collapses when subject to further reflection. He rightly condemns the slavish devotion to market ‘dogma’ of all three parties over the last number of years (he clearly prefers this word to its near cousin ‘ideology’, which, given that he insists we live in a ‘post-ideological age’, would complicate things somewaht, but what the hey). But then he produces a metaphor which sounds apt, but isn’t:
“‘The market’s like fire, you know? Constrain it, harness it, and it’ll provide you with warmth and light and heat for your cooking … Let it rip, and it’ll destroy everything you hold dear.”
Now that is a fabulous image, but as I say it doesn’t work. Why not? Well, in a world increasingly subject to the iniquitous dictates of the so-called free market, billions around the world lack precisely that warmth, light and heat for their cooking. And this is not because the market is improperly regulated and managed, but because as reality shows quite clearly it is not an appropriate mechanism for providing the essentials of life. Warmth and heat and fuel for cooking are commodities exchanged for profit, but they are not, as Bill Clinton remarked of food, commodities like any other, or at least, they shouldn’t be. The market may one day have a role of some kind in a world ordered justly and democratically, but the essentials of life – housing, food, energy, transport, health, education – cannot be left to be distributed according to a system in which the winner takes all and the loser freezes or starves.
I very much hope that Billy Bragg continues to play a part in what appears to be a growing movement for radical change. But his aversion to intellectual and ideological debate may be an obstacle to his making a full contribution. The debates of the last week over the role of revolutionary organisations, and what new forms of media imply for how radical activists should and can organise have been very important and useful. The legacy of the reluctance of certain far-left groups to engage in honest and open debate in the past may be something that can be overcome, or it may be something that serves as an obstacle to greater unity, but at the very least people are now trying to have that debate rather than cynically bitching about the irrelevance and inadequacies of the far left, as Bragg has long been prone to do.