“Neoliberalism had some good points”: An interview with Nick Currie aka Momus about Europe, politics, identity and Japan

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Momus is a polymath: a musician, novelist, blogger, artist and occasional journalist and curator. Unusually for someone who bestrides different fields, whatever he turns his hand inevitably turns out to be absolutely unique and compelling.

I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s, back when he styled himself ‘the third Pet Shop Boy‘. Since then he’s released over 30 albums (all of them unerringly excellent), six novels (every of one of them a cracking and often uproarious read), and several thousand consistently fascinating posts on his now-defunct but still celebrated blog Click Opera.

Most recently he’s opened his own online ‘open university‘ and continues to produce occasional soundscapes called ‘hearspools’, which frankly defy description, but any one of which could change your way of seeing and thinking about the world. Although he lives in Japan, he’s also doing a series of appearances around Europe and I caught up with him in the really quite magical setting of Swiss Institute in Rome, where he was doing a talk on sublimation in his lyrics and a concert, during which he played songs related in some way to Rome and its history.

Richard Willmsen: I wanted to talk about Europe, because I think it’s interesting that as soon as it became possible to do so (in the early 1990s) you were among the first to seize the opportunities that freedom of movement offered.

Nick Currie: Yes, I always felt like a European. There’s something about the grass is greener on the other side, and also my mother had always been very Francophile and brought me up to feel like Paris was the centre of the world rather than New York, or London, or somewhere else.

Did you already speak French reasonably well at that point?

Yes, because I’d been sent for extracurricular French lessons at the French Institute in Edinburgh and I’d learnt it at school, and because we lived in Quebec as well. But it was mainly listening to French pop records in the 80s that drove my French, Gainsbourg and Brel, so it did feel quite natural to end up in Paris. And then even more so in Berlin, because I think each European country represents a repressed aspect of your own personality.

Each European country represents a repressed aspect of your own personality.

I don’t know if it applies to everyone, but I certainly feel like I have a German personality that comes out in Berlin and a French personality that comes out in Paris. In Rome, I just remember being struck, when I used to come here in the 80s, by the sexuality and a kind of hostility as well. Men really stare at you here. There’s a kind of toxic masculinity that would probably be even stronger in somewhere like Cairo. But it begins in Southern Europe, so to Northern Europeans that’s already the culture shock, coming down here. I guess I was repelled and attracted. I have reservations about each of those cities and every place in Europe I’ve been, just as I do to some extent about Japan as well. I think to some extent I’ve come through my European phase and now put my faith in Asia [laughs].

Over the last few weeks you’ve been travelling around Europe and something you said a couple of days ago on your video blog struck me as very interesting. You were talking about European freedom of movement, and it struck me that there’s a certain overlap: while the demand for that freedom partly comes from a neoliberal perspective, at a certain point it coincides with the call for No Borders, which obviously derives from the grassroots, from campaigning for migrants’ rights. Capitalists want to move blocks of people around, and the No Borders people want individuals to have the freedom to move around. Now, recently with Macron, a neoliberal politician who genuinely supports fundamental liberal values, there’s a sense that someone like that is ‘on our side’. How does that relate to politicians like Mélenchon, who support immigrants and refugees but are trying to appeal to people who are deeply conservative and want to strengthen borders?

Well it really brought it home to me when I heard Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference, in which she used the phrase ‘citizens of nowhere’. I realised that I was being bracketed against my will with the bankers, those wankers who’ve ruined London and made everything so expensive, and with those Russian oligarchs who come to spend their ill-gotten gains.

I felt that Theresa May’s phrase ‘citizens of nowhere’ brackets me against my will with bankers and Russian oligarchs.

The people I’d be more willingly bracketed with are the immigrants. I was married to a Bangladeshi, a second-generation immigrant, and a lot of my closest friends have been people like that. There’s a chequered element to that, because it’s obviously the result of a colonial process, and economic migration and all the rest of it, which are not unalloyed benefits in themselves. Everything is complicated and endlessly relative.

Now, as we see the collapse (to some extent) of neoliberalism we realise that it had some good points, which was that it ‘talked the talk’, it had a liberal side. I call it the Mayor Bloomberg syndrome, where he obviously is on the side of cheap labour and all the rest of it, but then talking the talk of multiculturalism, rich diversity and so on. I did a blog thing about how we should celebrate but never measure diversity. The Left has been very contradictory on a lot of these issues, I think it’s had a very confused stance.

Momus

Pluralism and diversity are obviously good things but the colonialism system that gave rise to it was not a good thing. Politics is like that, it’s a botch job, it’s a series of compromises, of revisions of revisions and I think I’m happy in a revisionist way. I’m quite positive about the legacy of neoliberalism although obviously I would prefer a socialist system or some sort of basic income system, a no-borders-at-all system, to go back to before people even used passports, which is not all that long ago.

It always amazes me that place and race have become so central to people’s sense of their affinities. I have this alternative thing, which I call ‘elective affinities’, a phrase I took from Goethe, where you decide based on your own ethical, aesthetic and even sexual values what interests you out there, and you make friends with people who seem to embody those values, and marry them, or whatever, rather than everything being based on blood and soil.

I don’t really understand why borders have become the political topic of the day, and why you’re only supposed to have affinities with people from the same space as you and the same race as you. That’s what it seems to be going back to, and it is the Nazi blood and soil philosophy.

Is it partly related to mobility? The Guardian journalist John Harris did a really interesting talk after the Brexit vote which was a good corrective to a lot of nonsense that was being said along the lines that everyone who voted for it was just a xenohobic idiot. Of course there is a substantial truth to that idea…

I’m quite sympathetic to it!

In the immediate period after the referendum I too was extremely angry! But when you get people whose mobility is almost totally limited, by their economic circumstances, for example… He talks about people in the South Wales valleys, where even in terms of moving somewhere else…

But that’s not true at all! The poorest people in the world, the Bangladeshis, they upped and came to London, or they went all over the world. They were much poorer than those Welsh miners. I think jet travel and mobility have become the preserve of the very poor as well as the very rich.

As you say, politics is a very contradictory and complex area. But let’s say, now, in the General Election, you’ve got a Labour party that’s trying to relate to those people. Clearly it can’t just say, “well, just move”…

“Get on your bike!”

Exactly! The Norman Tebbit thing. Which takes us back to the conversation about neoliberalism. “Just move!” is not a very good strategy if you’re trying to get people to vote for you. Is there any way that a party with a progressive political agenda can relate to people who are left with very little in the way of economic opportunity?

It’s hard for me, I was trying to break down my politics recently in one of these vlog things I do, and thinking I’ve got socialist elements in it, and Frankfurt School Marxist elements, and a cosmopolitanism, which is obviously the product of bourgeois privilege, and I do realise that it’s not just because of a lack of economic means but a lack of a desire to travel.

I was talking about this to Teju Cole, the Nigerian-born writer and photographer, recently and he said that back in his village in Nigeria only 10% of people even thought about leaving. Unless there’s a huge disruption, like in Syria or in Bangladesh when the war happened, it tends to be a small minority of people who even think about tearing up their roots and going somewhere else, but it’s those people who are more dynamic and are forcibly educated by travelling.

If I think about the Bangladeshis in London, when they go back home they’re kind of aristocracy because they know two worlds and they have more economic leverage, so people who seem like proletariat on the streets of Brick Lane, they’re very wealthy when they go back to Bangladesh, part of a global class.

There are all these [intercultural] possibilities out there, and people are often just a bit too timid to go and investigate. I would hate to think we’re heading into a world in which a anxiety about a tiny fringe of terrorism stops people from doing that.

It’s fascinating, and it’s not just about finding new personalities within yourself. You might be more sexually attractive in another country, or your accent is considered sexy by Americans if you’re British. There are all these possibilities out there, and people are often just a bit too timid to go and investigate. You can really change your life circumstances, it’s an amazing thing, and I would hate to think we’re heading into a world in which a anxiety about a tiny fringe of terrorism stops people from doing that.

I also wanted to ask you about accelerationism, which you talked about recently, in relation to Asia. The accelerationist guru Nick Land lived in China for a number of years and was very excited about Chinese capitalism. Now if you take that notion that we should just push capitalism to the limit, and contrast it with the opposite, which is the idea of degrowth and sustainability, do you think that Japan, given its relative economic stasis over the last few decades, offers an instructive comparison?

I think cultural factors play a huge role here, and I don’t think you can really prescribe for the whole world a specific degrowth form, because capitalism has such different characteristics in different countries.

Japan has this thing called home bias, where they basically keep out foreign investors. There’s no Rupert Murdoch in Japan. You can’t go in there and own a newspaper and influence Japanese society if you’re a foreigner.

Japan has the least toxic capitalism that I’ve experienced.

The civil service is still very powerful there. You did have neoliberal politicians like Koizumi, who tried to sell off the post office, which is a very emotive issue. The post office is also a major bank in Japan, where there’s also huge public spending deficits, but it doesn’t really alarm anybody, they just like to invest in public services and they think they’re rich enough to do so.

So yes, there is this long, slow decline, but for me it’s important that Japan has a culture where everyone is not pitted against everyone else. The really toxic side of neoliberalism is this thing of each against all: the competition, the zero hours contracts, the sense of precarity that neoliberalism fosters. Of course there are people in such insecure situations in Japan, but somehow the harmony and cohesion that is so important to Japanese society keeps things together and stops them from becoming overly competitive.

For me it’s the least toxic capitalism that I’ve experienced. There are lots of small businesses and things are very commercialised, even things that aren’t in the West – you could probably have a maid in a frilly uniform scratch your hand for a certain amount of money – and I don’t find that objectionable at all, what’s objectionable is being bullied by big companies.

Is the way that global corporations operate really a ‘market’? I was thinking about the efficiency of that metaphor in terms of places like Spitalfields in London, which was a vibrant local market before global forces took control and ruined it, before it fell victim to the catastrophe that has devastated that part of London. Isn’t there something similar in the way in which Al Qaeda will destroy local markets in, say, Baghdad, and the way that global capitalism does? Markets are the lifeblood of society in a way, aren’t they?

I love them. My favourite place in Rome is the market by Termini station, a heavily immigrant-dominated area, with Indians selling Indian fabrics, and Bangladeshis selling Halal meat… That to me is a city, that’s what a city should feel like. What I don’t like is the historical centre, which feels like a museum, really dead, full of tourists in mesh caps. Then there are all the brands you see in such places, like Emporio Armani and Louis Vuitton. They have delusions of grandeur and they make a lot of money. But people love that, especially poor people seem to buy into it.

Do you think such elite brands represent a certain kind of fascism?

Absolutely!

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