Countercultural Legacies in Contemporary Left Imaginaries – Raymond Williams Society Annual Lecture

On the blog for November we have two short pieces by David Wilkinson to preview his annual Raymond Williams Society lecture on Wednesday 20th November in Manchester. Below is an abstract to the talk, which is titled ‘”The Dropouts Are Anticipating Future Economic Policy”: Work, Class, and Countercultural Legacies’, as well as a reflection on what the work of Raymond Williams means in the twenty-first century. Full details can be found here. It starts at 5pm and will be followed by the launch of this year’s Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism.

David writes…

‘The drop-outs are anticipating future economic policy’, wrote Richard Neville in his 1970 countercultural classic Playpower. In a passage reminiscent of contemporary debates over the impact of automation, Neville views the potential consequences of such technologies with guarded optimism – ‘we had better learn how to use the leisure bonus’ – advocating the hippie revival of play as ‘the best revolution around’ under these circumstances. In recent years, countercultural hedonism has often coloured the left’s rediscovery of a technologically inspired anti-work ethic in the wake of socialist resurgence across the UK, Europe and the States. Its pranksterish provocation underpins the meme culture of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’.

17839576162Meanwhile the late Mark Fisher had begun work on a project entitled ‘Acid Communism’ shortly before his passing, which displayed an uncharacteristically optimistic assessment of the possibilities of the 1960s and 1970s.  Yet Neville’s analysis also haunts the present in ways that complicate socialist claims on countercultural inheritance.  At times Playpower sounds less like a utopian manifesto and more like a giddy anticipation of the vast expansion of the cultural industries in the neoliberal era. In this vision, the working class becomes a scapegoat for conservative ills (‘authoritarian xenophobic hard hats who fear black men’s cocks’) in ways that echo current divisions over Brexit.

As early as 1975, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) saw the counterculture as a ‘profoundly adaptive’ middle class response to postwar shifts in the capitalist productive base. The CCCS acknowledged the contested nature of countercultural revolt, noting its utopian tendencies. Yet they remained ambiguous about the politics of an ‘unfinished’ cultural trajectory. This lecture returns to that unfinished trajectory, beginning to explore whether the legacy of the counterculture may still play a role in contemporary left imaginaries of a post-work society, or if it is more likely to animate paralysing hostilities between class fractions otherwise united by their precarious and exploited status.

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Sixty years on from its publication, I teach ‘Culture Is Ordinary’ in a post-’92 university with a predominantly working class intake. Students often respond powerfully to Williams’s humanistic interrogation of class, culture and education.

Some feel so sharply the distance that an institutionalised education in the humanities has put between them and their background that more than once I’ve had to work out how to manage deeply personal soliloquies in seminars. Pedagogically this is all to the good. It’s an opportunity to bridge the ideological gap between personal experience and social determination that avoids the individualising moralism of much contemporary identity politics.

During my own undergraduate years, I was fascinated by the legacy of movements like dada, surrealism and futurism. A sympathetic lecturer nudged me in the direction of Williams’s essay ‘The Politics of the Avant-Garde’ and I read it with interest. But at the time, I was more taken with the esoteric aphorisms of a Debord or the high-mindedness of a Marcuse. By contrast, the calm analysis of the scholarship boy from the border country did not immediately grab me.

81LiqqX7PULAs my research developed, this would change. Especially as I turned my attention to British post-punk, I found the theoretical tools of Williams’s later work indispensible. Cultural materialism may not seem the most obvious method for such a topic. But I’ve found no other approach that combines political commitment so effectively with the possibility of mediating between cultural form, production/reception and historical conjuncture.

It wasn’t only Williams’s theoretical work of the 1970s and 1980s that proved useful. Towards 2000, his critique of early Thatcherism, fits the post-punk period like a glove. In it, Williams offers an alternative emphasis to Stuart Hall’s more pessimistic take on the same moment, continuing to insist on the possibility of political alternatives rather than counselling adaptation to a new hegemony set by the right.

I drew on this argument to point out that post-punk was not purely ‘crisis music’. Before its incorporation into a neoliberal structure of feeling, post-punk’s DIY challenge to the music industry demonstrated the possibility of a democratically managed, egalitarian economy. Its countercultural attempts to live life differently offered up an alternative vision to the alienating, unsustainable consumerism of late capitalism. Both features are what Williams would call ‘resources of hope’.

This emphasis is especially valuable and relevant for the present. Beneath its deceptively moderate surface, Williams’ work is just as transformative as other cultural theory in the Marxist tradition. Our current conjuncture requires exactly this combination of patient realpolitik combined with a utopian belief in the possibility of a world transformed.

  • David Wilkinson is Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the author of Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and has recently written for New Socialist and Tribune. You can read a wide-ranging interview with him here.

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