For a subculture of our own
DEAN IMHOLZ'S letter ("Hair metal or Deadheads") about the colorful characters who have rubbed elbows with the Socialism 2016 Conference over the past couple years is an interesting one. The image of Deadheads and Guns 'n' Roses fans sharing a large corporate conference space with over a thousand Marxists and radicals is certainly disarming. It does make me wonder who we'll encounter next year.
But I find myself questioning some of his conclusions about Deadheads vs. G'n'R fans. In attempting to urge us to take a more nuanced and less elitist view of one subculture, does he inadvertently foster misconceptions about the other? It seems to me that there's an opportunity here to dig deeper into the meaning of culture, subculture and aesthetics from a Marxist standpoint.
To be clear, if Dean is indeed making mistakes in his conclusions, then he's in good company. The American left has, for the past 40 years or so, not been very skilled at talking culture; partially because we have spent those past 40 years just trying to survive as a left, and partially because talking about culture can be extremely difficult.
Cards on the table: I don't like Guns 'n' Roses or the Grateful Dead. Whether that puts me in a better or worse position to disagree with Dean is something I leave up to the reader, but I will say that my experiences with both the Deadheads and the hair metal fans were markedly different from what his seemed to be.
This is not to say that we should revert back to a simplistic viewpoint that the kindly hippies of the Grateful Dead are somehow more our allies than the folks wailing that they want to be taken down to the Paradise City. It may be true or not, but if we're going to say so with any authority then we need to take up the question of what a subculture is, what its social function is, and how it operates. This is a tricky task.
THE PHENOMENON of the subculture as we understand it today is actually a fairly recent one. What all have in common is that they require a large amount of working-class support to gain a basic amount of stability (ticket prices notwithstanding), and they arise out of a basic sense of alienation with some aspect of daily life as presented to us by capitalism.
But because they do indeed exist under capitalism they are at the same time subject to the machinations of a culture industry that profits from selling that same alienation back to us. Dissent can be re-metabolized, and the culture industry--just like any other industry motivated by profit--has become adept at this. The kinds of class forces that exist at any given time matter in how a subculture is shaped and in how it gets pulled back further into the orbit of capital.
Both the Grateful Dead and G'n'R reveal this if we look at them in the right light. There is a great deal more that can be said about both bands and their socio-economic surroundings. But the gravities of capitalism and all the oppressive crap that comes with it can explain how a group that in its early years was close with the Black Panthers could 20 years later be so easily marketed to frat boys who by that time were the only ones who could afford to "tune in and drop out."
Likewise, while the decadent nastiness of hair metal and other related genres can and should be placed in the context of an ascendant neoliberalism and declining working-class living standards, that same context can account for the vile misogyny and homophobia that Guns 'n' Roses have outwardly celebrated. In short, neither group or subculture comes without their contradictions, but whatever we might think of them, there is something there that working people relate to and this deserves to be understood.
I'd like to emphasize that Dean is not wrong in saying that perhaps we should look at G'n'R fans in a fuller light, but if we are to do that, then we must do it with Deadheads also. And in a way that ticket prices don't really reflect. Our goal here should not be comparisons of one subculture against another that are bound to be subjective and result in a constant stream of exceptions and "but what abouts." In my opinion, our goal should be to reckon with each and every such subculture as a process that can be shaped by forces around it rather than as a static "thing" whose reflections can only have a single meaning.
ONE OF the most enlightening discussions at Socialism 2016 took place at the talk "What Do We Mean When We Talk About Culture?", in which the speaker laid out a case for looking at culture in a way that pulls away both from an undialectical "vulgar Marxist" approach and postmodernists that would freeze cultural processes in time.
One of the themes that ran through said discussion was what a "radical workers' subculture" might look like. What does it mean for radical workers to be a big enough force in society that they can sway cultural workers and artists away from reactionary ideas and create space for their art to in turn connect with those in struggle? What does it look like for cultural workers to be a counterbalance against the culture industry? Is there the possibility for a subculture that gives working people confidence (including women, LGBTQ people, the differently abled and people of color) to imagine something better? I would posit that whenever a socialist criticizes or lionizes a subculture, these are the questions they are implicitly asking.
This doesn't have an easy answer. But the radical workers' subculture has existed before. When the Communist Party was able to hold jazz dances featuring Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, when they were able to count some of the best writers and artists of the era among their supporters, it was a radical workers subculture. We can say the same of when the League of Revolutionary Black Workers began producing films, or when Black Panthers played in soul bands. And when Rock Against Racism brought tens of thousands of young, multiracial working class kids against together to hear the Clash, X-Ray Spex and Steel Pulse, all in opposition to the fascists of the National Front, it was also part of a radical workers' subculture.
Recreating this cannot be done just through willing it so. With the defeats of the past 40 years, the infrastructure for such a subculture (and indeed a counterculture) needs to be rebuilt. But there's space to talk about the rich cultural and artistic legacy that is as much a part of our tradition as the political economy and the hidden stories of class struggle itself.
So let's ask these questions. Let's talk more about the Communist Party's cultural fronts, the music, film and literature of the 1960's, and Rock Against Racism. Let's revisit Dada and the Futurists and Surrealists and the Situationists and the countless communists that weren't just among their ranks but in some cases drove them forward. Let's talk about Afropunk and Afrofuturism, increasingly popular (and even in some cases trendy) subcultures that are heavily in dialog with the Black Lives Matter movement. Let's read not just our Trotsky but our Walter Benjamin, Stuart Hall, Ernst Bloch, Ray Williams, Suzanne and Aime Cesaire, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Let's look at it all with a critical eye and start to ask what works and what doesn't. Seems me that, as the left grows and faces a whole slew of new and vexing challenges, we stand to gain quite a bit.
Alexander Billet, editor-in-chief of Red Wedge magazine, Chicago, Illinois