Jennifer M Silva’s Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty is a heartbreaking study of the corrosive effects of the neoliberal environment on intimacy. Silva’s book focuses on young people specifically – it is based on a hundred interviews she undertook with young working class men and women in two American cities in Massachusetts and Virginia. Her findings are disturbing. Over and over again, Silva finds her young subjects exhibiting a ‘hardened’ self – a form of subjectivity that prides itself on its independence from others. For Silva, this hardened subject is the consequence of this generation being abandoned, institutionally and existentially. In an environment dominated by unrelenting competition and insecurity, it is neither possible to trust others nor to project any sort of long-term future. Naturally, these two problems feed into one another, in one of the many vicious spirals which neoliberal culture has specialised in innovating. The inability to imagine a secure future makes it very difficult to engage in any sort of long-term commitment. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who might share the stresses imposed by a harshly competitive social field, many of the working class individuals to whom Silva spoke instead saw relationships as an additional source of stress. In particular, many of the heterosexual women she interviewed regarded relationships with men as too risky a proposition. In conditions where they could not depend on much outside themselves, the independence they were forced to develop was both a culturally-validated achievement and a hard-won survival strategy which they were reluctant to relinquish.
“In a world of rapid change and tenuous loyalties,” Silva argues, “the language and institution of therapy – and the self-transformation it promises – has exploded in American culture.” A therapeutic narrative of heroic self-transformation is the only story that make sense in a world in which institutions can no longer be relied upon to support or nurture individuals. “In social movements like feminism, self-awareness, or naming one’s problems, was the first step to radical collective awareness. For this generation, it is the only step, completely detached from any kind of solidarity; while they struggle with similar, and structurally rooted, problems, there is no sense of ‘we’. The possibility of collective politicization through naming one’s suffering is easily subsumed within these larger structures of domination because others who struggle are not seen as fellow sufferers but as objects of scorn”.
The spreading of therapeutic narratives was one way in which neoliberalism contained and privatized the molecular revolution that consciousness-raising was bringing about. Where consciousness-raising pointed to impersonal and collective structures – structures that capitalist and patriarchal ideology obscures – neoliberalism sees only individuals, choices and personal responsibility. Yet consciousness-raising practices weren’t only at odds with capitalist ideology; they also marked a decisive break with Marxist-Leninism. Gone was the revolutionary eschatology and the militaristic machismo which made revolution the preserve of an avant-garde. Instead, consciousness-raising made revolutionary activity potentially available to anyone. As soon as two or more people gather together, they can start to collectivise the stress that capitalism ordinarily privatizes. Personal shame becomes dissolved as its structural causes are collectively identified.
Socialist-feminism converted Lukács’s theory of class consciousness into the practice of consciousness-raising. Since consciousness-raising has been used by all kinds of subjugated groups, it would perhaps be better to talk now of subjugated group consciousness rather than (just) class consciousness. But it is worth noting in passing that neoliberalism has sought to eradicate the very concept of class, producing a situation memorably described by Wendy Brown, in which there is “class resentment without class consciousness or class analysis”. This erasure of class has distorted everything, and allowed many struggles to be rhetorically captured by bourgeois liberalism.
Subjugated group consciousness is first of all a consciousness of the (cultural, political, existential) machineries which produce subjugation – the machineries which normalize the dominant group and create a sense of inferiority in the subjugated. But, secondly, it is also a consciousness of the potency of the subjugated group – a potency that depends upon this very raised state of consciousness. However, it is important to be clear that the aim is not to remain in a state of subjugation. As Nancy C. M. Hartsock explains in The Feminist Standpoint Revisited & Other Essays, “the point is to develop an account of the world that treats our perspectives not as subjugated, insurrectionary, or disruptive knowledges, but as potentially constitutive of a different world.”
To have one’s consciousness raised is not merely to become aware of facts of which one was previously ignorant: it is instead to have one’s whole relationship to the world shifted. The consciousness in question is not a consciousness of an already-existing state of affairs. Rather, consciousness-raising is productive. It creates is a new subject – a we that is both the agent of struggle and what is struggled for. At the same time, consciousness-raising intervenes in the ‘object,’ the world itself, which is now no longer apprehended as some static opacity, the nature of which is already decided, but as something that can be transformed. This transformation requires knowledge; it will not come about through spontaneity, voluntarism, the experiencing of ruptural events, or by virtue of marginality alone. Hence Hartsock’s concept of standpoint epistemology, which maintains – following Lukács and Marx – that subjugated groups potentially have an access to knowledge of the whole social field that the dominant group lacks. Members of subjugated groups do not however automatically possess this knowledge as of right – it can only be accessed once group consciousness is developed. According to Hartsock “the vision available to the oppressed group must be struggled for and represents an achievement which requires both science to see beyond the surface of the social relations in which all are forced to participate, and the education which can only grow from struggle to change those relations.”
One way of seeing Jennifer M Silva’s book is as an account of radically deflated consciousness. Crucial to this is Silva’s restoration of the concept of class as a frame shaping the experiences of those who feature in her study. Class is what is typically missing from her interviewees’ ‘therapeutic’ accounts of themselves. Exactly as Wendy Brown says, many of Silva’s subjects tend to exhibit (an unconscious and disavowed) class resentment without class consciousness.
Reading Silva’s descriptions of women wary of giving up their independence to men they perceive as feckless wasters, I was reminded of two R&B hits from 1999: ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC and ‘Bills Bills Bills’ by Destiny’s Child. Both these songs see financially independent women upbraiding (presumably unemployed) men for their shiftlessness. It is easy to attack such tracks for their seeming peddling of neoliberal ideology. Yet I think it far more productive to hear these songs in the same way that we attend to the accounts in Silva’s book. These are examples of consciousness deflated, which have important lessons to communicate to anyone seeking to dismantle capitalist realism.
It is still often assumed that politics is somehow ‘inside’ cultural products, irrespective of their context and their use. Sometimes, agit-prop style culture can of course be politically transformative. But even the most reactionary cultural expression can contribute to a transformative project if it is sensitively attended to. It is possible to see the work of the late Stuart Hall in this light: as an attempt to bring to leftist politics the messages that culture was trying to impart to it. If this project was something of a tragic failure, it was a consequence, not of the shortcomings in Hall’s approach, but of the intransigence of the old left, its deafness to the desires and anxieties being expressed in culture. Ever since Hall fell under the spell of Miles Davis in the 1950s, he dreamed of somehow commensurating the libidinal modernity he encountered in popular music with the progressive political project of the organized left. Yet the authoritarian left was unable to tune into this ambition, allowing itself to be outflanked by a new right which soon claimed modernization for itself, and consigned the left to the past.
To understand this failure from another angle, let’s consider for a moment the work of the late music and cultural critic Ellen Willis. In her 1979 essay, ‘The Family: Love It Or Leave It,’ Willis observed that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”. It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a ‘social and psychic revolution’ could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history. There’s probably no better account of the Sixties’ counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to the collection, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and the statism of mainstream socialism. While the music that she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The counterculture’s politics were anti-capitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterises as her “quarrel with the left,” yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organisation. Willis’s “polemic against standard leftist notions about advanced capitalism” rejected as at best only half-true the ideas ‘that the consumer economy makes us slave to commodities, that the function of the mass media is to manipulate our fantasies, so we will equate fulfilment with buying the system’s commodities.’ Culture – and music culture in particular – was a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate – culture didn’t just ‘express’ already-existing political positions, it also anticipated a politics-to-come (which was also, too often, a politics that never actually arrived).
Yet there was also an immanent transformative immediacy in the music of the counterculture. It reinforced the feelings of despair, disaffection and rage that bourgeois culture ordinarily makes us distrust. As such, music functioned as a form of consciousness-raising, in which a mass audience could not only experience its feelings being validated, it could locate the origins of those feelings in oppressive structures. Moreover, the ingestion of hallucinogens by growing numbers of the population, and the emergence of a psychedelic imaginary that touched even those who had never used acid, made for a widespread perception that social reality was provisional, plastic, subject to transformation by collective desire.
If Beginning to See the Light is a painful – and painfully honest – account of consciousness deflation, then the same story is narrated within music culture itself. Peter Shapiro has shown how early seventies soul and funk music – The O Jays’ ‘Back Stabbers,’ The Undisputable Truth’s ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes,’ Sly Stone’s ‘You Caught Me Smiling’ – “engaged in a remarkable conversation” about the newly minted Smiley yellow face image, “an imagistic minefield that played confidence games with centuries of caricatures, the beaming faces of the white establishment promising civil rights and integration [and] Nixon’s Dirty Tricks gang.” With Nixon on the rise and the Panthers subdued, songs like ‘Backstabbers’ caught a new mood of suspicion and recrimination. In his classic essay ‘The Myth of Staggerlee’, Greil Marcus argues that these songs – along with the rest of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and The Temptations’ ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ – were part of a bitter moment, when 60s optimism had drained away to be replaced by paranoia and melancholy. Stone writes, “when new roles break down and there is nothing with which to replace them, old roles, ghosts, come in to fill the vacuum.” The collectivity and the multiplicity that the Family Stone had embodied – radical democracy in vibrant action: a group made up of men and women, blacks and whites– gave way to a morose and dejected individualism. “The best pop music does not reflect events so much as it absorbs them,” Marcus wrote. “If the spirit of Sly’s early music combined the promises of Martin Luther King’s speeches and the fire of a big city riot, Riot represented the end of those events and the attempt to create a new music appropriate to the new realities.”
These ‘new realities’ would eventually become nothing less than capitalist realism itself. Capitalist realism – in which current social relations are reified to the point that any shift in them becomes unimaginable – could only be fully consolidated once the Promethean-pyschedelic imaginary was all but entirely subdued. But this would take a while. The seventies weren’t only about countercultural retreat and defeat. In When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, Andy Beckett argues that a “liberal or left-wing melancholy about the seventies has, in many ways, been the mirror image of the doomy right-wing view of the same period.” But as Beckett argues this “fails to acknowledge that for many politicized Britons, the decade was not the hangover after the sixties; it was the point when the great sixties party actually started.” The successful Miners’ Strike of 1972 saw an alliance between the striking miners and students that was echoed similar convergences in Paris 1968, with the miners using the University of Essex’s Colchester campus as their East Anglian base. The seventies also saw the growth in Britain of gay, anti-racist, feminist and Green movements. In many ways, it was it was the unprecedented success of the left and the counterculture in the 1970s that forced capital to respond with neoliberalism. This was initially played out in Chile, after Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup had violently overthrown Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government, transforming the country – via a regime of repression and torture – into the first neoliberal laboratory.
The seventies that Andy Beckett celebrates in the British context found expression in the US in the disco genre. Disco was a music that grew out of the convergence of a number of subjugated groups. It was a music made by and for gays, black people and women, and – like most postwar popular music, it was overwhelmingly produced by the working class. Chic’s Nile Rodgers– surely the most important producer and sonic conceptualist of the late 70s and early 80s – had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Disco provided the template for the successive waves of dance music in the 80s and 90s, including House, Techno, Rave and Garage. In her 1991 book Design After Dark, Cynthia prophesied a “dancefloor revolution” that would “come about through grass-roots changes – successive waves of guerrilla sounds, guerrilla design, guerrilla enertainments. The new design dynamic will be an impulse born out of celebration, rising out of leisure enacted as an event. And it will change young people’s perception about what entities like design and communication should do.” Yet Rose understandably failed to anticipate the extent to which the new energies, infrastructures and forms of desire she identified would be appropriated by neoliberal culture which would lay claim to freedom and pleasure, while associating the left with a grey puritan statism. Once again, the left missed an opportunity, failing to successfully align itself with the collective euphoria of dancefloor culture. Thus the ‘good times’ on the dancefloor became fleeting escapes from a capitalism that was increasingly dominating all areas of life, culture and the psyche.
This super-domination came out in the mordant yet playful ‘realism’ of Gwen Guthrie’s 1986 R&B hit, ‘Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But The Rent’, one of the first popular musical signs of the emergence of the new hardened subject that Silva analyses so well. At a time of rising unemployment, Guthrie sang, “You’ve got to have a j.o.b. if you want be with me/ no romance without finance.” The subjectivity performed in Guthrie’s song is in many ways the female counterpart to the gangster rap persona that was emerging when the single was released. Both reject intimacy and tenderness. In gangster rap there is a hyberbolic performance of invulnerability – a performance that can only appear bitterly ironic, when we consider the fact that even some of the most wealthy and successful gangster rappers (such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls) would end up being shot dead. By contrast, and despite its surface bravado, ‘Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But The Rent’ is a song about the need for security – “fly girl like me/ needs security” – in conditions of radical uncertainty. This wasn’t some celebration of Reaganomics. On the contrary, Guthrie’s song drew out the way in which Reaganomics was corroding the conditions for intimacy – a message that was much more emotionally charged and politically resonant than most of the protest songs of the time. Similarly, the formula ‘no romance without finance’ need not only be construed as merely some reactionary concession to capitalist realism. Rather, it can be heard as a rejection of the ideological sentimentality that separates out social reproduction from paid work. Anticipating much of twenty-first century popular music, ‘Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But the Rent’ is the sound of the loneliness that happens when consciousness is deflated, and the conditions for raising it are absent. But with the new movements that are rising in the US after Ferguson, with the movements in Europe that have produced Podemos and Syriza, there is every reason to believe that those conditions are returning. It is beginning to look as if, instead of being the end of history, capitalist realism was a thirty-year hiatus. The processes that began in the Sixties can now be resumed. Consciousness is being raised again.