Ben Watson writes about Peter Sedgwick’s book Psycho Politics, and reflects on his own thirty years of SWP membership, an organisation Watson left in 2009.
He and two other ex-SWP comrades have now formed the AMM (Association of Musical Marxists), hoping to contribute to the current dissolution/reconstruction of the SWP by being completely honest about its merits and faults.
Have you ever gone mad? It’s not really a question you can ask a stranger. That is its power — and its attraction. When Pete Shaughnessy, Simon Barnet and Mark Roberts started Mad Pride in 1999, they did so because they wanted to stop New Labour’s imminent legislation concerning the mentally ill, which was a charter for the pharmaceutical industry: solve the mental-health “problem” by prescribing drugs. During the course of the year 2000, Mad Pride (with their knack for punk-style publicity) helped prevent the government’s amendments to the Mental Health Act[i] going through parliament. But Mad Pride weren’t just about mental health. They also resurrected something the organised Left had forgotten during the 80s: how “alienation” is not just Marxist jargon, it’s real, and it hurts. Keeping up a rational front to this crazy, unfair, competitive world keeps us apart and frustrates our species being, our animal instincts. We daren’t share our inner thoughts with others in case they think them unworthy or greedy or silly or sentimental or… mad.
Mad Pride was the first politics I encountered where those involved had nothing to hide. Mad Pride didn’t bring “politics” into mental health so much as demonstrate that our psychoses are not purely individual ailments, they’re a social issue, products of capitalist alienation and poverty. When Pete Shaughnessy founded “Reclaim Bedlam” (a forerunner to Mad Pride), he announced he was no longer ashamed of his bouts of mania and delusion, in fact he was going to celebrate them. Shaughnessy’s courage and humour and sheer bloody-mindedness shifted something. Permanently. “Radical subjectivity” was no longer just a phrase bandied around by post-grads writing PhDs on Guy Debord and the Situationists; it was something palpable, something which could motivate people and help them organise. It’s a cliché that the 90s was a touchy-feely decade, bringing a new subjectivism to bear in pop culture and journalism: Mad Pride gave touchy-feely a revolutionary edge, activist and critical.
But the left had thought about these issues before. In championing Marx and Freud simultaneously in 1924, the Surrealists denounced capitalist business-as-usual as psychic repression. Opposing the French Chauvinism which surrounded them, they also championed Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his “dialectics”, German imports which they brandished in the face of patriots and fascists at home. But Surrealism never really crossed the Channel; André Breton’s intense dialectic between the intellectual juggernaut of Marxism and the experimental madness of Parisian poetry got lost in its English translation. Surrealism was a product of a Parisian avantgarde whose raison d’être was épater le bourgeois. In Britain, due to the Norman Conquest (1066) all French culture, however oriented, is deemed classy (just as in the United States, due to its ruling-class coming from English stock, Englishness — despite the Beatles (1964) and the Sex Pistols (1977) — is deemed posh). In France, it would have been inconceivable for critics or artists associated with Surrealism to accept knighthoods. They would have been expelled from the movement instantly. In Britain, we had two — Sir Herbert Read and Sir Roland Penrose!
Surrealism was received in Britain as a purely “artistic” current (new weird pictures to buy!) with no stance on official politics other than a vague anarchism which could be interpreted as an aristocrat’s eccentricity or a poet’s fondness for day-dreams. Not until the 60s counter-culture, when opposing the war in Vietnam seemed to involve self-exploration as much as street politics, did anyone associate social liberation with psychic emancipation again. Mad Pride emerged out of Punk, and made no reference to the 60s. However, its practical politics had been anticipated by Peter Sedgwick, who worked throughout the 60s as a psychologist before becoming a lecturer in politics at the University of York in 1968. A member of the International Socialists (fore-runners of the Socialist Workers Party), Sedgwick distilled 25 years’ worth of struggle into a book called Psycho Politics. It was published in 1982, by Harper & Row in the United States and by Pluto in Britain.
Psycho Politics was a critique of the gurus of the new psychiatry: R. D. Laing, Michel Foucault, Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz. All four came under fire for not serving the best interests of working-class mental patients, i.e. those who cannot afford private treatment and must depend on the National Health Service (“users” in today’s terminology). Like Marx and Trotsky, Sedgwick had little time for “public opinion” or fashion, which he considered smokescreens for justifying social inequality and economic exploitation. Laing was a celebrity, a 60s face on the level of Marshall McLuhan or Timothy Leary. In criticising him, Sedgwick was out on his own, thinking on his feet, attempting to square the revolutionary Marxism he’d learned from Tony Cliff (founder of the International Socialists) with ideas so radical they appeared unprecedented. Perhaps the mad were sane and the sane mad? Perhaps the nuclear family was the root cause of schizophrenia? Sedgwick’s politics made him assess these apocalyptic claims with a much-needed sobriety.
When Cliff decided the time was right to change from a small, preponderantly intellectual grouping to a “mass party”, IS changed its name to the SWP. Sedgwick opposed the change, and dropped out. I was an active SWP member in Leeds 1979-1995; although Sedgwick was teaching at the Uni, I never met him, or even heard his name mentioned. I went mad in 1984, and was sectioned to Highroyds Mental Hospital, but no-one thought of mentioning Sedgwick’s name or the name of his book to me. For the SWP at that date, mental illness simply incapacitated you for “action”, you weren’t of interest any more. This is not simply to blame the party. This was the height of Thatcherism (jingoism in the press for the Falklands War, the military-style attacks on miners’ picket lines) and a terrible period to be left-wing. In fact, Peter Sedgwick himself, suffering from political pessimism and mental depression, was found dead in an unexplained drowning accident the year before. That may well explain why no-one recommended Psycho Politics to me.
The SWP’s assiduousness at propaganda makes it seem as if its politics has existed for all time, but when Cliff arrived in England from Palestine in 1946, aged 29, the British left was overwhelmingly reformist. True, there was the Revolutionary Communist Party, founded in 1944. Cliff joined the RCP at once, but became impatient with their by-the-book Trotskyism. Cliff didn’t have the disdain for empirical fact which characterizes both orthodox Trotskyism (Trotsky as Bible: “The Old Man said World War II would end in world revolution; there was no revolution in 1945, ergo World War II hasn’t finished yet …”) and academic (or “Western”) Marxism, where “theory” might as well be theology. For Cliff, Marxism was about looking at the world and understanding how it worked, what people actually did with their lives and what experiences they had. Marxism wasn’t about adherence to dogma. Cliff turned Marxism into something oral, made it come alive. If you couldn’t convince a roomful of striking workers with your analysis, your analysis was ineffectual and hence, for those who want to change the world rather than simply interpret it (i.e. Marxists), useless. In proposing this form of political populism, Cliff was getting down to the true meaning of dialectics, the revolutionary democratic principle which Stalinist and academic Marxism had buried beneath mountains of books: talking.
The post-war left was immobilized because of disputes about the nature of Russia. There had been a workers’ revolution in 1917, everyone was agreed, but what had happened to it? Was Stalin really the workers’ friend? In 1945, dividing up the globe with Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin looked like just another capitalist war lord. In fact, according to Winston Churchill, Stalin’s “revolutionary” approach was simply to be more bloodthirsty, solving “problems” with orders for mass shootings which shocked even Churchill. George Orwell was appalled at the behaviour of the Communist Party in the Spanish Civil War. It seemed like the Moscow-directed Spanish CP was less frightened of General Franco’s army than of workers and peasants occupying their factories and land. Worldwide, Communist Parties were a force of reaction, actively counter-revolutionary. In response, Orwell wrote Animal Farm: the pigs who had led the animals’ revolt were now indistinguishable from their human “enemies”. Cliff cut the Gordian knot: studying economic spread-sheets which detailed production according to Stalin’s Five Year Plans, Cliff decided that labour was being exploited and surplus value being realised. The Russian economy was not socialist at all, but capitalist, albeit a capitalism directed by the state. In this, Russia was not so different from other imperial powers whose entire economies had been mobilised for war.
Cliff’s “state-capitalist” analysis had many consequences. If Russia was no workers’ state (however “degenerated” as orthodox Trots described the USSR), then the cause of Soviet-style Communism was no longer worth fighting for. Tony Cliff split with Gerry Healy (later founder of the Workers Revolutionary Party) over the war in Korea; Cliff did not support “Communist” North Korea versus the South. If it couldn’t be won by tanks and bombs and industrialised armies, socialism became something altogether less spectacular and more mundane, something to fight for in the here and now. This is the kind of socialism — Cliff’s socialism — which inspired Sedgwick. All “theory” must be scrutinised sceptically, tested against what can be observed on the street, in the workplace, on the news. This attitude gave Sedgwick an incredible confidence in dealing with the gurus of the new psychiatry, beyond anything available to contemporary broadsheet journalists.
Sedgwick’s Psycho Politics is an uneven read, veering between closely-argued refutations of the philosophical logic behind Laing and Foucault’s statements and hilarious polemics written in the racy language of the upstairs-pub meeting. All through it you can hear Cliff with his insistence that Marxism cuts through the lies spun by the bourgeoisie and their supporters and that together we can work out the truth and act on it. Reality is no longer the preserve of experts and scientists working away behind locked doors: it’s a situation we are trapped in, something our actions can transform. Sedgwick’s background in anarchism also helped him amplify this side of Cliff’s politics.
Sedgwick is not simply negative. He appreciates radical (or “anti-“) psychiatry for its demolition of positivism in medicine, the idea that the mind is a machine which can be fixed by mechanical means such as ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) or drugs. Indeed, he argues that all aspirant therapists, nurses and social workers should read Foucault and Laing, Goffman and Szasz, Scheff and Lemert. But he insists on the importance of socialism: Marx’s discovery that the individual is a social product. To talk about an individual’s problems without looking at the society which produced the individual is unscientific and unreal.
Trauma and resistance to trauma can, in the human case, be understood not on the analogy of a physical force striking a more or less brittle object, nor on the lines of the invasion of an organism by hostile bacteria, but only through the transformation of elements in a person’s identity and capacity to relate to other persons and social collectives. (p. 26)
Marx criticised the top-down vision of improvement developed by the utopian socialists, asking “who teaches the teacher?” Likewise, Sedgwick criticizes clinical psychopathologists for their failure to take stock of their own social role. Patient and psychiatrist and the patient’s friends and relatives form a unique social situation which must be entered into and understood. This is an application of Cliff’s concept of socialism to the realm of mental health. One of Cliff’s favourite adages was “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class” (the phrase was a commonplace in Marx’s time, and can be found in Friedrich Engels’ preface to the German edition of the Communist Manifesto in 1890). One of the reasons that SWP members were encouraged to visit picket lines and talk to strikers was that here, where workers are organising and resisting, you learn your politics. Books are useful, but the real thing is the people.
Sedgwick takes Foucault at his word when he says in Madness and Civilization that Reason needs to establish a dialogue with Unreason. But Sedgwick spares us the lurid apocalypticism of French Theory — essentially a literary excess, and one of the unfortunate legacies of Surrealism — and remains militantly practical, calling for measures “designed to maximise the acceptance of the mentally ill in work and social discourse” (p. 146). Drugs are not eschewed (even ECT is not ruled out); the crucial issue is power and control:
One central task of a radical political programme for the mentally ill is to enable them to appraise and select the judgements of the medically qualified (for example, over chemical therapies or spells of hospitalization) rather than to confirm their own passivity by obedience to the doctor’s writ. The blanket dismissal of ‘the medical model’ by anti-psychiatric writers and practitioners renders impossible the intelligent discrimination of medicine by its consumers; the chronic or recurrent sufferer from a schizophrenic illness, for instance, has to learn to manage a disability that may be accentuated by the wrong drugs, relieved by correct medication, compounded by unwanted side-effects and variously enlarged or reduced by social relationships such as those with a nurse, a relative, an employer, the police or a social security official. There is no primal Arcady into which mental patients can slip, away from modern institutions of care and intervention. If they slip anywhere away from it all, it will be into the gutter or the graveyard. (p. 146)
Of course, some of Sedgwick’s aims and objectives have been achieved in modern psychiatry. Despite the pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and their reps for GPs and psychiatrists to diagnose newly discovered mental-health “disorders” and prescribe the latest miracle “cures”, the arrogance of experts has been fought back. “Empowerment” became a buzz word in mental health and social work in the 80s. However, as Sedgwick warned, anti-psychiatry’s notion that psychiatrists and mental-health carers are automatically coercive, a kind of brain police, would also be taken up by the Right. Thatcher’s programme of closing asylums in favour of “care in the community” meant unleashing people incapable of taking care of themselves on poor housing estates. Without resources being provided, “care in the community” meant an increase in anti-social behaviour and trouble all round. But the advantage of Sedgwick’s approach is that he places psychiatry within a broad understanding of class: who gets what. For him, class struggle isn’t some abstract war best understood by some mysterious Polit Buro who are going to “lead” the working class like some victorious army. It’s centrally about democracy. Not the bally-hoo of elections as popularity contests between professional politicians (the “high-school” model of politics employed in US presidential elections), but people trying to gain control over their lives. Sedgwick takes us back to the 1940s.
As part of the attempt to win “the hearts and minds” of the British people for war versus Germany (not something that was quite as easy to do as it’s been portrayed in retrospect), the establishment allowed in some measure of democracy and welfare. After the war ended, with battle-hardened soldiers returning home in no mood for further hardship, this was further extended with the National Health Service. During the war, this liberalism surfaced in psychiatry as “therapeutic communities” in military hospitals, and was extended after demilitarization (Sedgwick credits W.R. Bion with a big influence).
When I first picked up Psycho Politics, I imagined Sedgwick would carry out a “Marxist critique” of anti-psychiatry; I thought he’d develop a “theory” of the mind to replace those of Laing and Foucault. He doesn’t try and conquer this high ground at all. Rather, he anticipates exactly what I found Mad Pride doing when I got involved: a radical scepticism about theoretical and academic “answers”, and a commitment to improving the lot of mental-health sufferers by de-privatising their suffering. In improving communication and creating spaces for reflection, the mad can start to cure themselves. Funnily enough, this is also the project of anti-capitalism and the Occupy movement today: the competitive bourgeois life (the home as a fortress and the car as its armoured prosthesis) keeps people apart from each other, and prevents them realising their common humanity — the basic similarity of their needs. What do families with young children need? Some pleasant public spaces which are safe and sheltered (no cars!) where we can collect and let the kids play together. Maybe a cup of tea … “It’s not rocket science!” as one parent said to me, as we gazed in horror at the convoluted arguments and special-case pleading used by someone applying for funds for a children’s event.
Unfortunately, a whole part of the Left — and an even larger proportion of the Right — thinks socialism is rocket science, or more specifically, the rocket science that can send a nuclear warhead to its target. The “achievement” of Stalin’s Russia — the brutal and high-speed industrialisation of a backward country — is cited as a “victory for socialism”, but it was nothing of the kind. To achieve his counter-revolution, Stalin had to murder every other leading member of the Bolshevik party, incarcerate and deport hundreds of thousands, suppress historical facts, break trade unions, reinvent Great Russian Chauvinism, return women to the home, close down progressive Freudian initiatives, prohibit modern art and bowdlerize Marx (in Communist East Germany, Marx’s insulting references to German nationalism were excised from the text of the Gesammelte Werke!). Even after recognising the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, some people still can’t give up their hopes in Communism as a “somewhere else” concept, so they turn to Ho Chi Minh or Mao or Castro, even though these leaders’ conceptions of Communism were utterly Stalinist and managerial. Or it’s something happening in Nicaragua, or it’s the Zapatistas. Cliff called this kind of socialism-at-second-hand “vicarious”, and it’s a product of weakness and despair: “I can’t do it, maybe someone in a distant land is doing it for us …”
But if real socialism is campaigning for crèches and demanding rights for mental health users and pushing for bicycle lanes and supporting a local strike, isn’t it a little dull and shabby and boring? Well, no, because the delight is how UTTERLY HORRIFYING our demands for simple human things is in the eyes of those whose careers depend on realising profits for capital. And also because, as a theory of language and the psyche, socialism explains things in a way nothing else can. What Sedgwick is calling for — suspending medical coercion and authority so that users can decide for themselves what they want — gets to the very root of philosophy in the West: the deep connection between thought, untrammelled conversation and freedom. Marxists call it “dialectics”, but you could just as well call it talking, because that is what it is.
Culture and ideology aren’t just made of talking, they’re also a mesh of
unconscious assumptions and connections, highly susceptible to manipulation by politicians, advertisers and the media (the campaign against New Labour and Tony Blair’s Attack on Iraq found a word for this operation: “spin”). Even a “harmless” entertainment like the BBC’s Dr Who plays a part in shaping “Englishness”, and if you consider the name of Dr Who’s most evil and scary enemy, it turns out to be remarkably like “dialectics”. The materialist analyst of culture, familiar with the absurd way the unconscious works, needs to investigate. Terry Nation claims that he named the Daleks after an encyclopaedia volume which had “DAL-LEK” on the spine, but on entering the televisual unconscious, words accrete new meanings. The voice of the Dalek, the sound of an enraged politician barking through a cheap Tannoy system, fury so loud it rattles the speaker cone, was obviously modelled on Middle England’s idea of absolute evil, Hitler. “Exterminate!” is genocide. But the word “daleks” recalls “dialectics”, so the horror of Hitler is stoked by referencing Marx, German philosophy and all those arguments which make your poor little empirical brain ache. “Daleks” is alien invasion by a host of continental horrors: Nazism, Marxism, Communism — all dark forces to make the Little Englander hide behind the sofa, clutching a cup of tea. In fact, dialectics argues that truth is not secured by sacred text or dogma, but by the freedom to converse among equals: democracy. But the very word is a hostage of history: it’s indelibly associated with impenetrable philosophies no normal person could ever understand. What is democracy without normal people? Nothing (even though genuine conversation may need the abnormals to start it …).
The party hack has an answer to the dilemma of the perceived “difficulty” of Marxism: “theory and practice”. The way this couplet was used in the SWP was frequently crass and oppressive, especially outside the orbit of Cliff’s egalitarian, anti-academic, urgently oral approach. Various selected individuals develop “theory”, creating intricate paths of thought set with yawning traps of prohibition and taboo, making them perilous to even enter, while others do “practice”, which amounts to publicising a political name-brand in abject alienation from the inner motivations and impulses of the target audience. A fetish of print replaced the chemistry of revolutionary politics, which is live, spontaneous and oral. “Theory” now means something that looks like an academic journal — dense, forbidding and rather boring — while “practice” looks like a newspaper, leaflet or a picket. The “theory” dictates the “practice” just as the brain commands the limbs. But this physiology is completely Cartesian — and completely wrong. It projects the mind/body dualism of the bourgeoisie, derived from the division between mental and manual labour, onto the very organs of socialism. Actually, “practice” — the gathering together of socialists in real space and time — is what generates theoretical insight. Books and articles are the residue of this dialectical process.
Of course, there are certain inspired texts which electrify their readers and change everything. But these are rarely if ever carried in established publications, which tend to perpetuate the same names and the same ideas. You read Private Eye or Socialist Worker today, and it’s the same experience as reading the same publication twenty years ago (forty years ago in the case of Private Eye). Stability, stasis and reaction are what result from building institutions. Although his twists and turns (“bending the stick”) were sometimes exaggerated and misguided, at least Cliff was not satisfied with routine. Satisfaction is the opposite of revolution, which is why the 60s protested dissatisfaction — from Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (Aristocrat, 1948) through to the the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Decca, 1965) and Frank Zappa’s “I’m Not Satisfied” (Verve, 1966). Socialist Worker street sales had great moments because they provided a focus for the local left to meet up. The visit to the pub afterwards was what really mattered. Even though down in London the squabbles over who was editing the paper and running the printshop were taken to be the stuff of politics itself, in the provinces the paper often remained unread.
In his review of my Adorno for Revolutionaries (Unkant, 2011) in Radical Philosophy #173, David Cunningham accused me of over-simplification when I said that Adorno’s campaign against the “dominance of the concept” was a response to the dominance of the boss over the employee. But that is the essential insight of Marx: our alienation from our species being, from what should be our lives, is caused by the fact that to earn a living we must mechanically follow someone else’s concept of market realism, someone else’s idea. At its worst, the “theory/practice” couplet reproduces precisely this alienation in the heart of socialism. Some smooth-talkers seemed to be in charge of the theory (“management”), whereas us activists did the unglamorous stuff (“labour”). Occasionally there were crisis points where management got things so spectacularly wrong we needed to rejig the party machine, and that’s when everything came alive and you felt like a revolutionary and a comrade. A truly dialectical politics would not vaunt print over conversation, and would trust only those comrades who can convince people in the flesh. Moreover, the truly inspiring texts, it will be found, do not provide answers (dogma) so much as questions (stimulants to conversation). We learned far more from our own Capital reading-group than any amount of Lindsey German or Gareth Jenkins in Socialist Review. In fact, what the authoritarians hate about the classics (and why they would rather you read “introductions” and “guides”) is that they stimulate debate and foment real dialectic. They make you think for yourself. This was a continual source of trouble under Stalinism, as young Communists encountered Capital and started asking questions. As the Plastic People of the Universe (Zappa/Velvets fans, longterm dissidents under Communism in Czechoslovakia and associates of Vacláv Havel, who led the “Velvet Revolution” and overturned the Communist regime in 1989) put it:
They are afraid inside their castle ghetto.
They are afraid of their own police.
They are afraid of each other.
The are afraid of what they have said.
They are afraid for their position.
They are afraid of Marx.
They are afraid of Lenin.
They are afraid of truth.
They are afraid of freedom.
They are afraid of democracy.
They are afraid of the Human Right’s Charter.
They are afraid of socialism.
SO WHY THE HELL ARE WE AFRAID OF THEM?
Svaotopluk Karásek “Sermon on the Destruction of Sodom and Gommorah” in booklet accompanying The Plastic People, Prague Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (Invisible Record SCOPA, 1976)
In fact, “theory and practice” is not particularly Marxist, it’s second-hand (and rather dilapidated) Aristotle. Aristotle actually distinguished three kinds of knowledge: theoria is knowledge of eternal truths, praxis is knowledge aiding human actions. But Aristotle adds a third term – poiesis – or “productive activity” (it is the root word for “poetry”). Leaving out poiesis is disastrous. Because slaves did all the work in Aristotle’s time, he never got to the concept of labour, but poiesis — imaginative or linguistic creativity — he did get to. Theory and practice without poiesis is not “dialectical”, it’s empty and void of meaning for those involved. Real revolutionary activity is inventive, singular and personal, and allows those involved to express themselves in ways unheralded. Mad Pride showed the way!
According to Rosa Luxemburg, Marx and Engels developed their historical materialism by realising that, in its hunt for what created value, classical political economy (Adam Smith) had missed out Capital as part of the expense of producing a commodity. Capital is a word for our human inheritance, the past labour which means we have at our disposal things like languages and musical systems and arable fields and roads and buildings and computers. There is a continual struggle over this inheritance. Desperate for profit, capitalists try and privatise these assets (they confuse this anti-social appropriation with productive labour and claim it should be “rewarded”). But everyone can see it’s a swindle (hence the unpopularity of bankers today). Creation of genuine value requires massive team efforts: Marx’s argument was that since under capitalism productive labour was socialised, the means to make it happen (capital) should be socialised too.
Restricting Marxism to the bourgeois concept of “economics” (capital is simply a large amount of money) prevents people grasping the revolutionary nature of historical materialism. It’s not just inherited wealth that should be shared by all, it’s the whole of human culture reconceived on our terms. This means refusing received wisdom about literary classics and artistic masterpieces too. We need that term used by conspiracy theory nuts: Are you awake? Socialism means investigating and testing and reporting back, subjecting everything that exists to merciless criticism.
Now what I am saying may sound very nice and desirable, but so abstract as to be nearly meaningless. Who’d disagree? Well, when this attitude does surface as a practical activity the authoritarians run a mile. You can’t predict it, it’s not controllable and you can’t guarantee it will be “good”. Take Free Improvisation, for example. Free Improvisation is a way of making music which resembles conversation. No-one (except academics) talks to each other wondering what it would look like if you wrote it down. We speak because we need to communicate in the instant, because we love or hate, because we’re enthusiastic or disgusted. It’s necessary. Likewise, free improvisors. There are no provisos as to instrument, technique or skill, simply the commitment to making sounds in real-time as an activity worth paying attention to. Now, there is a certain level of fluency required for it. Non-musicians, by which I mean people who haven’t played on their instruments much, do tend to repeat the same actions and become a little bored with the sounds they produce. But if you can control your instrument enough to make it respond with the alacrity and precision of a mouth noise, you are in.
Back in the 1980s, much nonsense was talked by American musicians seeking to capitalise the jazz legacy and coast on its supposed political correctness. Their jazz neo-Classicism sounds even worse today than it did at the time: crabbed, fidgety and smug. In 1994 I suddenly realised what was wrong with Wynton Marsalis’s entire argument (that jazz is a “heritage” to be studied like classical music) when interviewing Jef Lee Johnson, electric guitarist and pop-rocker. At the time he was a member of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society (with saxophonist James Carter, quite a group!). In answer to my enthusiasm about his playing, he said: “On this tour I found my voice. I think some of the other musicians are even a little jealous.” Finding your voice! This is the key to improvising: not “mastering the changes” or “paying your dues” or “studying at Berklee School”! Finding your voice so you can join the general conversation. Your way into the dialectic. Not some tragic surrender to the Law of the Father, or whatever gibberish you get from the Lacanians, but entering the General by developing your Particular.
Finding you own voice, not learning to play like someone else. As the brittle synth-drum click-track “management” sonic of monetarist 80s pop “matured” and “softened” in the 90s (i.e. went “touchy feely” — and Blairite), vast quantities of rock musicians became expert at being other people. You could go and see bands which were precisely 50% Smiths, 30% Cure and 20% Fire Engines (Art Rocker was born …). But it was all rubbish, because rock had become repertoire, samples from the great meaningless tapestry of inheritance, a zone for the application of imitative technique as sterile as the classical orchestra. No-one (except The Streets for five seconds … and James MacDougall with Ape Shit) dared to be themselves.
Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics is a notoriously difficult work of philosophy, but — like so much that is supposedly “difficult” — it’s actually only difficult for those who can’t begin to agree with it because they’ve got too much to lose. They’ve imbibed so much erroneous philosophy they confuse their swollen tums with gravitas, constipation as status and sanctimony: a refusal to dump. Adorno’s opening gambit is that Marx’s “the point however is to change it” was betrayed by Stalin and the Soviet Union, so that we need to return to philosophy. When I used to talk about Adorno in the SWP, I was told I was wrong, he was not part of “our” tradition, that workers could not understand him, that returning to philosophy was “elitist”. But here is a book which is entirely about the crimes state-capitalist Russia committed against the dialectic, against Marxism, against thinking itself. Surely this should interest any Cliffite? It’s also a defence of the singular and the personal and the idiosyncratic against abstractions which would smother them; a tract versus the boss. So Negative Dialectics, it turns out, is for Jeff Lee Johnson’s concept of music (“finding your voice”) versus Wynton Marsalis’s: “jazz mastery” is a fiction, an excuse for a new black middle class to commit itself to social distinction, completely forgetting the insurgent egalitarianism (not to say brothel gigs) of those who invented the music. Invention breaks rules! Jazz and Improv and Pop are history created by daring to defy what “ought” to be music.
There may be times when this truth bursts over an entire generation, and a new pop music arrives, but there are also times of drought where the real thing may only be found by looking into the cracks. In subterranean crevices, termite-like, musicians gather together to throw off the yoke of the market and indulge musical dialogue unfettered. What does this sound like? One way of explaining it is via one phenomenon of mental illness: “hearing voices”. When I was a child, I regularly suffered viruses which caused fevers. Delirious, I used to hear two voices quarrelling, one high-pitched and querulous, the other gruff and bassy. The quarrels went on and on, neither allowing the other the last word: “I-I-I-ah-ee-ee-ee …” interrupted by “Mmm-nnn um boh-bah nnnn”. Today, I interpret this as nightmarish recall of hearing my parents argue, but from the perspective of a child who can’t understand the concepts (was Russia socialist? who was right in the Arab-Israeli conflict? etc), but understands the animal antagonism of two bodies all too intensely. This perspective, I would argue, is the key to a record like And (Rectangle, 1997). Here, three distinguished improvisors (Derek Bailey, Pat Thomas and Steve Noble) appear to abandon “music” for a choppy torrent of chirps, squeaks and moans. It all comes together if you forget the idea of music as organisation and symmetry (architecture), and listen instead to the musical interplay as dialogue, dialectic, talking.
On And the musicians are accessing primal, instinctual, automatic responses which are usually buried beneath a layer of “educational” bullshit. In order to get beyond his accumulated skills — pretty substantial — as a percussionist, Noble played turntables. His trashy record selections are bitingly sarcastic, and the way he speed-warps and brings them to abrupt halts demonstrate a kind of fury at recorded mediation, a fury which Thomas and Bailey use to catapult themselves into new ways of playing. In many ways the much-touted “Noise” genre is simply the sound of improvisors who haven’t learned to hear each other; this music on the other hand, because all three want to hear each other’s replies, proceeds by stops and starts. Experience And properly and the unmediated directness is almost too hard to bear, but it’s incredibly colourful and rich (sometimes, like adolescents experiencing orgasm for the first time, listeners confuse this intensity with pain — and run away). And is a psychedelic explosion of real communication. As such, it threatens all those with investments in communication stage-management (i.e. most First World enterprise). Money (keeping your eye on “the market”) may be the all-important capitalist “enabler”, but it’s actually something which keeps us apart. Find an And fan and you’ve found someone emotionally committed to doing things a different way.
Have you ever listened to Resonance Radio (104.4 FM in London, www.resonancefm.com elsewhere)? Mostly, it’s great. A host of eccentrics, oddballs and misfits (not forgetting video-gamesters, bicyclists, eco-freaks, Occupiers and the marvellous Max Keiser) making free radio. But it’s not all fantastic. The radio station is plagued by artists talking about “their work”, conversations which are invariably garbage. You can’t reach the “off” button fast enough. Why do artists (uniquely) let the side down? Because “art” is a cipher, they’re actually talking about money (“funding”). As Iain Sinclair put it, if an art installation is legal, it’s probably rubbish, if funded, doubly so. When artists justify what they do using contemporary “theory”, the discussion turns sick because they’ve started to manage themselves, put themselves under the domination of the bourgeois concept (the market); when the whole point is to be — as road-manager Cecil Harrelson described Jerry Lee Lewis — “unmanageable”. The more we develop our “careers”, the less we can think dialectically, convivially, collectively. The market is capitalism’s ultimate concept, where it directs all its thoughts and all our efforts.
Conceptuality can’t hide the fact that, even though it may be partly the subject’s own fault, the conceived world is not the subject’s own, but a world hostile to it.
Theodor Adorno, Negativ Dialektik, p. 169 [my translation]
Finding your voice in a hostile world. That’s what a genuine psycho politics would do, whether it’s called Punk or Revolutionary Organisation or Free Improvisation or Mad Pride. May your voice, gentle reader, join the whirling hubbub! And make a dent.
[i] [Editor’s Note] Ben here is referring to the Green Paper on the Reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 that was published in November 1999 following the Richardson Report of 1988, this was the first Green paper in a series of drafts that would eventually result in the Mental Health Act 2007.
Theodor Adorno Negative Dialectics (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973)
Peter Sedgwick Psycho Politics (Pluto, 1982)
ed. Ted Curtis, Rob Dellar, Esther Leslie, Ben Watson Mad Pride: a Celebration of Mad Culture (Spare Change Books, 2000)
Ian Birchall Tony Cliff (Bookmarks, 2011)
Ben Watson Adorno for Revolutionaries (Unkant, 2011)
Muddy Waters I Can’t Be Satisfied (Aristocrat, 1948)
Rolling Stones, The (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Decca, 1965)
Mothers of Invention, The Freak Out! (Verve Records, 1966)
Plastic People … Prague, The Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (Scopa Invisible, 1978)
Derek Bailey, Steve Noble, Pat Thomas And (Rectangle, 1997)
Ben Watson’s weekly show “Late Lunch With Out To Lunch” goes out from Resonance FM every Wednesday at 2pm, usually live.
Ben Watson would like to thank Keith Fisher of the AMM for recommending Sedgwick’s book and Ian Birchall of the SWP for painstaking comments on an early draft.
Buy the Newhaven Journeyman: Finding A Voice for this and other great articles