Sunday, 31 January 2010

On negative solidarity and post-fordist plasticity

From the tube strikes to the postal strikes, to the upcoming round of public service cuts, and festering in every political blog’s foetid comments box and every wretched rancid letters page of the right-wing London free-sheets, a striking psycho-cultural phenomena emerges: negative solidarity. More than mere indifference to worker agitations, negative solidarity is an aggressively enraged sense of injustice, committed to the idea that, because I must endure increasingly austere working conditions (wage freezes, loss of benefits, declining pension pot, erasure of job security and increasing precarity) then everyone else must too. Negative solidarity can be seen as a close relation to the kind of ‘lottery thinking’ the underpins the most pernicious variants of the American Dream. In lottery thinking we get a kind of inverted Rawlsian anti-justice- rather than considering the likelihood of achieving material success in an unequal society highly unlikely and therefore preferring a more equal one, instead the psychology of the million-to-one shot prevails. Since I will inevitably be wealthy in the future, this line of thinking runs, I will ensure that the conditions when I become wealthy will be as advantageous to me as possible, even though on a balance of realistic probabilities this course of action will in fact be likely to be entirely against my own interests. More than lottery thinking, which is inherently (if misguidedly) aspirational in nature, negative solidarity is actively and aggressively anti-aspirational, utterly negative in the most childish fashion, and drives a blatant “race-to-the bottom”. Negative solidarity operates under the invisible, though clearly contradictory and self-refuting, assumption of reflexive impotence. I will endeavour to campaign for the lowering of working standards since I must suffer the same lowered standards, because there is only one direction in which the thermodynamic system of socio-economics can run: towards the abject exploitation of sump-end post-Fordist (faux-free market) Neoliberalism. When the Tories talk of social solidarity in the face of the consequences of the financial crisis, it is clearly negative solidarity they have in mind.

The problem that negative solidarity indexes is twofold. Firstly, and on a smaller scale, it demonstrates the extent to which any activity by labour movements will be met with implacable public hostility. This can perhaps be resolved by a smarter presentation of the underlying issues, difficult though that may seem given the current media ecology. All too often mindless inefficiency and blatantly exploitative management practices are smuggled in under the discursive rubric of “modernisation” and it is clearly around terms such as these that the short term struggles must be based. Any labour actions must be explicitly battles for modernity, against a form of managerialist paradigm which is inadequate and actually antediluvian in nature. However, one of the chief stumbling blocks to achieving this links into the second and far more serious problem which is gestured towards in negative solidarity: the widescale collapse of organised labour under post-Fordism in the west. This has been achieved as the result of a deliberate and carefully coordinated (though experimental) political programme, Neoliberalism. What remains of labour movements in the UK are partly in hoc to the dreadful failure of a New Labour administration, and those that are seriously militant are generally connected to key levers on capitalist production: transport, infrastructure, communications. The control of the narrative of what “modernisation” might mean has been hijacked by sclerotic and centralising centres of accumulation (of capital, power, information). Between the forcible shattering of the labour movements in the 1980s and thirty years of post-Fordisation of the workforce, widescale labour militancy would seem to be unlikely. The old form of workerist solidarity is inadequate, only partially available, and utterly weakened.

Unpicking negative solidarity, which is clearly an internalisation of the conditions of flexibility and atomised ‘homo economicus’ individualism necessary for the embedding of Neoliberal post-Fordism, requires the constructing of a new form of solidarity, a form of solidarity adequately configured to effectively oppose the chief machines of Neoliberal praxis: finance. This new form of solidarity must be capable of fluidity and rapid response, able to exploit weaknesses within systems and structures opportunistically and with a global purview, one which crucially can mirror the rapidity and fluidity of international finance. This is solidarity as plasticity, rather than the static brick-like form of Fordist labour solidarity, capable of flowing and shifting, yes, but also of fixing into position and assuming a hardened form where necessary. This form of solidarity must be inclusive of the new protest and occupation movements which have emerged in recent years, which although they have been largely ineffectual to date, have certainly led to new and interesting configurations of interest groups. What has been lacking however are the necessary cybernetic coordination systems to effectively enable these disparate and fragmentary groups to achieve the status of a counter-hegemonic power, a “class” power in the broadest sense of the term, one which is capable of counter-balancing effectively the rapacious if discredited centres of neoliberalism. Indeed it is this which must be formulated as the political conclusion of theories of post-Fordisation, rather than any kind of fantastical and strictly imaginary political subject such as the multitude. Only when there is an effective counterbalancing power can new theoretical socio-economic post-capitalist forms be properly disseminated, and successfully gain purchase.

Vindicatrix’s liminal songcraft

Kudos to K-Punk in last month’s Wire magazine for bringing a little-remarked upon album which sneaked out in the latter days of 2009 to my attention. Vindicatrix sits in an almost entirely unexplored region of musical terra incognita, perhaps only previously visited by late-era Scott Walker, and even he never quite travelled so far-out into such unfamiliar spaces. Vindicatrix’s earlier releases on the Mordant Music label were largely club-oriented pieces of gloom-techno or glum-post-dubstep, garnished with his Scott-at-the-bottom-of-a-reverb-pit style vocals, and were intriguing but somewhat limited in scope. With Die Alten Bösen Lieder, Vindicatrix extends this style into a series of bizarrely broken assemblages, a parade of semi-functioning aesthetic machines: neurotoxic Weimar Republic house, serialist ethno-dubstep, dada-nightmare isolationist ambient, and a beautiful middle sequence of unearthly liminal ballads. A friend of mine described the album as sounding “like you're sitting in a room adjoining a performance of Wozzeck and a Shackleton gig” and this certainly captures something of the flavour of the earlier tracks, combining dissonant circling choral harmonies with rickety bleached-bone drum patterns and dolorous vocal ruminations.

But really the core of the album is the expanse of three alien-art-ballads beginning with “Lack of Correspondence”. Shifting away from the subtly dubstep and techno inflected percussive textures of the earlier tracks, these songs, rather than operating on principles of postmodern combination of pre-existing generic forms, instead home in on and magnify the most alien-sublime elements of Scott Walker’s late works. Vindicatrix takes late-Walker at his most lushly orchestral, those immense pieces of extraterrestrial lieder like “Sleepwalkers Woman” and “Patriot (a single)”, sketching vast landscapes of unknown emotions, then drifts even further out into an ever more unknown oneiric psychological hinterland. “Lack of Correspondence” begins with a kind of drolly humorous narrative of religiously inspired love before folding into cut-up vocal fragments and teeming swarms of rapidly edited white noise shards. “Rubbing Pages Out” merges backmasked noise with vast banks of shimmering strings to create a glowing mass of iridescent sound, akin to the final glorious chord of a romantic symphony captured and transformed into a continuous plateaux, topped with occasional interventions by a conciliatory tuba. On “Insulinde”, at almost ten minutes the longest and most singular piece on the album, we enter a strange territory of distantly tolling metals, subliminal bass drones, oddly harmonised vocals, chimingly sinister bells, a recurrent motif of five metallic thumps, sampled operatic wailing. A rising tumult of strings: “Behind closed doors. There is. Violence. In. Outer chambers. Violence.” An unnameable ritual. All this material accumulates, disperses, reforms, dreamlike in the sense of being unplaceable, yet naggingly familiar, the relations between these sound-objects intuitively understandable yet forming a strange sort of sense, in a liminal grammar like a sequence of words caught in the instant before sleep, a memory which can be recalled but cannot be placed, sitting between the sinister and the gloriously beautiful.

The album concludes with the inhuman bleak expanse of “A Long Straight Road in a Cold City”, a continual sub-bass filched from some 2006 dubstep track, but shorn of its percussive-clothing, left to prowl through the remnants of a Ligeti choir, whilst acoustic drums and screams burst in momentarily to assassinate the calm with the unintelligible violence promised elsewhere on the album. In an era when experimentation with song form seems locked into past paradigms, this is an enormously welcome and necessary collection, acutely aware of contemporary sonic mores but able to spin them into new and unsettling forms, capable of rendering the beautiful strange and the strange beautiful, rather than simply ungainly.