There is — perhaps excepting the joyous laughter of neighbourhood children — no sound I loathe more than that made by John Lennon in 1971. The song Imagine is not only a direful assault to piano, but was oblivious, and remains profoundly unrelated, to the world it purports to address.
Imagine that there are no nation-states? No notion of God? This is not “easy if you try”, but intellectually impossible in a West whose history was written by these ideas, whose future, even if it departs from such powerful territory, will always be informed by this origin. What tosh. Of course, we cannot blame Mr Ono who was, after all, only a pop star, and one with a great appetite for heroin at the time. But we can blame a culture that continues to offer this painkiller up to the agony of the West.
Outside Paris’ Bataclan nightclub, in which 89 were slain by ISIS-aligned forces this time last year, a man played the average song with average skill. He was hailed, as average people and average acts often are in this era, as having “nailed it”, having helped “heal” the wounds of the West’s slow crucifixion. Please. Even leaving aside the malarkey that puts a flower in a gun, one etched in those placards protesting the US President-elect “Love Trumps Hate”, I doubt there could have been a less appropriate recessional for the murdered. Islamic State is, after all, very much in the business of imagining no countries. It’s kind of their thing.
The song, whose tune continues to please older folk and whose overt message does not disturb many young Westerners with their liberal belief that kindness will save us all, is an interesting artefact. It is interesting that it is not yet a relic, like, say that other big hit of the time One Bad Apple by The Osmonds. (Seriously, those Mormons produced a much better song.) It is also interesting to think about the time in which it was made.
A lot of stuff was going on, I am told, in and around 1971. In the everyday West, a few decades of full employment had led workers to good wages. In the macro-economic West, growth had been slowed as the result of this full-employment regime. In the policy West, economists like Milton Friedman began to argue for a return of profit to employers, and a diminution of workers’ rights, to speed up the growth. And in the resisting West, activists and academics, being reasonably well-fed and housed, lost their interest in workers’ rights and economic policy. This, understandably, was the era for identity politics. Movements for women, people of colour, people with a disability, and for folk who preferred the intimate company of their own gender, formed very fully in this time. (Please, let’s just ignore a lot of other big things, including Vietnam and the Nixon gold shock. We’ve all only got so much time, and we’re not even into verse two of Imagine.)
A lot of people on the left, which had long meant nothing but resistance to the coercion of capital, often call this period “the cultural turn”. If you’re interested in reading about this shift in thinking and in activism, there are few better accounts than those of Fredric Jameson. Here’s the short version: the left was seduced by a few decades of Western prosperity. And why not? Comfort is very seductive, and this was comfort of a kind now almost unthinkable. In the 1960s, black Americans had decent jobs. And they belonged to powerful, active labour organisations — it is not often remembered that Dr King, an old-fashioned leftist, was murdered while addressing workers at a strike. In the 1960s, working Australian people could afford to buy houses to live in. Imagine that? It’s not easy, even if you try.
It is a little easier to think about how one might pursue more cultural goals when money isn’t a crushing concern. Which is not to say, for a minute, that the period’s Black Power movements of Australia and the USA were the activist equivalent of going to the opera. Campaigning for things like feasible suffrage, non-segregated public spaces and a role in writing history are hardly La Traviata. But these movements, like the women’s movement, were only made possible by the full-employment regime, by then beginning to fail. And it’s not as though many Australian indigenous people had forgotten that. The links between land-rights activists and trade unions were strong.
Comrade Rundle has recently reminded us at length how natural that association between labour organisations and identity-based movements was. I agree with his reading of history, and refuse to buy the line that “things have never been financially better for people in the West!” By several measures, including literacy, housing quality and purchasing power, things are much shittier for people in the West. I mean, of course they are, and of course our liberal financial institutions, who get to write the policy as well as their own report cards, are going to say “You’ve never had it so good”. This week, even the RBA was forced to admit that maybe, just maybe, the ways we have of measuring employment are sketchy. And, I mean, Jesus. Use your eyes. You think Uber and “pop up” stores are just great innovations, and not evidence that people can’t find a proper job or find the money to rent a fucking retail space? You can call the sort of work young people endure a “portfolio career” if you wish, but my dad is just going to call it what he always did: odd jobs.
But this narrative, now renounced by its most formerly ardent defender, Francis Fukuyama, persists. You have never had it so good. Look at all the money government is spending. This is a spoiled generation, and people in the rust-belt did not vote for Donald Trump’s clearly articulated (if completely cynical) policies for fair work, but they only voted for him because of the racism.
Racism, which was rightly, if meekly, decried by John Lennon in his 1971 dreary song about a world without identities and borders, had been largely produced to serve as an alibi for economic inequality. Now, anti-racism is used the same way. Whereas once, as Rundle notes, the left, in which unions and identity groups stood together unified against the totalising force of capital even if they did have some internal problems of prejudice — and it would be foolish to say they did not– the thing that calls itself the left now is at great pains to say “it’s not poor old capitalism’s fault!”
Commentators are actually saying, all over the press, that people are making up stories about their poverty to justify their racism. Even though, in a historic sense, we can say that racism is largely the product of the reverse mechanism. If you say that people are bad, or lazy or sneaky, you have a reason to ignore their poverty. They brought it on themselves! Just like those “deplorables”.
The tragedy here is that the poorest and most coerced remain, as they have long been, black and brown and female. But, the solution of a politics of identity is not to say “stand with the newly impoverished whites, despite your cultural differences”. It is to go on with a lot of tedious shit about people being bad because they are “white men”. Often, it is white men saying this stuff, in some Mother Church act of renunciation. Like racism, this idiocy only serves the powerful. It breaks people with the common bond of poverty apart. Again, Jameson is great on this stuff if you would like to read further. He writes extensively about how interest in one’s own identity — and everyday people have this as a passion now, along with the influential father of “cultural turn” thinking, Michel Foucault — is well-adapted to the consumer economy of the West. “What is right for my lifestyle choice?” is a question we can ask in an online boutique as easily as we can in the field of progressive politics.
The cultural turn was the time where academics became convinced that something like race, and racism, had not been largely constituted by colonialist land grabs and labour exploitation, but by “diffuse power” and “technologies of the self” and “fear of the other”. (I SWEAR IF I READ ONE MORE ARTICLE THAT TAKES FRAGMENTS OF LACAN AND FOUCAULT AS POORLY UNDERSTOOD GOSPEL I WILL LOSE MY SHIT.)
Wealth, and its accumulation, is not the only reason some people hate some other people, but, jeez, it is pretty much how it started. And anxiety about wealth, whether one has none of it or fears losing it, continues to inform such bigotry. It’s just stubbornness to say that it doesn’t. It’s just full devotion to the cultural turn, whose movement can kind of be detected in that awful song.
Lennon is saying, really, that artificially created identity is the problem. His entire view is arse-backwards, for mine; he is saying, as so many tedious Islamophobes of the present do, that the problem is God himself. If we don’t believe in different things, he says, and we are not different, then we will all have the same. Erase the identity. This is not utopian, so much as it is just deeply impossible. Identity groups are something we tend toward — it is just when these are used for political and economic gain that they become a problem. But, I guess Lennon was getting a lot of his politics at the time from his pal, Pierre Trudeau — an early cultural turn guy who seemed to believe that by erasing petty prejudices, and the problem of identity, then the world could be as one, etc.
Trudeau’s TED talk son is the newer, identity politics expression of this stuff. The new Canadian Prime Minister celebrates identity, and builds cultural institutions to enshrine it, and everybody on “left” social media thinks he is a god. No one looks at his economic policy, which at the moment is basically more “free” trade, with a few pilot programs for that deeply shit idea, Unconditional Basic Income.
This is how it went: the left that precedes Trudeau the elder, and John Lennon, thought that cultural identity was the product, and the rationale, for economic inequality. Trudeau and Lennon were then inclined for a brief period to say, “we are all the same”, hoping that the cart would stop the horse. Trudeau Junior is new identity politics, which is just a mutation of old forms of hatred. If you “celebrate” peoples who were forced into categories whose powerlessness served the powerful, then, presto, everything in the world is even.
There are some people, of course, who continue, however covertly, their bullshit belief in the Lennon promise. It’s pure humanism: we are all one, can’t we just rip away the mask of difference and all decide that, really, we are just the same. Which sounds nice, but doesn’t really address the problem of someone not having sufficient income or services to live a decent life. You can go on with all that apparently democratic crap all you want, but “equal rights” mean nothing if many people are coerced by the “free” market into misery. Now, there are many more who believe that in praising cultural differences — even reviving them, at times, as we see in the bullshit matriarchal nostalgia of the women’s movement — we can out-run the market, the same one that forged many of these “differences” in the first place.
Identity politics of the present owes a huge debt to the dreadful prejudices of the past. What once functioned to justify economic inequality now serves to mask economic inequality. I don’t see that as much of an improvement. Then again — what do I know? I think The Osmonds made a better pop song in 1971 than John Lennon.