Friday 14 April 2023

"Talkin' Bout A Revolution" For Thirty-Five Years

Ready. Aim. Sing! If revolutionary songs had the power of revolutionary deeds, then Tracy Chapman would be right up there with Lenin and Mao. Sadly, we cannot sing justice into existence.

SHE HAD ME from her very first, defiantly acoustic, opening chords. Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout A Revolution, released thirty-five years ago, was one of those songs that captured the spirit of its times, or, at least, the imaginations of a great many of the people caught up in those times.

In 1988 I was caught up in the bitter ideological fight that was tearing the Labour Party apart. A year after Chapman’s song sent a chill running up the collective spine of the youthful Left, Labour would finally split in two. David Lange – soon to be replaced by Geoffrey Palmer – squared-off against Jim Anderton and his NewLabour Party.

Considerably more momentous changes were simultaneously sweeping the wider world. In 1989, the student rebels occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were massacred. A few months later, the Berlin Wall was torn down.

Certainly, the images filling the world’s television screens screamed revolution. The squares of Eastern European capitals were filled with crowds. The masses controlled the streets. Governments capitulated.

It was difficult not to cheer, but it wasn’t a revolution we were cheering. Only later did it become clear to us that the events we were applauding were part of a global counter-revolution. Two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union itself blipped off the historical screen. Capitalism’s triumphant apologists proclaimed “The End of History”.

That we were in an age of endings, not beginnings, was right there in the lyrics of Chapman’s song. The people she described weren’t getting ready to storm the gates of paradise, they were waiting, heads down, in the welfare lines, taking shelter in Salvation Army doorways, wasting away with the rest of the unemployed. Chapman wasn’t talking about revolutionaries – which meant she wasn’t talkin’ bout a revolution either.

Oh sure, there was the obligatory reference to poor people rising up to claim their fair share of societal wealth. But pious hopes never toppled a resolute regime – and it is difficult to conceive of a regime more resolute than American free-market capitalism in 1988. Reversals of fortune notwithstanding, it wasn’t the bosses who were going to run, run, run, run, run.

The tables had already turned on poor Black America. They’d turned decisively when rich White America elected Ronald Reagan eight years earlier. They would turn again when Democrat Bill Clinton put an end to “welfare as we know it” in 1996. The most tragic turn would come in 2009, however, when America’s first Black President, Barack Obama, refused to say “Yes we can!” to the revolution progressive Americans had elected him to make.

Thirty-five years on from Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’s release, it is even more difficult to envisage what such an upheaval would look like. Especially given that, by the late-1980s, the Right’s mantra – that there was no viable alternative to free-market economics – had done its work. But, if economic transformation in favour of the poor is no longer to be included in the art of the possible, then what exactly are we talking about when we’re talkin’ bout a revolution?

Turns out we were talkin’ bout victimhood, bout identity, bout tearing down the cruel hierarchies of race, class and gender. Turns out we’re talkin’ bout toppling an even bigger statue than these inherited states-of-being. Turns out the revolution will entail the overthrow of objective reality itself. Being a revolutionary in 2023 is all about exercising the right to say 2+2=5.

How could it be anything else when the foundations of capitalist society have been ruled out-of-bounds? If the existing distribution, and future redistribution, of wealth – and, hence, of power – in our society cannot be discussed, then reality, too, will be denied a platform. But, politics divorced from reality can only be a politics of make-believe – a politics of magic words and symbols. Good only for rendering us fiercely loyal – and loyally fierce.

Fast Car, that other great track off Chapman’s 1988 album, powerfully anticipates this magical politics. The song’s protagonists are fleeing an unbearable reality for a make-believe future they’ll never reach. Rather than confront the injustice that has stranded them in America’s nightmare, they drive on through the city’s bright lights towards America’s dream, America’s mirage. A revolution that cannot outlive their fast car’s empty gas-tank.

We should have known from Chapman’s opening lines. Revolution never sounds like a whisper!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 April 2023.


Don Franks said...

Always felt a bit ambivilent about that cool song, tried once to write more revolutionary one and failed dismally. Lately someone in my guitar class asked to learn it so I dusted it off. Finally the tables started to turn, not as we expected. Now the left are too busy throwing glitter over Germaine Greer for being a transphobe to remember what surplus value is and who's taken hold of it.

Madame Blavatsky said...

I hate to disappoint you, but you've already had your leftist revolution, Chris. Maybe you have buyer's remorse, but any utopian dream tend to disappoint when it collides with reality.

How is the liberal orthodoxy that today exerts hegemony throughout the Western world anything other than leftist in character? As I have argued in a comment under a previous Bowalley Road article, the kind of environment required for capitalism to flourish is necessarily leftist, and one that and necessitates revolution against existing social norms, the latter acting as restraints on profit-making and the related easy flow of goods and consumers and producers. Leftism is about change and "progress", rightism is about stasis and tradition (I don't agree with the contemporary formula for right wing views, which tells us that they are free-market and libertarian in nature – these are the opposite of social and economic conservatism).

All of the old norms that gave roots to the West started to be undermined in earnest in the 1960s (whether social, familial, gender roles, sexual attitudes etc.) The "old ways" were holding back Wall Street and the City of London and their insatiable drive for more and more investment and returns on investment. By contrast, capitalism struggles in places like the devout Islamic world, because they aren't sufficiently hedonistic and materialistic. Their cultural identity comes from their religion and ethnicity, it doesn't come from how much money they have, what car they drive, what sneakers they wear or what neighbourhood they live in.

greywarbler said...

Have we had the leftist revolution? It may be that now is the way that they happen in these techie days, saturated in science worship (a revolution in itself from the days of theocracy), television dreamland nightmare land. Our education has advanced us from peasant status but not well enough to inform our modern, advanced concepts and ideals. What is now essential thinking before decisions, with perhaps not a jaundiced eye but with scepticism, and an ear to the profundity of the great people of the past that emerged above the heads of their more mundane fellows.

One's concept of what a revolution is and how to recognise it may be outdated in an era of machine-thinking and devices that ramp up their mechanisms about every three years. Too much 20th century information reliance, for analysis of decisions and methods, can leave the enquirer as ready to meet the opposition as the Polish cavalry were to meet the Soviets. In recent years there has been much discontent with that story. This is an example of how everything that we understand now must be reviewed for the effects of embroidering and hyperbole.

Katyn massacre Wikipedia › wiki › Katyn_massacre
The Katyn massacre was a series of mass executions of nearly 22,000 Polish military officers ... of mass grave of Polish officers the NKVD massacred in Katyń Forest.

NKVD Wikipedia › wiki › NKVD
The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs abbreviated NKVD (НКВД listen (help·info)), was the interior ministry of the Soviet Union. NKVD

One event happens early in WW2, and another some years later. It gets confusing for people with an ordinary school education, and even for those going to higher levels, to look at the facts presented and gain true understanding. Facts can seem misleading and there may be hidden factors. No-one can be sure to 100% correct.

Archduke Piccolo said...

The early paragraphs of this article for some reason put me in mind of John Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath'. As the narrative progresses, one forms the sense of a swelling popular rage against the 'pleonektocracy' - rule of the greedy. The United States west, from Oklahoma to California seemed on the brink of uprising, revolt or revolution. Some sort of change anyhow.

It didn't happen. Was Steinbeck really writing about revolution? Or just the potential for one? He was certainly writing in anger. Of course World War Two created a different kind of change altogether. The songs of Woody Guthrie and his disciple, Bob Dylan, were probably no more about revolution than Tracy Chapman's.

I rather think, meanwhile, that, in common with nearly all commentators these days, Madame Blavatsky is mislabelling something as 'Leftist'. The IS NO LEFT. Not any more. The Left was marginalised out of existence long, long ago. In this country, the remnants of the Left were finally obliterated by Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. What is called the 'Left' these days is what would have been called the 'Right' 30-40 years ago. The 'Right' has staked out territory farther to the right; and to the left of the 'Left' lies a vast uninhabited void, a vacuum that silences any real 'Leftist' voice.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I find myself agreeing with you madam – which is a strange feeling. But if the right aren't free market and libertarian, why are they always defending unregulated free market capitalism, and opposing regulations? And in my experience they are often trying to impose social conservatism at least.

Capitalism might struggle in the devout Islamic world depending on how you define devout, but I'm pretty sure that they gain at least something from the car they drive and the sneakers they wear, considering the cars that people drive in Saudi Arabia, and more importantly the cars they abandoned by the roadside because they can't be bothered keeping them up/repairing them. I can't speak to the value of the neighbourhood they live in.
In fact the stereotype of various cultures in the Middle East and elsewhere is that of 'bazaar people', which seems to me to be the essence of small business and capitalism.

Seems to me that the major conflict at the moment is more about social and cultural conservatism than economics. Those who are used to being respected simply for being white and relatively wealthy, resent the aspirations of those who aren't to a proportion of the political power. And those who are white but not so wealthy – well as Lyndon Johnson once said:
"If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
I might add that he would do the same if you could convince him that someone he considers to be inferior is coming for a share of his political power.

DS said...

Seems to me that the major conflict at the moment is more about social and cultural conservatism than economics. Those who are used to being respected simply for being white and relatively wealthy, resent the aspirations of those who aren't to a proportion of the political power.

Neoliberal capitalism is, of course, just fine with those aspirations. A world where the "Left" is preoccupied with having more non-white lesbian CEOs (or where a Labour Government parades around a cabinet of 50% women, as though that actually means anything) is a world where the Left is zero threat to capitalism. Bonus points that we now have the university educated Left telling unemployed factory workers about how "privileged" they are.

It's all very well to cite Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s (though no, New Zealand was never analogous to the US South). But who does the Left have an interest in helping - those among the comfortable, university educated middle-class, who just happen to be non-white? Or the poor, regardless of ethnicity or sexual preference?

For all the mockery of the "white working class" implicit in your comment, far more dangerous is your implicit notion that "non-white" equates with economic deprivation. It often does, of course. But often it doesn't. Often, you are just privileging the already comfortably off. Which is why a Left that has forgotten economics is not worthy of the name.

Madame Blavatsky said...

Guerilla Surgeon
"But if the right aren't free market and libertarian, why are they always defending unregulated free market capitalism, and opposing regulations"

Because they aren't really right wing, in the proper sense of the words. After WW2, the victors and their "rules-based international order" effectively made genuine right-wing politics illegal. Everyone in the West had to denounce nationalism and protectionism (and increasingly public religion), and thus the idea of "the global community" was born, and supranational organisations came into being (or at least, more so than before). Thereafter, in an amazing feat of re-definition, "right-wing" morphed into something like that advocated by Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. A better example of right-wing economic theory would be someone like Friedrich List. It is actually a notable fact that the Capitalist West and the Communist USSR teamed up (presumably due to mutual interest) against the Fascists. Clearly they felt they shared a common enemy, in the form of a "third position" system.

To be clear, I do not equate Capitalism with the free-market. In fact, Capitalism relies on state intervention and the undermining of free markets just as Communism does, but in different and probably less overt ways. Big Business actually loves Big Government, because they can benefit from favourable regulations which they "lobby" to get. Little Business – perhaps not so much.

As I said, I don't believe that conservatism and capitalism are or can be compatible, so if conservatism is right wing (which I think is generally accepted), then capitalism cannot also be. Famous "conservatives" like Thatcher and Reagan were neoliberal, not conservative. Similarly, in the post-war period, Neoconservatism won out over "paleoconservatism" in the United States (or really displaced it by means of sabotage and media domination) because the latter was too isolationist and nationalistic, and therefore clashed with the interests of Big Capital and the arms industry, the latter being used to "spread democracy and freedom" across the globe (whether the globe liked it or not).

Capitalism must of necessity be international and universalistic in its scope (and therefore is antithetical to conserving anything), whereas conservatism must be national and particularist in its scope (and therefore is antithetical to capitalism).

Anonymous said...

38 years ago! Where did the time go?

Sobering to read all the comments and realise how little we achieved in that time. Maybe our innate drive for freedom (which often manifests itself as a drive for change) is just kind of an intellectual distraction to a life which is essentially all about the perpetuation of the species.

Wayne Mapp said...


The change did occur with The New Deal and President Roosevelt.

Violent and extreme revolutions, such as 1917 and 1949 in Russia and China, don't happen in democracies. But major change nevertheless occurs. For instance, Labour in 1935 and and 1948 in NZ. Labour in 1945 and the Conservatives in 1979 in the UK.

Since democratic societies have free choice at their core, they are never going to eliminate capitalism, which has choice as its central organising idea. Instead they will regulate capitalism and tax it. Socialism and communism, as per Russia and China requires brute force, because it is all about preventing free choice. The choice where to work, the choice to have your own business, the choice to save and invest. All these things have to be prevented in a communist society. Which is not compatible in a democracy where governments can be changed.

David George said...

GS: "Those who are used to being respected simply for being white and relatively wealthy, resent the aspirations of those who aren't to a proportion of the political power."

I've no idea how you reconcile that claim with, for instance, the number of non indigenous Brits (Indians mostly) in the senior levels of the UK Tory party or the election of Obama.

Madame B is quite right, the ideology of the unfettered free market and resultant mega/global capitalist hegemony are not really part of conservative philosophy; even though some calling themselves conservative have embraced it.

“As I try to show, conservative thinking has never been devoted to freedom alone. Nor has the agenda been about economic freedom, important though that was during the debates and upheavals of the twentieth century. It has been about our whole way of being, as heirs to a great civilisation and a many-layered bequest of laws, institutions and high culture. For conservatives our law-governed society came into being because we have known who we are, and defined our identity not by our religion, our tribe or our race but by our country, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life that we share. And if there is another way of staying together in the world as it is today, I should be interested to hear of it.”
― Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition

greywarbler said...

Seems to me that humankind as it has developed under capitalism limits choice and opinion to fit a few dominant parties or entities, than after a while develop a cosy duopoly that maintains itself with an occasional interloper allowed and then bought out, and with some appearance of disagreement; a false dichotomy but actually an over-arching hegemony. And that might be altered to hegemoney; we end up believing in the metaphysics of ephemeral finance and constructed value, or the finest artwork of 'pure' ourselves worked on by religion and its peculiar metaphysics plus spirituality.

I'm looking for the philosopher who thinks about 'participating individuals'. What we have now isn't working satisfactorily for the polity, for the people, and for our future society and environment. I think we all need to reread what we originally learned, or even never bothered to read thoroughly for true understanding and not just for discourse.

The philosophical notion of participation was used by Plato to explain the relation between the contingent, individual forms and the eternal, unchangeable Ideas.
Participation | › religion ›

What are the three concepts of Plato?
Plato divided the soul into three parts: the logistikon (reason), the thymoeides (spirit), and the epithymetikon (appetite).
Plato's theory of soul - Wikipedia › wiki › Plato's_theory_of_soul

Who is the father of participative theory?
A participatory epistemology is a theory of knowledge that holds that meaning is enacted through the participation of the human mind with the world. Originally proposed by Goethe, it has been discussed extensively by cultural historian ...Richard Tarnas.
Other important points to remember: Three most important elements of participation are (i) involvement, (ii) contribution and (iii) responsibility.

What is Plato's theory of justice?
Plato says that justice is not mere strength, but it is a harmonious strength. Justice is not the right of the stronger but the effective harmony of the whole. All moral conceptions revolve about the good of the whole-individual as well as social.
20th WCP: Plato's Concept Of Justice: An Analysis › wcp › Papers › Anci › Anc

Perhaps David Hume:
Hume was an Empiricist, meaning he believed "causes and effects are discoverable not by reason, but by experience". He goes on to say that, even with the perspective of the past, humanity cannot dictate future events because thoughts of the past are limited, compared to the possibilities for the future.
David Hume - Wikipedia › wiki › David_Hume

The nascent individual, deeply involved in humanity, in tune with the enlightenment approach, considering postulates, seems comparatively rare and must be searched for like the nautilus shell, which is appreciated individually and financially and therefore becoming rare though it dates back 400 million years or such. But those who view money as paramount care not, and so it goes.

Gary Peters said...

But can governments be legitimately changed in a country where the media and the police are in lockstep with the government.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"To be clear, I do not equate Capitalism with the free-market."

So you are at odds with pretty much every political philosopher and economist?

In fact, Capitalism relies on state intervention and the undermining of free markets just as Communism does, but in different and probably less overt ways. Big Business actually loves Big Government, because they can benefit from favourable regulations which they "lobby" to get. Little Business – perhaps not so much.

I wouldn't call it undermining quite so much as regulation. I doubt if there has ever been a completely free market without regulation. Except perhaps in the criminal underworld. Regulation of the free market is necessary, if only to protect you from being killed by poisonous additives in your food. Is not just a question of substituting coconut oil for milk in your chocolate, it was a big problem in the 19th century. Effect quite a large amount of government bureaucracy goats towards protecting you from various things which might affect your quality of life such as introduced species.

Interesting to see people turning away from unregulated capitalism though and suggesting that they never supported it.

"I've no idea how you reconcile that claim with, for instance, the number of non indigenous Brits (Indians mostly) in the senior levels of the UK Tory party or the election of Obama."

It's pretty easy. Firstly they tend to be aberrations. And secondly – in the British case – they've adopted the general cultural beliefs of the Tories. It doesn't hurt that Sunak is incredibly rich. But if you have a look at any gathering of Tories, and for that matter Republicans in the US, they tend to be overwhelmingly white.

it's probably worse in the US. There are plenty of people out there that still regard Obama as an uppity negro. And they're not at all shy about saying it sometimes, although they've worked on their dog whistles a fair bit.
A huge amount of this sort of thing around if you know where to look – actually you don't have to know where to look just Google racist Obama memes.

Personally, I can't see how you can believe anything else but given the voter suppression in the US which tends to exclude minorities. It's at least as good an example as yours.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition"

Scruton I'm afraid was a well-known liar. When he wasn't dog whistling.

"The stock of 'social housing' once reserved for the indigenous poor is now almost entirely occupied by people whose language, customs, and culture mark them out as foreigners. It is not 'racist' to draw attention to this kind of fact."
That's typical of what he said, and completely untrue. The figures say otherwise, but he was more interested in ideology than the truth.

He also lied about immigration to Hungary, suggesting that it was overwhelmingly Islamic, when in fact much if not all of it was Christian.

And not only that but his ideas also seem to be contradicted by your examples of the integration of Asians into the Conservative party.

I think I will leave his opinions about sex/rape/homosexuality/Jews/Enoch Powell for another day.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"But can governments be legitimately changed in a country where the media and the police are in lockstep with the government."

I would have thought that the police would always be in lockstep with the government given that they are charged with upholding the laws established by the government. It's pretty rare I think that the police side with anti-government forces.

The media on the other hand – this seems to be a trope very common in right-wing circles that somehow the media are owned by the government. I'm not quite sure if they mean this particular government or all governments. If this was so how come there are so many – sometimes quite gleeful it seems to me – articles about government mistakes? Are the owners of newspapers so left-wing they would side with a Labour government? Although admittedly you don't have to be very left-wing to side with this Labour government.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "legitimately" changed but some if not all conservatives of my acquaintance seem to think that a change of government will come at the next election. Given that it will come through the normal political processes I'd certainly describe that as legitimate.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Actually I should have added to that bit on Sunak – did you see the utter nongs that he replaced? 😁 A workshy serial adulterer and someone who tanked the economy within a few days. Pretty sure they would have elected a wombat if it had been a safe pair of hands.