Saturday, May 12, 2007

In One End, Out The Other

One of the things that amused me about Blair's ceremonial scarper, so many months in coming, is the almost rapturous send-off he's received from the media who have spent the last few years baiting his government like a particularly vicious and impotent bear. Reading the Editor's article in The Times on Friday - bizarrely they aren't archived on the Times site - I was almost suffocating with spite and laughter at the stupidity of it. He was hailed as the man who had "combined economic efficiency and social justice" - when the inequality gap has increased massively, there are between 600,000 and a million more children in poverty since 1997, the health services have spiralled into black hole of debt, those who can't afford private help in staying alive - i.e. almost everyone - having to put up with increased waiting times, disease-ridden hospitals and incompetent, badly-paid surgeons. He was supposedly the man who had "harnessed the inherent power of markets" for good and provided for the betterment of the country - the fact that neo-liberalism has created nothing more than the worst culture of callous, empty greed, ridiculous materialism and rampant stupidity (goodbye proper education) this country has seen since 1984-9 seems to have escaped them. The societal shift that Blair pushed forward by furthering Thatcherite policy and increasing de-industrialisation has created a country of regimented, slick blandness - most of the industrial working class have become the yuppie middle-class; the rest have been left to rot in the shell-towns of the North and Wales and the swelling sink estates of rapidly expanding conurbations. The aging middle-class guppy-mouths complaints about 'lack of respect', when it was an economic culture of kill-or-be-killed that spawned them. The Blair administration's attempts at social muzzling - ASBOs, the 'respect' campaign - is nothing more than an attempt to sweep their own industrial waste under the rug, and was laughably doomed from the start.

And don't get me started on Iraq.

The Times' claim that the Left's venomous attacks on Blair are negated by their own ability to manage the economy in the 1970s - quite what that has to with it, I don't know - are ridiculous: bureaucratic state socialism does not work, as any proper leftist can tell you, but neither does neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism's cultural and social effects are far more poisonous and insidious than anything British state socialism cooked up: aside from the obvious problem of massive inequality, neo-liberalism is based on a model of infinite expansion; capital, as a force, after colonising the economic sphere, moves to the social and cultural sphere, reorganising social relations according to the rules of exchange and competition, turning human beings into commodities; then moving into the psychic sphere, reorganising valuations, thought and desire in terms of capital, and finally, as Baudrillard demonstrated, mutating the reality principle in terms of capital's own constructions. Sorry I'm not putting this well, but I've gotten a bit rusty with writing.

At the same time as Blair leaves Downing Street, who should appear in France but Nikolas Sarkozy. As Owen Hatherly points out the victory of neo-liberalism in France is going to be another feather in the cap of British neo-liberals parroting the same guff about this system being "The Only One That Works". What is even more worrying to me is Sarkozy's fixation with 1968: his claims that it was, in a sense, the beginning of the end, the tremor that caused the 'breakdown in morals' (as if that were a bad thing!) in France, are unconvincing, and, frankly, hide something a bit more sinister. After 1989, Reagan claimed that the Soviet Union, and statist socialism, would be condemned to "the ashbin of history"; Sarkozy's attempt to "liquidate '68" is an attempt to wipe from history the last possibility of resistance to neo-liberalism. May '68 was proof, if proof be needed, that the economic security of the West meant nothing, its status as the first great rebellion against advanced modern capital the last wellspring for the European Left after 1989. If they have it their way, the entire Western world will be wearing Teflon Tony smiles for the rest of time.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Archives of Pain

There's a new Manic Street Preachers album out soon. I had to look up on their website, for the purposes of this post, the day - it's sometime next week apparently. I didn't know because I just don't give a damn anymore - as far as I'm concerned, the Manics can go on without me from here on in. One could almost forgive them for the albums after Everything Must Go, if only because an occasional excellent tune - 'If You Tolerate This...', the ethereal 'Cardiff Afterlife' - suggested that they could, still, pull their finger out their coagulated hybrid arse and produce something really extraordinary. After the 'hiatus', and Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield's solo albums - both perfectly charming, in their way - and even the assurance that the next album would be "aggressive" and "punkish" (two words you can never get enough of), I was willing to believe they might have pulled it off, finally.
But, no. I can never forgive them for this. I almost couldn't believe my ears when I first heard it, it was the most ridiculous, the most heinous trangression of every natural law. MSP have gone MOR. They've turned into the bloated middle-aged sluggards they had always hated ("I am a relic/I am a just a petrified cry"); they proved Celine right: "eventually, everyone turns into the thing they hate most". An inexorable artistic decline in the course of time is one thing; an inexorable decline under the guise of a self-declared renaissance is ridiculous. And whilst they've had to put up with the cruel legacy of Richey Edwards' disappearance, it doesn't excuse what is one of the most lumpen, beige songs ever to emerge from a band claiming to be Clash fans. (Fuck, they even hired a member of the Cardigans, for Christ's sake; how can you resist the urge to cull such people, let alone work with them?)
It's even more ridiculous to me, because of what MSP mean to me. They might not like fans or critics comparing every piece of work they do against The Holy Bible, but tough shit - that's what fans do. I got my copy of The Holy Bible, the beefed-up 10th anniversary edition, in about March of 2005. I was... what... 16? I knew something of the backstory - awful second album; self-mutilation/anorexia/alcoholism; final ride onto the Severn Bridge - but didn't know the music itself. Due to my natural and much-cursed prudence, I didn't listen to it until after the end of the exam period, but during that time I would glance through the booklet, at the photos of the band in military camo, Richey sat exhausted against a wall, his chest bleeding, read the lyrics, the barbed phrases staying with me ("Funny place for the social/For the insects to start caring" was a personal favourite.) I've always been one for black humour and universal spite, and this seemed as much of a totem as my copy of Beckett's trilogy, or Journey To The End Of The Night. I spent days at a time cramped in the house, finishing the coursework I had put off for two years, learning feverishly for the arbitrary quizzes that were to decide my entire future. I stopped self-harming that May, just before the end of school, and the beginning of exams. I came out the other side of them more animal than man: an intellectual unable to read, write or think. I tried to get back to what I had done before, nurture the one flame I had: my writing. And I got out The Holy Bible.
The first crackle of sampled voice on 'Yes', and the raging, scouring guitars that followed were terrifying to me; they were less horrible than I had been led to expect, but were so much more exciting to me. It was the sheer, relentless, lacerating energy of the record that thrilled me: Richey might have written "my heart shrinks to barely a pulse/A tiny aniaml curled into a quarter-circle" on 'Die In The Summertime', but the guitars said different. Even Beckett and Celine had never spewed forth this much bile, had never directed so much articulate spite at life itself, had never created a hole this dark, this consuming. I would turn off all the lights, close the curtains and play the songs at deafening level, thrashing and air-soloing for all I was worth. I would sometimes take it with me on my Walkman, going on walks into the few tiny islands of forest that exist in my hometown, sitting, listening, thinking.
It seems quite ridiculous now that I felt so strongly about it, that I could be so consumed. But I was literally listening to the album every single day. And it wasn't just the actual texture of the album that I loved. I listened to the songs as clandestine broadcasts from my own hell: trapped in a blighted crater on the South coast of a country going to the dogs, a rabid intellectual in a town and culture that prized idiocy, the only anarchist in a Conservative stronghold, a 16-year old who believed life had nothing to offer him when everyone else luxuriated in their ridiculous positions within society. I was the enemy within, in a culture that valued survival over life and luxury over survival. By the end, I was writing 10 pages of screenplay every single day, and, whilst I didn't hit Richey's record of 5 books a week, I was certainly reading 2 or more. I was, for a tiny while, Richey Edwards.
People may well ask how I could possibly sympathise with someone who, allegedly, threw himself into the Severn despite being in a (quite) famous rock band. The press continue to paint Richey as someone mentally ill, insane, simply searching for a reason to kill himself, and latching onto his philosophy as a justification. But he would be better described as being "disturbed", as he was on one website; James Dean Bradfield hit the nail on the head when he said that "Richey's intelligence got in the way of living, totally": the intelligence, for all its pros, is just as susceptible to insincerity and fabrication as the senses and emotions. Richey had, to put it lightly, a skewed angle on the world; in the obsessive manner that it exists, he took the evil and horror in the world, and excluded, apparently, all the good. Alfred Alvarez wrote, in The Savage God, "The life of the suicide is, to an extraordinary degree, unforgiving. Nothing he achieves by his own efforts, or luck bestows, reconciles him to his injurious past." For Richey, the logic of self-extermination was merely an extension of the industrial scale of destruction, the callous annihilation of the value of human life, he saw everywhere. The Manics came out of the South Wales valleys - a world of smoke-blackened steel towns and blighted mining villages - at the same time as the entire economic structure of that world was being destroyed. They came from a tradition of communitarian Socialism, and were themselves even more radical, inspired in part by the Situationists. This ultra-intelligent boy, growing up in a desolate, poisoned landscape, filled with a population hacking out their lungs and wasting their lives in the hope that one day things might improve, and whose most injurious conflicts came to nothing, wasn't going to grow up happily. Studying History at Cardiff University with Nicky Wire, absorbing huge amounts of theory, he could see the same institutionalised destruction in the Situtationists' conception of market capitalism, and the industrialised extermination of the German death camps.
It may seem pretty presumptuous of me to speculate on why Richey was driven into the metaphorical hole he was - and I'm certainly not going to speculate on what happened to him. But we know what he did whilst alive; I know from personal experience that self-destructive behaviour of any kind - but especially self-mutilation - is a minor surfacing of the death-drive; the self-harmer, the anorexic, the casualty-case alcoholic, all have, in their respective action, a difference in degree, but not in kind, from suicide, the knowledge at the back of their minds that they are picking themselves apart one thread at a time. The destructive activity is at once a punishment and a virtuous act, an attempt at purging whatever demon taunts them. But most important here is the sense of enclosure, entrapment; the world of self-destruction is closed off to the outside world - or, at least, the parts of the outside world worth living for - with the personality of the self-destroyer being the focal point; every tiny act and detail assumes enormous importance, every small frustration becomes a disaster: there is an anecdote about Richey's first performance out of rehab on the Holy Bible tour - the band were preparing to go onstage as their opening music, the theme from The World At War was finishing, when it skipped to the next track, of German polka; it was at this point Richey began stubbing cigarettes out on his arm. Every detail of the past is scrutinised, every new action obsessed over - and, in the case of self-destructive behaviour, its dual nature as a penitence and blight means it comes back to haunt the subject, increasing their own guilt and increasing the stench within their own closed-off world.
In Richey's case, the keyword is entrapment - the sense, reached maybe through over-theorising and abstraction, that one sees the prison walls so clearly when no-one else does: the prison of the mortal flesh and the tiny span of life, the prison of social pressures co-opted and reused by the State, the prison of a capitalist economy that gives a future no sane mind would want. In The Holy Bible these are delineated all too clearly: the futility of desire in 'She Is Suffering', the authoritarian nature of power in 'Archives Of Pain', the sense that "Life is lead weights" in 'Of Walking Abortion', the ubiquitous disgusting sin and hypocrisy in 'Of Walking...' and 'Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart' hemming the narrator in, the prostitute in 'Yes' unable to escape "purgatory's circle" because of the need to eat, who turns on herself ("I hurt myself to get pain out"). The untenable position Richey held, seemingly consciously, as a believer in idealistic politics in a world falling apart at the whim of 'realist' politics is all too obvious: the total lack of any political hope for salvation in 'Revol', the disillusion in 'This Is Yesterday' and 'Die In The Summertime' where the narrator hope for a return to childhood they know cannot possibly happen, and which is desired so much more for its impossibility. But it is most apparent in 'The Intense Humming Of Evil' and 'Mausoleum', songs about the twin black monoliths of Auschwitz and Hiroshima: both condemn modern society for forgetting the victims, forgetting the very crimes they bear the blood of, by supporting the same system - industrial capitalism - that carried them out, and, by their ignorance, condemning the victims to a second death; in the songs there is no sense, as in a protest song, that the sentiment can change the situation; mankind is soiled with the blood of the innocent victims, and the narrator is hemmed in, from the past by the sheer negating horror, from the future by the intractable situation. In this situation - radicalism conscious of the fact it cannot do anything - the result is inevitable: conflict, in straining to conquer the self and the world, and failure, the punishment for which is against the self, and the world. The political and the existential merge in one dark morass. Repeat until...
Until what? In Richey's case, we know only that he removed himself from his situation. Whether he got out alive, or has ever really got out, if he is still alive, is something we'll probably never know. I know I got out. I don't blame the Manics for making a shitty album, and don't think this is a 'look how they've fucked with Richey's memory' rant. I'm just saying... it was only less than two years ago, but (he goes for the cliche) it meant so much to me (he scores! whaddanarse!) The past may be a foreign country, but we can still love its landscape. And this - this new album is a rubbish-tip.