The Whole Shebang
Phantom Subtext


It’s often struck me that Socialism in the developed world is at heart an adolescent phenomenon, insofar as it involves a contrarian bloody-mindedness, a sort of grumpy whimsy and an imperviousness to absurdity. By way of illustration, the singing Socialist, Billy Bragg, recently told Radio 4 listeners in a very serious voice that he’d learned all of his politics from pop music. Likewise, the commentary of Seumas Milne, a diehard enthusiast of proletarian revolution, rarely makes sense in terms of logic or principle or even feeding poor people. It does, however, have its own internal semblance of logic if you think of it as the oppositional pantomime of an arrested adolescent. My other half describes adolescence as a five year bad mood, and we can, I think, forgive teenagers many of their hormonal pretentions. Adults, not so much.

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, an adult whose insights have entertained us before, today shares her thoughts on the Glastonbury music festival and its counter-cultural credentials

But how counter-cultural is Glastonbury? This question was last asked in 2002, when Mean Fiddler took over the security and the era of leaping the fence was officially over… You had to ask, as many did, would its free spirit survive?

So, you take a general hippy atmosphere, with all the crystals and whatnot, and there is a tacit anti-consumerism just to the smell of patchouli. But the truth is that ticket prices have been steep for years. The days of getting in for a quid and being given a free pint of milk are long gone. Michael Eavis, the festival’s founder, had no interest in returning to them either, being quite taken with the charitable side of the festival. This resulted in huge donations to CND and, more recently, to Oxfam, Greenpeace and local groups. In order for these noble ends to be realised, pretensions of rebellion had to be relinquished; the crowd had to pay…

So why does [Glastonbury] always look so radical, so unlike a V festival or Reading, so outside civilisation? I'll tell you why, it’s because the audience is always covered with mud. The only culture this festival runs counter to is the culture of cleanliness. It’s like the whole of hippydom in weekend-microcosm - it looks like there’s a point, but turn any stone and all you’ll find is mud and earwigs.

But... the radicalism...   

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Hygiene aside, what’s interesting is that, like so many of her peers, Williams assumes radicalism entails a free lunch, sorry, spirit, and a rejection of capitalism. If only all of this music, lighting, food and hippie paraphernalia could be done without money, or less money, or something that does what money does, but isn’t actually money. She also assumes, again like many others, that giving, er, money to CND is some yardstick of nobility and radical virtue. Anyone familiar with the actual politics of CND and its chairman, Kate Hudson - whose affiliations include the Communist Party of Britain and its declared solidarity with North Korea - might take a less charitable view. One might also wonder why CND excuses Iran’s efforts at nuclear armament, while opposing such weapons being possessed by Israel and the West. A logic that seems based on a belief that power is intrinsically very, very bad, except when others have it, in which case it suddenly becomes good, regardless of how it may be used. But such bothersome details would almost certainly hinder Ms Williams in her search for counter-cultural radicalism.

I’m reminded of a video sent to the 2006 Reading Festival by Jarvis Cocker from his home in France, along with an appeal to “smash the system.” (Cocker’s dislike of pretension and fondness for Socialism have been recurrent features of his catalogue and public commentary, though the possible contradictions of those positions have, so far as I know, yet to be set to music.) The video was to promote the former Pulp frontman’s single, Cunts are Still Running the World. (Subsequently renamed Running the World and edited to omit the salty language.) As the original title suggests, it’s a stirring ditty. More to the point, the song is meticulously tuned, both to a Glastonbury audience and the familiar rules of pop star rebellion, the two being closely related: “Your free market is perfectly natural. Do you think that I’m some kind of dummy? It’s the ideal way to order the world. Fuck the morals, does it make any money?” Edgy, I think you’ll agree. War is bad, being bourgeois is bad and free market capitalism – of which Mr Cocker is a conspicuous beneficiary – is a terrible, terrible thing. Such is the radical counterculture for which Ms Williams yearns.