What to get a friend who’s committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and its zombifying culture industry, but still deserves a present for Christmas (even if that friend is yourself)? Following on from the excellent suggestions in Part 1, there are a whole lot more great ideas below…
My favourite novel of 2015 is Tom Wall’s The Coward. Set in 1930s Newcastle, the protagonist is a conscientious objector who is held in detention and responds by going on hunger strike. The book’s technical qualities are superb, the writing crisp, the setting evoked superbly. Wall comes from a British left culture in which it would be easy to write a story about a pacifist heroically opposing a “bad” war, 1914-1918 for example. Instead he chooses the “good” war of 1939-45, makes his hero stern and unbending, and shows the physical toll on him and the people who love him because of the decisions he takes. The result is a compelling novel, as committed and nuanced as our times require.
Dave Renton, North London
For me, the standout television show of 2015 was Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Set in the Marvel superhero universe but with a distinctly noirish atmosphere, the show is a compelling exploration of how “gaslighting” functions in abusive relationships (that is, the tactic of making the victim believe things that aren’t true). Krysten Ritter gives a gritty performance as traumatized Jessica Jones, a private investigator who hides her powers of super-strength as she struggles to recover after escaping her abuser, Kilgrave, whose superpower is mind control. Kilgrave, insightfully played in a powerful performance by David Tennant, is the ultimate “men’s rights activist” type – unable to deal with rejection, he insists on his entitlement to Jessica’s mind and body and those of everyone around him. With a wealth of fully drawn female, multiracial, and queer characters, excellent acting, and witty writing that draws on the suspense even as it pokes some fun at the genre, Jessica Jones is a must-see. For best results, pair it with the best music video of the year, Margaret Cho’s “I Want to Kill My Rapist.”
Sarah Grey, Phillidelphia www.sarahgreywrites.com
I’d recommend Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider. Virdee points out that racism and the struggle against it has always been an issue for the British working class – it didn’t begin with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. The arrival of Irish and then Jewish populations in the nineteenth century meant it was an issue then too. Virdee documents both how sections of the labour movement sided with British imperialism, and how there have been repeated radical struggles against racism, from Chartism to the Anti Nazi League. I have some disagreements, but still a fascinating book.
Colin Wilson, East London
Blue Rain by Jack Diggs, released on Revorg Records, is a very personal, emotional and angry illustration of the struggles of working life and a commentary on the state of modern Britain. South London’s premier dusty crate digger has been at the forefront of the UK’s boom-bap revival for some time, providing a solid basis for his second solo album. Everything about it is reminiscent of the golden era, not just in it’s instrumental style – the lyrics are meaningful, hard-hitting and honest. This record has everything, from elaborate metaphors to penetrating wordplay, all delivered with the artist’s own poetic flow, and featuring some of the UK’s finest verbalists to boot.
Arjun Mahadevan, South London
For the past nine years, Shelley’s Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things has been held in private hands, not freely available.
In 1811 Shelley was 18, at Oxford, when an Irish journalist, Peter Finnerty, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for libelling the secretary of state for war, Lord Castlereagh. Finnerty’s articles revealed the horrors of a war against the French in the Netherlands and accused Castlereagh of trying to silence him. The case caused a stir, a campaign was kicked off by Sir Francis Burdett and Shelley wrote the 172-line “Poetical Essay” in praise of Burdett as a fundraiser for Finnerty. It appeared on 2 March 1811, then disappeared from view until July 2006.
At this point, it was revealed to the world that it had been ‘found’ and yet mysteriously, only a tiny group of people could see it. This is because the owner – whoever that was – wanted to keep the potential price he could get for it, as high as possible. In the end, it was bought by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and it is now available to all.
It’s an agitprop poem, doing precisely what agitprop aims to do: agitate and propagandise. This is, the kind of poetry that fits more within political discourse than with concerns of personal relationships, observations on nature or slippages in language.
(I’m the kind of socialist who doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with poetry being private, personal, self-centred and egotistical, it’s just that it can do public, political, agitprop, revolutionary and socialist too – and hurrah for that. )
In the poem, streams of abstract nouns are personified: on the first full page of the poem alone, we meet “Despotism”, “Discord”, “Fame”, “Praise”, “pride”, “virtue”, “self-interest”, “oppression”, “splendour”, “grandeur” and “luxury”. For some modern readers this kind of language makes it quite hard reading, we’re not tuned in to his way of thinking and talking. On a first reading though, you can let it flow over you, and wait for images that stick, like ‘red altar’ to describe the mixture of blood and holiness that goes with the way the ruling class sanctify war.
The poems comes from the same impulse that produced ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ and other ‘romantic poems’. This not only praised ‘nature’ because it seemed to them to be ‘free’, but also praised political freedom. Aged 18, Shelley put himself in the tradition of the poetry of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1791) and Coleridge (1798) who both condemned the slave trade, and Wordsworth who acclaimed the Haitian revolution (1802). Shelley’s poem is full of hatred of war, imperialist cruelty and despotic power. The poem yearns for a better world: “Freedom requires / A torch more bright to light its fading fires; / Man must assert his native rights, must say / We take from Monarchs’ hand the granted sway”.
In its own way, this was dangerously seditious stuff.
Michael Rosen, East London
Kevin Ovenden’s book on ‘Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth’ was excellent. The debased state of the Party is immaterial: this is ultimately a book about a social movement (and equally the forces working against it) that can still win. Viv Albertine’s autobiography was a joy – raucous and brave like the music she made in the Slits. The Dublin band ‘Lynched’ made a great Irish folk album any fan of the genre should have a look at, Cold Old Fire. And The Fall put out an album. I’m not sure if I’ve heard it yet, but that’s also immaterial.
Mark Patrick Foley, Manchester
Margaret Atwood’s latest book, The Heart Goes Last, continues a somewhat dystopian theme found in her earlier novels. This one, however, seems much closer to the world around us. Recession has hit the US, and Charmaine and Stan find themselves living in their car after their house is repossessed. Consilience seems a way out: a new start living in a model town. But there’s a catch – to live the ‘American Dream’ every other month has to be spent in prison, providing all the things that Concilience needs.
There were two main themes I found particularly interesting. First was the role of prison labour in both production and reproduction. It was a good starting point for thinking about the labour done by prison inmates in our society, most of whom aren’t able to get out every month. The second, which takes up most of the book, is that of sex, relationships and desire: sexbots, Elvis escorts, lobotomies and the relationships Charmaine and Stan have with each other and their ‘alternates’ all provide ways of exploring these themes.
Amy Gilligan, London
If you ever wanted to invite Karl Marx into your home, you are now able. But be prepared to meet a witty, sarcastic, passionate, time travelling rebel who will not only tell tales about his own life and beliefs but also comment on our own dynamic, changing world. This is Marx at his beer-swilling, boil-hating, liberatory best – who may upset some fellow leftists, “I am not a Marxist.”
A one person show, beautifully written by the left-wing historian Howard Zinn, filmed simply but very effectively and performed brilliantly by African-American actor and activist Brian Jones, I give you…Karl Marx in Soho. Click here and he will appear…
Colin Revolting, London
Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time by Mark Abel is by far the most important recently-published book for anyone hoping to understand popular music from the standpoint of radical critical theory. This is by no means an easy read; it is full of deep Marxist analysis of the common rhythmic characteristics defining contemporary popular music. It also, crucially, examines how it is that the rise of industrial capitalism has reshaped our conception of time, in turn giving rise to these same rhythmic elements. Though Brill published the hardback edition last year, it is now out in paperback through Haymarket’s Historical Materialism series. (And for a price that you can afford without selling important bodily fluids.)
Anyone looking for a bit more of a detailed synopsis of the book can read the review of it that I wrote this past summer. But succinctly, what makes Groove such an important (even groundbreaking) contribution is that, in contextualizing music’s actual sound, it reveals the division between the “popular” and the experimental or avant-garde to be far less impenetrable than we might believe. One walks away from it with much richer understanding therefore of the linkage between musical innovation and political resistance. What’s more, the book reaffirms the centrality of a vibrant radical cosmopolitanism in forging that resistance.
In that spirit, if you haven’t yet listened to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (both released this year) then a re-evaluation of your life’s choices are probably in order.
Alexander Billet, editor, Red Wedge magazine, Chicago