Reviews

Book Review: The World According To Xi by Kerry Brown

Despite being the guiding ideology behind the world’s most powerful economy, Chinese communism (or “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”) remains an enigmatic and misrepresented force here in the West. Although we vaguely understand that China’s impact on the global order in the 21st century will be enormous, we tend to put it in the same category as the moon and the tides. A distant fact of nature, so huge as to be mostly imperceptible and irrelevant to our daily lives.

Critics of China’s belligerent insistence on maintaining itself as a one party communist state perform the most bizarre mental acrobatics in order to cope with the fact of its existence. Everyone knows that communism is a failed system that collapsed decades ago, incapable of generating and sustaining wealth and modernity. Thus, the Chinese system must simply be a hoax, or a red veneer disguising a fundamentally late capitalist society. Maybe we expect the 88 million members of the Communist Party of China, with its origins in Revolution and a leadership baptised in the fires of Maoism, to simply yell “surprise!”, put on top hats and admit they’ve believed in western capitalism all along.

In this wonderfully concise and accessible book, Kerry Brown gives us a short overview of the global outlook of modern China. For those struggling to draw a line between the enduring images of the Maoist era and our current conception of a superpower which is capitalist in all but name, and then again struggling to understand why such rapid development has produced the neo-authoritarian figure of Xi Jinping, rather than the liberal democratic reforms that were so complacently predicted, this book is an essential crash course.

The book is especially poignant in an era when the western systems which we had assumed China would one day seek to emulate appear to be falling apart. European capitalism is straining under pressure of internal forces which range from progressive separatism to barely disguised fascism. The American empire also appears to be collapsing under its own weight, unable and unwilling to sustain its oversized presence in the world and turning to deeply disturbing political obsessions at home.

Kerry Brown’s analyses of the implications of Xi Jinping Thought (a body of political theory recently added to the Chinese constitution in the tradition of Mao Tse Tung Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory) is engaging but professionally dispassionate. The book neither advocates nor criticises Chinese governance, offering a digestible explanation of the current reality and allowing the reader to make their own moral and political judgements.

Although The World According To Xi is plainly intended as a short primer, there were many areas I felt could still have been discussed in greater depth. Brown confines himself to describing China’s huge economy as “complicated”, but we  might have benefited from some illustrative examples demonstrating how the relationship between the state, private business and workers actually functions. Although we learn a fair bit about the wider political context in which Xi Jinping exists, we’re no clearer on what party political mechanisms are actually at work. Brown talks a lot about China’s variously hot and cold relationship with Marxism-Leninism, but assumes a great deal of knowledge on behalf of the reader in terms of what Marxism-Leninism actually is. We also get a broad look at how China views itself and its own ascension to superpower status, and some discussion of how this may relate with existing global systems, but we get almost nothing on China’s relationship with its communist neighbours – Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

The World According To Xi is a fantastic report on the current outlooks and attitudes of the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their knowledge of the subject quickly. For those not especially interested in the nuts and bolts of China’s political economy, this book will provide more than enough information to satisfy. However, if you’re looking for a comprehensive answer to the question of what the PRC really is, it barely scratches the surface.

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Politics

Some Personal Thoughts on Anti-Semitism and The Left.

To my mind, there’s no link between serious left wing thinking and anti semitism. Resisting anti-semitism is a key plank of all socialist politics. The socialist movement in Europe rests disproportionately on the shoulders of the Jewish working class and their struggle for freedom.

However, there is a clear link between the fringe of radical movements and crank politics, which grew up to unacceptable proportions in the “wilderness years” of the past three decades – in which many of the best minds on the left where numbed by constant defeat and took themselves elsewhere.

It is in the nature of cranks to go on wild, conspiratorial intellectual goose chases – and most of the wild conspiracies out there are filled with anti-semitic tropes, and therefore act as a back entrance into genuine anti semitism.

Throw into the mix the contradiction between the natural socialist urge to support third world liberation struggles (such as the rights of the Palestinian people) and the fact that sometimes oppressed people can be associated with reactionary movements in their own right (such as the jew hatred of some in the arab world) and we have a political minefield. The line between “fair criticism” and “another kind of bigotry” gets badly blurred. As if pointing out that the Israel/Palestine conflict was a political minefield was at all necessary.

I am not Jewish, but my life is enriched by the friendship and love of many who are. The Labour movement will emerge stronger than ever if we all turn to our history books, as well as to the experiences of our loved ones, and learn from them.

Many of the attacks on the Labour Leadership are politically motivated, but if they become an exercise in political education for the membership and community outreach for the party, they will ultimately strengthen, not weaken the movement.

Now is an excellent opportunity to purge the Labour Party of the kind of cranks who’s tactics of failure have deliberately sabotaged British socialism for generations, and educate ourselves to be better socialists going forward into the future.

¡No Pasarán!

¡Venceremos!

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Politics, Reviews

Impressions of Cuba

Here are a few words about my recent trip to Cuba with my partner Claire. Although it was just a holiday undertaken in a personal capacity (not any kind of political delegation or solidarity mission), standing in the last great cold war city west of Hanoi I found myself coming away with some strong impressions, political and otherwise.

We don’t speak Spanish beyond asking for basic directions and ordering a beer (and even then, poorly) so the level of insightful conversation we managed was fairly limited – although plenty of people were willing to chat with us as best as we could manage.

As tourists, we mostly interacted with extremely cosmopolitan Cubans and we didn’t exactly travel out to any rural sugar plantations to get the unvarnished opinions of the agricultural working class. So some of the impressions described below will be coloured by the kind of people we met in Havana, Santiago and on the paradisiacal Holguin coast.

Via Cuba’s many museums and sites of historical interest we learned a great deal of their history, and its really impossible to make sense of anything in Cuba without having some appreciation of it.  So this is where I’ll begin, apologies to those well versed in Cuban history, just skip down a bit!

 

The Origins of the Cuban Nation

Since its discovery in the very late 14th century by Christopher Columbus and right up until the turn of the 19th, Cuba was a colony of the Spanish Empire. In true imperial form, the Spanish successfully butchered the indigenous peoples down to the last man, woman and child, proceeding to use Cuba as a clearing house for slavery, a plantation for tobacco and sugar and a naval base to threaten Spain’s British and French military rivals in the Caribbean – a fact attested to by Havana’s awesome colonial fortifications, which are the largest of their kind in the whole of the Americas.

The Spanish population in Cuba became divided between imperial loyalists and those that began to see themselves as Cubans and over the centuries an independence movement emerged. After years of bloody struggles a coherent movement began to form around the political ideas of exiled dissident and poet, José Martí. Similar to Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar before him, Martí developed a strong sense of Latin American and Cuban identity – around which a unified independence movement could coalesce.

Martí and his followers did indeed succeed in returning to Cuba, raising up a bloody rebellion and kicking out the Spanish, for which he is venerated as Cuba’s first and greatest national hero, both by the current communist regime as well as those opposed to it. In many ways, he takes the place of Lenin in Cuba’s communist mythology. Despite being governed by a Marxist-Leninist one party system, it is images of José Martí that appear everywhere in Cuba, from giant monuments to friendly murals, not Marx and Lenin.

Despite it’s eventual victory in 1898, Martí’s rebellion left Cuba a smouldering wreck, its economy destroyed and its population exhausted. Martí himself died heroically while charging towards Spanish artillery in his trademark black suit and on his huge white horse. The USA, keen to see the imperial Spanish driven as far away from their territory as possible vocally supported the new Republic, although provided little physical or military aid during the war itself. However, they were able to exert considerable influence over the vulnerable new state and insisted that their founding constitution exempt the USA from rules of national sovereignty, effectively turning the island into an American military base.

Although spirited attempts were made to create a functioning democracy – and the early Cuban governments were deeply progressive compared to the reactionary Spanish – the requirement for American approval for any kind of serious decision making quickly turned Cuba into a puppet state, its leadership degenerating into a brutal and corrupt class of landowners, untouchable as long as they acted on behalf of American interests. A similar story that would play out again in South Vietnam some 50 years later.

A famous high point of this era is the 1946 conference of the North American mafia, under the pretext of a Frank Sinatra concert, hosted by Havana’s Hotel Nacional with the blessing of Cuba’s then dictator, Fulgenico Batista.

This era of Cuba being used as a shared playground for both the American mafia and military, while its own leadership inflicted political repression, exploitation and misery on the semi-literate working class proved absolutely intolerable to many Cubans. Most especially to one idealistic young lawyer, Fidel Castro.

 

Revolution and the Birth of Modern Cuba

There’s tonnes of material out there already on the Cuban revolution and the exploits and adventures of Fidel Castro and his loyal second-in-command, Ernesto Che Guevara, so I won’t go into any detail here. Suffice to say they succeeded in turning a small guerrilla war against their own government into a full blown uprising and revolution. One subtle but extremely important point is that this was not a communist revolution – it was a nationalist one. Although Che had long been a committed Marxist, and Fidel also converted to socialism through his political life leading up to the revolution, the basis of the war itself was one of national liberation from United States imperialism, with a strong current of pan-Latin American internationalism thrown in for good measure. Unlike in earlier revolutions in Europe, which were planned and lead by established communist parties, the Communist Party of Cuba was formed nearly two years after the revolution had been won. This goes some way to explain the Cuban government’s strenuous efforts to draw a direct link between José Martí and themselves, with the heroic image of martyred Che Guevara (which is almost as omnipresent as the image of José Martí) providing a constant assertion of this legacy.

Cuba’s early alignment with the Soviet Union was partly ideological, and partly pragmatic. The USA couldn’t countenance the existence of the new socialist government, and began a long period of subtle and not so subtle aggression. This included assassination attempts, sabotage, invasion, trade embargo, the introduction of diseases into food and tobacco crops and the occupation of the far eastern corner of the island – an occupation which goes on to this day in the form of the American concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Although the young Cuban government would have benefited hugely from a good relationship with the superpower on its doorstep it found itself forced into deep military and economic ties with the distant Soviet Bloc. During this period Cuba also maintained a strong sense of its own place in the world, playing a leading role in third world liberation struggles via organisations like OSPAAAL and its support for Latin American and African liberation struggles, up to and including taking part in a land war against apartheid South Africa in defence of Angola.

Cuba’s strong sense of both nationalist self determination and ideological internationalism combine to create a very strong impression, even today. Having never been a oppressor country, Cuba’s deep patriotism has a progressive flavour unattainable to the old imperial powers. It does provide an example of what separatist movements like those in Scotland and Catalonia might aspire towards however.

Although communism is the guiding ideology behind the Cuban system, and the government is organised on Leninist principles, it draws its legitimacy from its revolutionary legacy, as well as by the sweeping reforms brought about by the revolution. These include the transfer of both land and homes from landlords to tenants, massive anti-illiteracy drives (Cuba went from some of the lowest to the highest literacy rates in the whole world in a very short time), improvements in hygiene, huge advancements in racial and gender equality and the rapid creation of comprehensive and universal healthcare, education and social security systems. This was accompanied and paid for by mass nationalisations, especially of the holdings of American companies and the assets of the small landowner class – in an unsurprising parallel with the problems of inequality in today’s global order, over 70% of Cuban land was in the hands of about 5% of the population during the time of the revolution.

 

The Fallout of the Special Period: Eating Out in Modern Cuba

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the enduring hostility of the USA caused Cuba to go into what it refers to as “the special period”; a protracted period of austerity and self reliance undertaken in an attempt to survive the loss of its main economic benefactor. This caused enormous hardship upon ordinary people, and set back the course of development and modernisation by decades. The scars of the special period are still there to see today, most strikingly in the form of the dysfunctional railway system, which they had neither the fuel nor industrial capacity to maintain during the special period and have yet to properly revive.

Another legacy of this period is the bizarre cuisine. Despite being an extremely fertile island, much of Cuba’s collectivised agriculture is invested in the production of cash crops like sugar and tobacco. Its lack of agricultural diversity and subsequent reliance on foreign trade for food caused enormous shortages during the special period, which lead to rationing and deprivation.

Although food and fresh produce is now relatively plentiful, packaged goods fill up supermarket shelves, outdoor markets are piled high with meat and veg and a huge chain of state bakeries provides daily bread, Cuban cuisine is still mostly dull and uninspiring. Although there are plenty of innovators and pioneers in this field, and we ate some fantastic meals served by talented and enthusiastic Cuban hosts, the overall culture towards food is still overwhelmingly bland (ketchup is not a garnish, no matter how artfully you decorate the plate with it, comrades). Although Cubans are now free to travel abroad as they please, a long period of restriction on foreign travel and a lack of meaningful inwards immigration means that Cuba hasn’t benefited from the culinary delights of multiculturalism. There’s not even much influence from other Caribbean island cuisines.

One feature of our trip was our regular visits to state owned canteens, which serve almost nothing other than ham sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, “Cuban Specials” (ham and cheese sandwiches) and soggy fried chicken. These places are plentiful and utterly unpretentious, existing solely to keep the population well fed on the cheap. Whether you see this as a marker of the banality of communist failure, or a triumph of the will to survive is really up to your own prejudices.

A particular highlight of the socialist dining experience was our visit to the Coppelia ice cream parlour in Havana. A large, open-plan restaurant ringed by a massive bar with tall chairs arranged along the inside edge. Cubans from all walks of life queue up to enter the enclosure and take a seat at the bar, which serves ice cream of various flavours so cheap it may as well be free. Afterwards they sit in the shade of the palm trees in the large courtyard or the surrounding pedestrianised area, kicking around balls, listening to people performing music and chatting among themselves. Although socialism has yet to deliver the staggering diversity and wasteful abundance of the free market it does provide other unique forms culinary experience, of which Coppelia is a particularly joyous example.

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Cuban Democracy Today: General Election 2018

We actually arrived in the middle of a general election, between votes being cast a few days before and the results coming in.

In western democracies we view political parties as representing different policy platforms based on one ideological premise or another, on a broadly left/right axis. The central democratic principle behind a communist state is the idea that political parties actually represent the interests of antagonistic class forces. This idea was objectively true in the age of Marx and Lenin (when people would discuss the “propertied interest versus the labour interest) and arguably true today, depending on your view of the world.

Following this logic, a society which has eliminated conflicting class forces and installed a government of the working class (“dictatorship of the proletariat”) has also eliminated the need for oppositional party politics. The one party state can work as a collaborative venture for the shared interests of the whole of society. A communist would look at the democratic system in the USA and conclude that it is also a one party state, representing the interests of capital (“dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”), for which elections were just noisy factional disputes at best, but more like empty propaganda in reality. Since the USA has never had a non-millionaire President, and doesn’t have a dedicated party of labour, it’s hard not to sympathise with this view.

Cuban democracy is considerably healthier than what used to take place in the former Soviet Union. Cuba began its democratic development in the mid 1970s, waiting over a decade after the revolution to allow for reconstruction to take place: “If we had an election today, who and what would we vote for? We need to build a country first” Fidel Castro remarked when quizzed by an American journalist about how quickly he would call a general election after his victory.

Cubans vote for delegates from their local area to send to the “National Assembly of People’s Power”. This assembly is the supreme legislating body that signs off on new laws and policy. It also elects the President, so although Cuban people do not elect their leader directly, they elect the assembly that then elects the government (this is more or less what we do in Britain too by the way).

Delegates to the assembly are not paid and membership is a responsibility – not a job. Election campaigns are forbidden and election funding is especially forbidden. Candidates are required to post their biographies on public noticeboards for the electors to review and base their decision upon. A candidate has to be endorsed by over 50% of the electorate to take their seat in the assembly, if they cannot get that then the seat is left empty. Cuban democracy is therefore a much quieter and arguably a more dignified affair than that which takes place in the west.

Most of the possible candidates in the polling district of central Havana were members of the Communist Party, although the two youngest candidates were recent graduates and not full members. One suspects this is because they had some way to go before qualifying for full membership, rather than because they had refused it.

Political change in Cuba is slow and measured, often taking one tentative step forward and  then a quick half a step back. However reforms do happen, as evidenced by their steady transition from state sponsored homophobia to being the most LGBT friendly place in whole Caribbean (and possibly the whole of the Americas). The National Assembly boasts of having recently welcomed its first transgender delegate.

This democracy looks and feels nothing like our own, and is based on principles we more readily associate with the sham electoral systems of the old Eastern Bloc. However, democracy is indeed happening in its own unique way. Raul Castro has announced his intention to retire this year, so it will be up to the new assembly to install new leadership, which may have profound consequences on the future economic and social policy direction of the island. There is a certain amount of speculation that the next president will be a woman, as both Raul’s and Fidel’s daughters have strong political records of their own (Mariela Castro was the driving force behind Cuba’s progressive change in direction regarding LGBT issues), although whether or not Cuba will welcome a third consecutive Castro into the highest office remains to be seen.

 

Dissent 

Although Cuba has long since given up the habit of imprisoning dissenters, the system leaves few avenues open for directly oppositional political expression. However, a keen eyed observer looking out for such things will notice the occasional Orwell reference crammed between the more enthusiastically socialist street art, as well as people defiantly displaying their religious identity despite the state’s officially atheist policy.  Havana does boast an absolutely massive statue of Jesus occupying a commanding view of the city though. Finished in 1958 and blessed by the Pope himself, the completion of the Havana Jesus rather unfortunately coincided with the advent of communism. Whether the decision to leave it standing was out of tacit respect for the people’s religious feeling, or simply because communists love a good statue is unknown.

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Of course there are also the “ladies in white”, a conspicuous religiously aligned protest movement agitating for greater political freedom, who can be seen going about their business in Havana quite regularly but reportedly often receive official and semi official harassment.

A huge portion of Cuba’s landowning class fled the island to the USA after the revolution, especially those descended from slave owning or criminal families, who had retained much of their hoarded wealth up to that point. This initial exodus, combined with Cubas historical restrictions on foreign travel, have been used strongly in evidence that Cuban people are entrapped, with parallels being drawn between modern Cuba and what used to be East Germany. However, travel restrictions have been lifted for over a decade now, and no significant emigration has taken place. Maybe its national pride, maybe its communist brainwashing – or maybe leaving Cuba’s strong social safety net to live in squalor as second class citizens in the USA, alongside the descendants of traitors, isn’t so appealing in big 2018.

 

The CDR: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Stasi

Soviet secret police forces traditionally represented themselves as The Sword and Shield of the Party. The Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (the CDR) can likewise be recognised by its emblem of a figure brandishing a Cuban flag shield and a large sword. However, this is more or less where the similarities begin and end. Like many aspects of Cuban culture, there appears to be an element of implicit good humour in it and the figure is waving a slightly absurd pirate sabre above its head. Rather than a terrifying and secretive bureaucracy, the CDR is organised along the lines of a neighbourhood watch. It’s purpose is to maintain and promote the values of the Cuban revolution at a grassroots level and members paint the logo on their front doors or on the sides of their houses. One particularly charming example I noticed in a very working class district had the letters “C D R” picked out in seashells on the front garden path. Tellingly, they were facing inwards, giving the impression they were picked out in pride by the householder rather than to intimidate the rest of the neighbourhood.

Whether or not the CDR is an admirably open and tolerant expression of political commitment and vigilance, or just another sinister expression of communism’s totalitarian instincts is once again down to your own preconceptions.

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Social Attitudes

Cuba is described with extraordinary rhetoric by hysterical foreigners, but in reality Cuban attitudes can broadly be summed up as moderate and progressive. Despite the complete absence of a free press, Cubans are well informed about the state of the world and under few illusions about the issues of their own society. In fact, so calm and measured are they that you start to wonder how much positive influence our reactionary, cartel owned “free” press is even bringing to our own society.

The two main narratives projected onto Cuba is that is either a heroic worker’s paradise, defiantly standing up to a hated American enemy, or that it is an oppressed slave state who’s population is desperate to open its arms to capitalistic freedom. The truth is actually rather more sane than either, although possibly closer to the first than the second. Cubans recognise their economic problems and many wish for more rapid development in many areas, however they take a deep, nearly spiritual pride in their social achievements, particularly around education and health and would not like to see their society made less compassionate by the ravages of the free market.

Anti imperialism and Latin American unity is still a dominant theme in Cuban politics, although most regular Cubans hold the USA itself in no great antipathy and there are signs that some Cuban youth culture fetishises hispanic Americana.

Without wishing myself fetishise action driven by lack of means, there is something heroic about the innovative spirit of Cuba. In Havana classic American cars from the 1950s are still kept lovingly on the road and in splendid condition, alongside vintage heavy trucks, Czech motorcycles with side cars, Soviet Ladas and a smattering of modern imports.  The architecture of the colonial era is maintained in a sort of permanent managed decline, giving the overall impression of being in the whole of the last hundred years of history all at once.

Cuban society, lead by the communist party, takes women’s issues extremely seriously. Like many third world countries in which women participated in an armed struggle, revolution brought instant leaps forward in gender equality. That said, many feminists of the new left in the 1970s remarked how quickly business as usual was implemented with regards to gender roles in socialist countries. In her 1970 polemic The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer goes as far as to quote Fidel Castro imploring woman to take the greater part of the burden of domestic duties and child rearing as an example of such regression. However, in modern Cuba no such rhetoric is now present – the government’s central newspaper calls for the advance of woman’s rights as “the revolution that continues within the revolution” and woman make up 50% of the public sector, both in menial and management roles – which in a communist country is the majority of the workforce! In a country in which public advertising is almost non existent, the billboards that line the approach to Havana instead show campaigns against domestic violence. Pornography, like drug use, is completely illegal and from what I could tell the official position of the PCC is to treat woman in prostitution as victims in the first case.

Having not lived a life as a working woman in Cuba, I can’t really comment on the real day to day experience of sexism there. However Claire remarked on more than one occasion that the overall climate felt much less sexist than in the UK, with no intrusive attention on the streets or in shops and no apparent discomfort seen on the faces of woman going about their business. I am given to understand that domestic violence is more of an issue in the rural heartlands, where some tobacco and sugar farmers are known to drink rum like it was water all day while working, and then mistreat their families upon returning home.

Additionally, as of the 2018 general election I understand that Cuba is now the second nation in the world to elect a majority female government, although I have yet to see the official statistics to confirm that.

Police are very present in large numbers on the streets, although unarmed. Gun crime is almost non existent and we didn’t even see a gun in the hands of soldiers – other than the ceremonial AK47 held by the guard outside Fidel Castro’s tomb.

Sport is incredibly important to Cuban people and, like politics, it is illegal for it to be undertaken professionally. This is a double edged sword in many ways – high participation in the national sports of boxing and baseball by huge numbers of the population mean that Cuba produces some of the best sportspeople in the world, and access to high level training is available at small scale clubs on street corners and in parks. On the other hand, a lack of commercial funding means that clubs are often under resourced and have to make do, as Cubans so often do, and high level players are regularly poached by other nations offering massive salaries in return for their prowess.

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A neighbourhood boxing club, kids in training after school

For a nation often depicted as a brutal military dictatorship, progressive politics and peaceful coexistence abounds, both officially and in the attitudes of citizens. Community values are cherished, and no one seems particularly overworked. At 5pm each day, the streets of Havana turn into bustling street parties, with people playing ball games and hanging out of doorways and balconies to drink and talk together. Internet access is easily available, but not in people’s homes. Most urban dwelling Cubans have smartphones and wifi can be accessed in parks and town squares – so although Cubans can be seen busily conducting their online business in public, the vast majority of life is conducted away from the glare of a screen.

Private Enterprise and Public Infrastructure

Somewhat ironically, its on this communist island fortress that expressions of capitalistic initiative most closely match capitalism’s own preferred self image. With the commanding heights the economy in public control, private business is small in scale, owner operated, highly enthusiastic and resourceful. In the west, capitalism’s chief virtues often negate themselves – the family business becomes the faceless corporation and the children of pioneering business owners form a new class of lazy aristocrats, indolent and useless with their piles of inherited wealth. No signs of this are yet present in Cuba.

There is much apprehension both in the capitalist world and within Cuba itself about what large scale changes economic liberalisation will wreck on Cuba’s unique society, with many people telling me that I was “lucky to be going before it changes too much”. However my impression is that economic reforms are being undertaken cautiously and strategically with the specific aims of improving living standards without impacting on the wealth of the public realm as well as diversifying the nation’s revenue streams of foreign currency, shielding it from any potential fluctuations in the value of its primary exports of sugar and tobacco. There is some talk about plans to improve the financial position of the working class by unifying the dual currency system, merging the low value “national” peso used for domestic economic affairs, with the internationally convertible peso, which carries a much higher value. I won’t go into the mechanisms and rationales behind the dual currency system here, as even if you’ve got this far, I doubt you’re up for a long discussion on the financial systems of command economies by this point.

For all the progressive attitudes, safety, highly educated population, beautiful cars and general lack of squalor it’s sometimes easy to get carried and forget that Cuba is still part of the third world. However in those areas that require more industrial and financial resources than can be provided by the good will of the citizenry its still painfully obvious that Cuba has some way to go, and has suffered from its isolation from more heavily industrialised economies. You can’t drink the tap water, and you are encouraged to fold toilet paper up and use the little bins to be found even in the poshest bathrooms, rather than risk clogging the inadequate sewer system. Although constant construction work, repair teams and general activity gives Havana the air of a city on its uppers, the streets are still potholed and some buildings are visibly crumbling.

None the less, there is enormous national pride, collective spirit and a general feeling of  cautious optimism. Signs of (slow) development overwhelmingly outnumber the signs of decay. In today’s world of dangerously unsustainable economic advance, built on the brutal exploitation of the environment and the worker, at the expense of social security, its hard not to feel the Cubans are forging ahead on the better path.

¡Viva la Revolución!

¡Viva Cuba!

 

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Reviews

Live Review: Insecure Men, The Scala, London, 9/03/18

In a museum in Berlin there’s a replica of a flat from the communist era, designed to demonstrate to tourists how sparse and unfulfilling life in the East used to be. If you look at the expressions of the young people, you can see them doing the maths in their head – and coming to the conclusion that between a job for life with a medium sized flat, or living in a shoebox and working for an app, they’d take their chances with the Stasi.

The world was supposed to be better, technology and modernity was going to save us. In the future (about 10 years ago) war and want would be over and a united mankind would be on its way to the stars.

Instead it stayed just as bad – got worse even – but in new and dispiriting ways. Instead of the workers “holding the country ransom” with their unions, its the corporations and their algorithms holding the gun to our back. Even more depressing, we’re now expected to like it.  Free at last from stifling conformity and an overbearing public realm (or “nanny state” as we’re now obliged to call it), we’re dying of loneliness in a sea of meaningless individualism.

Western capitalism has finally crushed its old rivals in the socialist world. It stands alone and victorious, riven with parasites and infections of its own making, lashing out at its own shadow – from the Middle East to the East End of London. Private interests are God and the struggle for the collective good is the sin of our fathers, to be cast off and forgotten.

With a drabness deliberately crossing over into the uncomfortable, Insecure Men are an appeal to the bad old days. In both their lyrics and imagery, they contrast scenes of boring everyday life with jarring fascism, machismo and sleaze. Images of smiling children are placed suggestively next to writhing child abusers. Worn down, decaying council housing is framed lovingly next to glossy corporate advertising, sinister by comparison.

Insecure Men know the world is bad and they know it has always been bad. They write semi-sincere love songs to a time when society’s sickness was borne as an open wound, before the cancer grew up in the heart and lungs and mind – harder to see, but infinitely more deadly.

Their performance at The Scala last night was a stroke of genius. A genuine work of art presented through the medium of pop music. An eight piece band turned the lethargic, delicate album tracks into expansive, immersive pools of sound. The music is neither aggressive nor imposing, it just hangs over you and around you like a smog, or like a feeling of sadness that you just can’t shake.

If this ironic humour and resigned attitude to the failure of modernity is the spirit of our age, Insecure Men are the right people in the right place at the right time.

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Audiophile, Terminal Communications

Ten LPs That Changed My Life

YOUTUBE PLAYLIST

By Robert Maisey. In biographical order…

afa7b61787f4ae5ea245b927aa301ab3a1f263c7Queen – A Night At The Opera

Queen were the first band I ever loved. At about age 13 (around 2002) they ignited my joy in music. My parents bought me the Platinum Collection after I came home singing the Bicycle song after hearing it at school. A Night At The Opera was the first album I tracked down and bought for myself and it was my best friend for years. I listened to this album the way only a teenager can listen to an album, lovingly pouring over every detail – which in the case of this monumental rock epic is rather a lot of detail! I’d probably cite the harder rocking Queen I and  Queen II as my favourite Queen albums now, but A Night At The Opera gets the spot for how throughly it rocked my world when I first heard it. I also loved to listen to A Day at the Races alongside it, which had obvious aesthetic and musical similarities, but also felt like a more mature piece to enjoy after one had been thoroughly inducted to A Night at the Opera. I was very lucky to have an older friend named Luke, who kept a big brotherly eye over me and would lend me CDs whenever I showed curiosity (including the entire Queen back catalogue). He lives in Plymouth and has a family these days and I don’t see him as much as I’d like too, but I still consider him a great friend and a very formative influence.

 

 

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The Darkness – Permission To Land

This record followed pretty hot on the heels of my discovering Queen. Coming out in July 2003 it seemed like manna from heaven for a kid with a new found mania for screachingly camp hard rock. In hindsight, Permission To Land is naff as hell and utterly derivative – but lacking the context of any wider musical knowledge at the time, I loved it. I still love it to be honest and regularly return to it, guilt free.

Honourable mentions at this point go to Meatloaf – Bat Out of Hell – which I pilfered from my Mum’s record collection – and to my new (at the time) friend Shelley, who was already an expert in all forms of music ever made in my eyes. Spotting a burgeoning rock fan, Shelley introduced me to loads of albums that would be on constant rotation for me in my early teens, including  Nightwish – Once and Mortiis – The Smell of Rain, the last of which I still listen to all the time and maintain is one of the best electro-goth albums ever made. I didn’t have very many friends at school to be honest and Shelley was the first friend I ever made based on shared interests. I was in awe of him then – and very grateful to him for sharing his musical knowledge with me – and I’m in awe of him still. He’s grown up to be a very refined, complicated and good humoured man who I still learn from all the time.

 

 

first-and-last-and-always_1426323527_crop_560x550.0The Sisters of Mercy – First and Last and Always

This was probably the first album I got into that Shelley hadn’t vetted first, and really set the tone of my own personal musical self identity. The older I got, the deeper my appreciation of this very fine record became. What started out as theatrical gothic soundtrack evolved into druggy invitation into subculture, which become a complex criticism of rock music and then finally morphed again into just a solid pop record, as I started to level out as a human being. Honourable mentions at this point go to The March Violets – Natural History which I never found as emotive, but did find more fascinating, The Mission – God’s Own Medicine, which probably pushed the same buttons in me as The Darkness, Fields of the Nephilim – The Nephilim, which I found extremely immersive with its rich production and occult obsessions, Ghost Dance – Gathering Dust which, like First and Last and Always, hides a heart of pure pop brilliance under fuzzy post punk pretence and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry – Talk About the Weather, which still feels intimidatingly strung out at the end of its tether. Another honourable mention here goes to one Robert Cowlin, who I first met in 2006 in the queue to see The Sisters at the London Astoria and who has been one of my closest musical allies and respected friends ever since. He and I are in the habit of jumping into Hussey and Eldritch personas when we’re together – which is occasionally tortuous for us both, but mostly good fun and artistically fruitful.

 

 

1f60f2e8458d86411d7810fd50daf12d.jpgVNV Nation – Empires

My gang of collage friends was about as much like Breakfast Club gang as you could possibly wish for in the mid ’00s. There was my first love, Hazel Kenway, who was avant-garde as fuck for a 16 year old, there was Cyber Chris, who was the most thrilling person I had ever met (not only was cybergoth  – a brand new idea at that point – but he was also the first out-of-the-closet homosexual I’d ever been friends with) and there was Tara Allen, the ultra cool girl who dated older boys, was already tired of “the scene” and knew literally everything about sex and drugs that it was possible to know. I shared my love of 80s goth bands with them, Hazel taught us all about Kraftwerk (I lost my virginity to Minimum/Maximum!) and Chris and Tara introduced us all to pounding pounding EBM music and nightclubbing, by way of the infamous Slimelight.  Of all the stuff I listened to in this period, Apoptygma Berzerk‘s first two albums, Soli Deo Gloria and Seven still get regular rotation and pretty much everything VNV Nation did up to 2005’s Matter+Form I still regard as essential, although Empires is by far my favourite.

 

 

R-27704-1284252029.jpegThe Human League – Reproduction

By this point (I guess around age 17) I was starting to develop a pretty inflated sense of self regard, in the way of all young people who have had their first taste of serious drinking, consumption of illegal drugs, a small variety of sexual partners and have stayed up all night on more than one occasion. I was ready for music as clever as I was, and The Human League was definitely it. I’d started buying music on vinyl, in accordance with how clever and refined I was definitely becoming – and the proprietor of 101 Records in Farnham had my number straight away. He recommended I purchase this weird and wonderful album – which I believe is the the original and best British synth pop record ever made. Honourable mention also goes to The Human League – Travelogue, their second and equally bizarre album, and final LP before they disbanded; Phil Oakey carrying the name forward to make a breakthrough alongside Martin Rushent with DARE. This period of ego inflation also saw me getting wildly into Depeche Mode – Violator, which was the most sophisticated thing I’d ever heard.

 

 

Rosetta_Stone-An_Eye_For_The_Main_Chance-FrontalRosetta Stone – An Eye For The Main Chance

My deep, deep obsession with Rosetta Stone started around the time I started my first band. It was the distillation of all the things I’d grown to love over the previous 5 years or so and it consumed me for a very long time. I would listen to Rosetta Stone every single day, and did my best to track down live recordings and demo versions so that I could listen to every possible iteration of every track. An Eye For The Main Chance is the greatest purposefully recorded Goth Rock album ever made. Every single note is sculpted to absolute perfection. Choosing to create music within a genre often draws critical scorn (“have they no ideas of their own?!”) but the results are immensely satisfying to enthusiasts. The love and dedication that plainly went into every single aspect of this LP is bolstered by the awesome technical ability of the musicians. This record doesn’t do much, but what it does do, it does better than anyone else. This marks the beginning of several years of committed goth rocking on my part, which lasted my entire period studying at university. Other records I was into during this time that still receive near constant rotation include Children On Stun – Tourniquets of Love’s Desire and Dream Disciples – Asphyxia. A very special mention goes to Pretentious, Moi?, who’s self titled album inspired my first tattoo and who’s mastermind, Tim Chandler, produced the first Terminal Gods 7″: Electric Eyes/God Child.

 

 

thestooges-rawpowerIggy and the Stooges – Raw Power

Towards the end of university, around the time I moved to London and formed Terminal Gods I had something of a revelation. I discovered, for the first time since I was a school kid, ROCK MUSIC. I’d gone along with the post-punk view that all-out rock and roll was passé nonsense, but Iggy Pop changed all that. This album reset everything and sent me spinning back to first principles. This revelatory moment goes a long way to explaining the persona of Terminal Gods as a struggle between a snobbish goth band and an extremely obnoxious rock band. Around this time I also got heavily into Motörhead and The Ramones, the latter introduced to me by Jake Griffiths, the bartender at the restaurant in which I worked for my first full time job after graduating. He couldn’t believe I’d got to something resembling adulthood and had never even listened to The Ramones, so he leant me their first 4 albums there and then. Needless to say, Jake is now one of my most trusted friends. My favourite Stooges album is actually Funhouse, and my favourite Iggy Pop album is Blah, Blah Blah, but Raw Power was the record that blew the world open for me, yet again.

 

 

a1487697532_10Ulterior – Wild In Wildlife

I discovered Ulterior in 2009, around the time they released the 10″ single Sister Speed. Up till then, my music taste had been entirely retro – I’d come to terms with being an anachronism and that modern music just didn’t do it for me (although looking back, there’s loads of stuff that came out around those years that I overlooked because of this retromania). Ulterior were the first band in the here and now that I became really obsessed with. They had such awesome power and attitude and were just everything I wanted to be. They screamed into my life like a great leather and chrome juggernaut and their delirious machismo informed nearly all my tastes over the next few years. They turned me on to all sorts of amazing electro rock n roll, especially Suicide and A.R.E. Weapons. I also developed a serious hard-on for Big Black and James Rays Gangwar around this period, both of whom embodied a particular brand of techno and amphetamine infused guitar noise that I have loved like an addiction for the entire subsequent decade.

 

 

R-483725-1124699640.jpgLeonard Cohen – Songs of Love and Hate

My infatuation with Leonard Cohen began in earnest only a few years ago, and represents something of a coming down from the extended high that filled the 10 years between my Rosetta Stone and Ulterior obsessions. Cohen’s songs were the first that didn’t have to have a solid backbeat going at 110mph for me to get sucked into them. I also simultaneously started getting seriously involved with Nick Cave and David Bowie around the same time. Although this period represents a serious mellowing out in my tastes and lifestyle in general, it also represents the introduction of complexity into my artistic horizon and self doubt into my self perception. Everything before this point had, more or less, been simple. I was into bold colours, high contrast, metal and monochrome. I was into self satisfaction, self realisation and ignoring the opinions of others. Although I sometimes miss being that guy,  I’ll happily sacrifice a bit of lunatic self assurance for a bit of dignified introspection if that’s what it takes to be an adult.

 

 

R-101831-1445625302-3074.jpegLaibach – Nova Akropola

You’re not going to like this album at first, its really unmusical, but I want you to persist with it“.

Forewarned is forearmed! I’ve listened to this album several times a week, and some weeks daily, since it was bought for me as a Christmas present by Stacy Picard in 2016. It’s not only opened my mind to how much enjoyment can be got out of seriously abrasive music, but how perfectly a band can be grafted onto a much larger artistic and political message. Over the last few years, I’ve begun to have a serious crisis of faith in rock music as an answer to complicated questions posed by society and politics. Having invested a lot of my personal identity in my artistic choices, I find myself wanting and at a loss to explain the world. Consuming niche cultural products in an attempt to accumulate social capital is hardly a heroic achievement in the great scheme of things. I’ve been finding both Laibach and Einstürzende Neubauten incredibly soothing in this context, as I feel like their struggle to make sense of the late Cold War world mirrors something of my own confusion at the late capitalist one. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Public Enemy, who’s assaults on the racial and class fault lines in American society are equally compelling. My top recommendation for an album which suits the mood of our current moment is Alex Cameron – False Witness (which I talk about in depth here), which captures the ironic self awareness and earnest radicalism of the social media generation.

 

 

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Cassette Archive

SOFT RIOT PRESENTS: White Belt Hardcore/Improvised Waves

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Early influences and electronic education

by Jack Duckworth:

WHITE BELT HARDCORE (Side A)

This mix is a balance between being about influences, about being a bit autobiographical and also about documentating bands in a general nation-wide “scene” I was in at the time. It starts off with some key influencial bands for me that were more in the early 90s punk/hardcore scene and then newer bands that appeared in the fold that shifted things in a more post-punk and synth direction out of the more “punk” sound they had been more associated with years earlier. A lot of these bands were favourites of mine, or I vaguely knew some of the people involved. Overall, I felt it was important to provide notes for each entry as the whole playlist would actually make no sense to anyone who didn’t grow up without knowing at least half of these bands.

IMPROVISED WAVES (Side B)

I thought originally about doing an wave/synth mix for the “un-educated” but there’s soooo much stuff out there and I really wanted to avoid all the standard bands. Although I kept it to bands from way back in the day, this mix is actually a lot more random and unplanned than how I’d approach doing an educational mix. It’s stuff I’ve listened to recently, or stuff I found scouring through records or old mixes or just chucked in for no reason. The mix does however work more coherently than I’ve described in this overview.

SIDE A

Fugazi “Walken’s Syndrome” (In On The Kill Taker — Dischord 1993)

I always pin this one is the first record I actually planned to buy as I bought it shortly after it’s release date. I was 15 and already a fan of their previous albums which older friends introduced me to. This is a decidedly more expansive and “darker” record than their previous output as well as being a bit more discordant and noisy. Fugazi never were as big in Europe (especially the UK) as they were in North America and most people will associate them with Ian Mackaye or their infamous politics. Fugazi however for me was more about the other foil and vocalist Guy Picciotto, who was an absolute force in the band and the main attraction for me. This track features Guy on vocals and one thing I always note in this track is riff around the 1 minute mark and switches to a tight 7/4 time signature. I like the subtle, unexpected harmonics the muted guitar and bass create in this section. Over the years I found out that the title and lyrics to the song reference Christopher Walken’s performance in the film Annie Hall, quoted by the lines: “Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving. . .on the road at night. . .I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The. . .flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.” — this sample was used in a track by the punk band Jawbreaker as well.

Nation Of Ulysses “A Comment On Ritual”(Plays Pretty For Baby — Dischord 1992)

Through Fugazi I started digging through a lot of releases on the Dischord label at the time, all the way back to 80s classics like Rites Of Spring, Grey Matter, Embrace and Ignition to the current stuff happening in the early to mid 90s. Nation Of Ulysses stood out from the politically correct atmosphere of early 90s punk and hardcore with their slightly tongue-in-cheek far-left situational politics and unique fashion sensibilities at a time when fashion was sort of looked down about (but aren’t we all into fashion, whether it’s “anti” or not?). Their live shows were were to be reckoned with although I never actually saw them. Their influences came from the Motown and funk/soul groups of the 60s and 70s but imprinted in a noisy, post-hardcore format. Ian Svenonious, their singer and “mouthpiece” for the group is still active today having fronted groups like The Make-Up, Weird War and more recently Chain And The Gang. He’s authored several books on “rock n’ roll” and politics which are genuinely entertaining. Moreover, he’s carried on his unique identity, showmanship and personality for close to three decades now. Quite impressive.

Antioch Arrow “Picnic Pants” (Gems Of Masochism — Amalgamated 1995)

While Nation of Ulysses were turning things up on the east coast, their attitude and direction started triggering new bands elsewhere, including Antioch Arrow on the west coast. Part of the infamous Gravity Records-based “San Diego” sound of the early to mid 90s, Antioch Arrow polarised many in the scene at the time and got a lot of flack from the “PC hardcore” types at the time. But they certainly shook things up! They started out as more of a conventional hardcore band and quickly progressed into something far more manic, pretentious and weirder when how they started. This track comes from their third and final album released posthumously in 1995 called “Gems of Masochism” — the title and album cover are as ridiculous as the music itself. Here they started merging in a lot of “gothic” influences, most notably the Birthday Party, Christian Death or The Damned. This particular tracks sounds like the Birthday Party on high-grade amphetamines. I love how it sounds like it’s going to fall apart or crash at any minute and no real coherence except for some vague melodies from the distorted organ and at times the vocals. It’s like the soundtrack to falling down several flights of stairs very quickly or briefly turning on a broken industrial vacuum cleaner (check out some of the archived live clips on YouTube for a better idea). It packs in so many riffs and ideas within the 2 minute span that this song runs, and sort of crumbles nicely at the end.

Shotmaker “Failure” (Mouse Ear [Forget-Me-Not] — Troubleman 1996)

Shotmaker were a Canadian hardcore band from Ottawa and well-known in the underground and with friends of mine in the scene at the time. For me they’re one of the select bands from my youth I can still listen to and get energised when I listen to them. I think this in part has to do with their rhythm section. Whereas most hardcore drummers lifted their chops from the metal or 80s punk they grew up with, Shotmaker’s Matt Deline used mostly a four-on-the-floor kick drum within synchopated beats, making the music sound a lot more propulsive and primal. Add this to Nick Pye’s gain-heavy, rumbling bass and they were a rhythm section to contend with. They released a few albums in the mid-90s, this being from their last which was released on Troubleman Records, a record label got more attention paid to it starting in the 2000s as it was the launching pad for acts like Glass Candy, Black Dice, The Walkmen, Zola Jesus and more. I should also note that I think this is the first LP I bought where the band put an internet website URL in the liner notes for more information, which was the catchy and memorable “http://wabamiki.carleton.ca/~tmckeoug”

Unwound “Corpse Pose” (Repetition— Kill Rock Stars 1996)

I think across the board I think Unwound might be the post-hardcore band that I grew up with in the 90s that ticks all the “boxes” for me. I still listen to them often. Their tracks could range from noisy bursts, hypnotic grooves to more expansive, darker plotting dirges. Again, this is band with a great, unique rhythm section made up of drummer Sara Lund and bassist Vern Rumsey. I like how their sound locks together mechanically and even myself working within synth music these days I’ll reference their compositions at times when writing for that reason. It’s hard to pick a favourite album of theirs — it’s sort of a split between 1994’s “New Plastic Ideas” and 1996’s “Repetition”, the latter from which this tracks is from an more tighter and focused. This track is more “Hypnotic Groove” Unwound. Some great guitar figures here and Sara and Vern’s locked rhythm in this track is still a bit of an enigma to me even after over 20 years since first hearing it.

The Audience “Love A Doorframe” (Das Audience— Hymnal Sound 1997)

I was really into the final album by the San Francisco-based hardcore band Portraits Of Past that was released on the Ebullition label in 1996. After that band split up most of the members re-surfaced to form The Audience which was a total shift in direction. I have no idea how to describe this record but they adopted an overall glam/proto-goth image, incorporated analogue synths and what might be loosely described as new wave — at least that’s what people were calling it at the time. It’s post-punk, a bit goth, a bit no-wave and overall really dissonant. You really have to listen to it yourself. It released on Hymnal Sound (San Francisco), which was run by a guy I used to know called Julian and that was the label that The Rapture put out their first releases on. One of my old bands played our first show with them in 1998 in Vancouver. At that point they were starting to shift to a more garage rock sound and later morphed into Vue, who released a few records on Sub Pop back in the early to mid-2000s. This record I guess foreshadowed some of the post-punk revival that would come into swing a few years later.

Six Finger Satellite “Babies (Got The Rabies)” (Severe Exposure— Sub-Pop 1995)

The first album “The Pigeon Is The Most Popular Bird” is one of my all-time favourite records. It still totally freaks me out when I listen to it and sounds totally fucked and alien for when it was released in 1993 — sort of like atonal, cyborg-esque no-wave disco but with no synths used at all. The guitar work is insane on that record and both guitars are panned completely left and right for maximum disorientation. However, this track is actually from the following record which on the surface was a little more “straight forward” sounding but it was when the band started to incorporate analogue synths into their sound; probably one of the first punk/post-punk bands to do so in a revival sense. It was noted by me at the time when I was a teenager, hearing synths used in that timeline of music i was listening to.

Satisfact “Life Abroad” (7” single— Up Records 1995)

When I listen to Satisfact now I’m amazed at how this first wave revival record was released in the tail end of the first half of the midway point (is this making sense?) between right now and when the original “new wave” started coming out in the late 70s. They were a band from Seattle that were loosely affiliated with the Olympia K/Kill Rock Stars scene (Bikini Kill, Unwound, etc.) at the time. It’s a 90s indie/post-punk band with heavy influence from new wave — Gary Numan and Ultravox come to mind. I’m sure their influences weren’t as specific as many current listeners with a good internet connection and time to read obscure music blogs that exist nowadays. Satisfact put out a few records in the mid-90s then split. Their drummer played in the far more well-known indie group Modest Mouse as well.

The VSS “Lunar Weight” (Nervous Circuits— Honey Bear 1997)

Whenever I get asked about my “top 5 influences” or whatever this record is always on the list. I own the original pressing on Honey Bear when it came out as well as the CD and vinyl re-releases that were released in the late 2000s and early 2010s on the Hydrahead and Sergeant House labels. Again, this was a band that started out as more of a noisy hardcore band on their initial 7” singles and then they dropped this as their last release and was a pretty bold statement for the time, especially the “wet” style production more associated with the 80s, totally at odds with the school of production that was more in vogue in the 90s (read: Steve Albini, Bob Weston, Don Zientara, Steve Fisk, etc). I can’t describe this one really: bits of Public Image, Gary Numan and horror sci-fi analogue synth texture. Very tense and alien. You just have to listen the whole album to get the vibe and I admit, it’s not for everyone, especially if you have no context not being involved that general scene at the time. Sonny Kay’s lyrics are totally way out there and reading them on their own makes for some interesting poetic prose. It was one of the key records I was listening when my tastes turned more out of punk and into discovering classic synth and post-punk bands leading to what I’m doing musically and listening to today. Unfortunately I never saw them live and missed out on chance to see them in Seattle when I was 19. Oh well.

Long Hind Legs “A Curtain Is Drawn, A Veil Is Worn” (s/t— Kill Rock Stars 1996)

This two-piece band was a side-project of Unwound’s Vern Rumsey. I don’t think they actually played live but just released a couple of records in the 90s with a bit of that bedroom-recording aesthetic that was popular at that . There’s a lot of influences from the previous decade on this album, most notably with the use of drum machines, effected guitars and sullen vocals. With this track Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychedelic Furs of House of Love come to mind. This is one of the more “pop” tracks which balances out some of the more odd, experimental tracks that have a slight Coil feel to them.

The Faint “Victim Convenience” (Blank-Wave Arcade— Saddle Creek 1999)

When I first heard about The Faint I was already well into listening to a lot of the bands that were formative influences for this band. As they were from a more punk background their initial reviews were in magazines like Punk Planet, resulting in major confusion or severe backlash from the purists. This is probably one the key records that triggered the synth revival of the 2000s: a nice mix of the hedonism of early Duran Duran with some post-hardcore grit. I’ve seen them an many occassions around this time and shared a few stages with them in old bands I was in. This is a standout track for me. One “easter egg” for me on this record is how they use one riff in two tracks if you listen carefully: “Call Call” and “In Concert”. I found that pretty clever and have always wanted to do that myself.

Beautiful Skin “Sex Is The Triangle For the Perfect Square” (Sex Is The Triangle For the Perfect Square/Work Will Set You Free 7”— GSL 1999)

Sonny Kay from The VSS had started the Gold Standard Labs label sometime in the early 90s and by the late 90s it was thee “go to” label for all things post-hardcore that involved a revival of synth, new wave and post-punk styles. I always thought he had a good balance between putting out the releases that would sell to “the kids” but also taking a chance on some more daring stuff. Beautiful Skin was such the case, who formed by Nick Forté (guitarist from the early 90s hardcore band Rorschach) and Ross Totino, an analogue electronics guru from Brazil. This band sounded nothing like them, opting for an analogue-synth heavy sound remiscent of “154”-era Wire, John Foxx or even “minimal wave”, before the term was created retrospectively years later and got rediscovered by a larger audience. They released the “Revolve” album in 2000, did one short tour and that was it! A unique blip on the post-punk revival radar. It’s hard to find any info about them online, as it is with many bands from this time in the few years proceeding the social media/YouTube explosion.

Glass Candy & The Shattered Theatre “Metal Gods” (Metal Gods 7”— self-released 2000)

Before the far more well-known Glass Candy that we know today, there was Glass Candy & The Shattered Theatre who were DIY road warriors constantly playing small venues and basements across Canada and the US. I’m trying to remember how I found out about this band but I do remember buying their first 7” in Portland in 1999, on the recommendation of this guy Mark Burden, who was the drummer on the first record and later in Get Hustle (with members of Antioch Arrow, covered earlier). Anyway, this was a more synthier number from their early theatrical glam/no-wave phase. It’s great seeing where they started and where they’ve got to over the years. Much deserved.

Adult. — Lost Love (Resuscitation— Ersatz Audio 2001)

Closing off this playlist is a track of the Adult. release that put them on the map I guess, that being 2001’s Resuscitation. It was mainly an LP collection of their early singles and more. This was probably one of the first current bands at the time I got into that was purely electronic. I think their sound was right at the time; they had a punk approach and incorporating the darker, cold electronic sounds that appealed to people like myself that sort of avoided the whole EBM, rave, industrial scenes of the 90s so they had some wider appeal. And they’re still going today, now as strong as ever.

Closing out this side is one of the more dronier, abstract tracks from Labradford’s “A Stable Reference” LP (Kranky, 1995). It is one of my usual top 5 LPs and had been a large influence I suppose. Most of the tracks have reverb saturated guitar and bass but I used this track to drone out side A. I didn’t get this one in the mix as it didn’t really fit the program I had set out for with the mix.

SIDE B

SIMPLE MINDS – “Citizen (Dance Of Youth)” (Reel-To-Real Cacophony – Zoom Records, 1979)

MARTIN DUPONT – “He Saw The Light” (Hot Paradox – Facteurs d’Ambiance, 1987)

PARADE GROUND – “Gold Rush” (Dual Perspective EP – Play It Again Sam Records, 1987)

HELEN – “Witch” (Witch 12” – ZYX Records, 1983)

NOVEMBER GROUP – “Put Your Back To It” (Work That Dream – A&M Records, 1985)

ROBERT GÖRL – “Darling Don’t Leave Me” (Night Full Of Tension – Mute Reocrds, 1984)

JYL – “Mechanic Ballerina” (Syl – Inteam GmbH, 1984) 8. SHOCK – “Dynamo Beat” (Dynamo Beat 7” – RCA, 1981)

HARD CORPS – “Je Suis Passée” (Je Suis Passée 12” – Polydor, 1985)

SHINOBU – “Ceramic Love” (Ceramic Love 7” – Kang-Gung Records, 1984)

ANNA – “Systems Breaking Down” (Systems Breaking Down 12” – RCA, 1982)

SECOND LAYER – “Fixation” (World Of Rubber – Cherry Red, 1981)

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Politics

Ultra Leftism! What it is and how to avoid it.

2016’s vote to leave the European Union has shed some long overdue light on the priorities of Britain’s liberal left. As one political earthquake follows another we are called upon to articulate clearly what it is we actually believe in, many for the first time. As the yawning gap opens up between the two main parties, sanctimonious cries of “they’re all the same” no longer hold water – in an era defining clash of ideologies, your vote matters once again.

The crushing of working class militancy, mass privatisations and steady reversal of redistributive fiscal policies that occurred since the end of the 1970s was followed by a long period of capitalistic growth: “The end of boom and bust!” claimed a young Gordon Brown. This, plus a large variety of other factors, resulted in the slow abandonment of the traditional left to a group of dedicated ultras, characterised more by their intellectual wildness than by the actual threat they posed to the established order.

Radical thinking has an essential place at the vanguard of every political movement, it is vital to generating fresh ideas to replace failed orthodoxies. Ideas that were once considered lunatic come, in time, to be viewed as fundamental – gay rights being one obvious example. However, if allowed to become an end unto itself, in which competing “radical” egos continually disrupt the collective discipline of the movement, ultraleftism must be either abandoned or repressed.

Below are a few areas in which ultraleftism can be observed in this day and age, with some proscriptions for its avoidance.

THE EU

Despite the many sensible reasons to object to the European Union, there’s no denying that the campaign for Brexit was visibly spearheaded by some of the most reactionary elements of British civil society: an unholy alliance of xenophobes, nationalists and globalist financiers, for whom even the most basic regulatory proscriptions were too much to bear.

None the less, the time has come again for the left to once more examine its position on neoliberal Europe. For those that believe that the competitive forces unleashed by the free movement of capital and labour are the genuine engines of progress, the argument stops here. This article isn’t aimed at Tories. Let us examine instead the tempting “left” justifications for unconditionally going out to bat for European capitalism.

1. All borders are fundamentally evil, and free movement in Europe is the first step to a borderless world.

This has a nice feel to it, doesn’t it? It falls down in two fundamental ways though. Firstly, we already live in a borderless world, if you are wealthy and powerful enough. While the nation state has remained the basic unit of democratic power, the erosion of its integrity has resulted in ever more influence being handed to those global elites that are able to function outside of the realms of democratic (and legal) accountability. The implicit understanding that the forces of globalisation are operating primarily in elite interests is what has pushed so many voting populations into the poisonous embrace of the only groups that are even willing to acknowledge that fact.

Want to #StopTrump? Stop pretending that capitalistic globalisation is an irresistible fact of life and start taking the democratic integrity of your own nation seriously.

Secondly – even if you do wish to take the hardcore anti-borders position – that isn’t the purpose of free movement of labour in Europe anyway. It’s a market for increasing the competition between workers for jobs and wages, to the benefit of bosses. It is not some kind of moral commitment to liberty, as the mountain of corpses at Europe’s borders attests to. Maybe there would be greater consent for the humane treatment of those fleeing war if the workers of each country hadn’t become convinced immigration was being used as a tool to increase precarity, wage competition and outsourcing.

Great Britain has absorbed wave after wave of enriching immigration, from Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Tsarist Russia to the West Indians that sailed here aboard the Windrush nearly 100 years later. Free movement of labour is by no means an essential prerequisite for a liberal and humane immigration system, and if it radically decreases the democratic consent for a live-and-let-live attitude towards newcomers, its can be viewed as an actively racist policy.

2. We’re helping improve the lives of people from low wage economics, by allowing them unrestricted access to working in Britain.

There is so much wrong with this methodist, charitable approach to working class emancipation its hard to know where to begin.

For a start, we’re allowing our own government to abdicate responsibility for investing in the education, skills and infrastructure needed to power the engine of our own economy. We’re effectively outsourcing training and using the investment of other, poorer nations as a resource. It is right to celebrate the contributions of  migrant workers to our public services, especially in the NHS, but it is also important to join the dots between unlimited access trained nursing staff across a whole continent and the fact that our government has managed to get away with eradicating nursing bursaries here.

Using low wage economies as workshops for outsourcing our productive industry while importing workers to plug the gaps at the very bottom of our own labour market – that might otherwise be filled by offering higher wages – is the opposite of sustainable economic practice for the UK.

More fundamentally, this bleeding heart mindset ignores the role of the national governments and trade unions of developing economies in improving their own living standards. The fast tracked absorption of the Eastern Bloc into an integrated European economic zone has been dressed up in leftist language by the anti-socialist right, who’s primary motivation was to profit from the rape of the collapsing Soviet economy. In doing so, they’ve duped many western liberals into supporting them. These same liberals are the first to express shock and outrage when the Eastern populations turn away from the corrupt lickspittles installed to facilitate this process and instead look to reactionary strongmen promising a return to national self assurance and dignity. Once again, an ultra leftist view is revealed to prop up an extremely right wing agenda on both sides of the divide!

We’ve stumbled onto a rather neat definition of ultra leftism:

A position so wild, unreasonable and detached from reality that it facilitates the opposite situation in practice to the one it claims to support in theory.

You can apply this definition to the Militant Tendency in the 1980s, screaming at Labour to nationalise the top 200 companies while Thatcher convinced the electorate to support the total destruction of the public realm. You can apply it to the campus radicals and postmodernists of the new left in the 1960s and 70s and even go right back to the Spanish Trotskyists and Anarchists of the 1930s, who spent their time creating chaos in the dying Republic’s rear, while Franco’s fascists marched to victory on every front.

THE NEED TO ALWAYS BE THE OTHER

The other prominent trend on the ultra left in this day and age is the desire to always represent yourself as a radical, oppressed minority, boldly speaking truth to power. In some ways, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, especially for those embarking on a career in the arts or standup comedy. For a long time this type of attitude was represented almost exclusively in those areas, to great effect, resulting in conspiracy theories about “cultural marxism” from a disorientated right who, although they found themselves winning the economic argument, kept losing the social one . Upon the curtailment of Margret Thatcher’s tenure in office, her husband Denis remarked that she’d been “stitched up by the poofs and trots at the BBC”.

Although the fight for social and economic justice is its first priority, the organised left is not a coalition of the oppressed. The reason the working class are the focus of Marx’s theory of history is because they are the most powerful section of society, not the weakest. Ultimately it is our combined labour, not the capitalist’s money, that actually creates the wealth upon which we all thrive and that is the source of our collective power, if we can find the tools to wield it.

This is diametrically opposite to the radical individualism which consistently attempts to usurp the position of socialism as the public face of the left. The appropriation of liberation struggles as a vehicle for building a radical self image is one of the most destructive manifestations of ultra leftism. Unlike the pseudo-liberalism described in the paragraphs above, this political practice doesn’t simply prop up a right wing agenda indirectly, it attacks the organised left directly from within, like a cancer.

In its most mild form, this manifests itself by the overuse of exclusionary, academic language. Where the great socialists of the last century strove to break down the enormously complex forces of their age into compelling, comprehensible arguments, sections of today’s left seek to dress up the simplest of ideas in impenetrable language. This is because they – like the new oligarchs of Silicon Valley – were asocial nerds at school. Bullied relentlessly, they now seek to wreak vengeance on their former tormentors by exercising their supposedly superior intellectual power. Although this is an understandable impulse, it has no place on a picket line and therefore no place in a socialist party.

As it reaches critical mass online, this impulse becomes a malevolent shibboleth – vampirically sucking the energy out of any remotely normal person seeking to become politically active, with constant denunciations, cry bullying and hyperbole. Remember comrades, referring to people as “normal” is ableist against the mentally ill, workplace organisation is exclusionary to the disabled and having meetings in pubs is racist against people with anxiety disorders. The best thing you can spend your time doing is arguing with other lofty minded ultra leftists on twitter.

Ceding the territory of liberation struggles to those most inclined towards self aggrandisement, faux-victimhood and politics-as-performance-art once again conforms to the ultra left modus operandi of making themselves useful idiots to the right. Hardcore capitalists maintain a veneer of progressiveness by tacking towards these operators, as they perceive that this rabid individualism is in no way incompatible with their own piratical agenda. It is a smokescreen behind which a hollowed out centre left is transformed into the neoliberal right. Not only this, but it acts as a foil to emerging mega-reactionaries such as the neo-nazi alt right. It’s part of the reason why Trump’s brand of barely disguised fascism was still allowed to present itself as having more in common with the American working and middle class than the Democrats, who are have traditionally been supported by labour unions and blue collar workers, as well as educated professionals and minorities.

A CONFESSION

For most Labour voters, working class politics are instinctual and don’t require any kind of dressing up in socialist theory. For many young people however, growing up in the new, precarious economy with expensive educations, huge piles of debt and little hope of substantial assets or opportunities, socialist ideas are something we learn over time. Those great ideas that shook the world throughout the First Red Century are intoxicating, exciting and intellectually thrilling. There’s a tendency to read half a pamphlet of Lenin quotes and subsequently make a Marxist analysis of what you had for breakfast. I’m more guilty of this than most.

The feeling of having your mind opened by radical ideas, that reshape your understanding of everything around you is a thing bordering on ecstasy. The world can be a confusing, demoralising place and finally having a mental toolbox for comprehending it is extremely powerful – but it is just the first step. The sword sheathed is often more effective than the sword brandished, and stepping back from the ledge of political exhibitionism is the next challenge for the new generation of 21st century socialists trying to wrest power from the corrupt, the privileged and incompetent. The task ahead will require clarity of thought, unity of purpose and strategic moderation, as well as unvarnished radicalism, if we are to win through.

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