28 September 2006

We name the guilty parties

This man is to be blamed for a lot:

His name is Ben Watson. In 2002 I read his huge book on Frank Zappa, The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. It is an insane work, almost as full of arrant bullshit as searing insight. Unlike almost all other works of music criticism I ever read, the guy obviously has a warped sense of humour - you'd think that would be necessary for anyone who wanted to talk about Zappa, but apparently not.

The important point here is that Watson's book was the first time I had ever seen Marxism used for any purposes other than abstract, quasi-theological debate between annoying grouplets who acted like the worst kind of mind-control cults. Reading it at a critical turning point in writing my doctoral thesis, it looked like suddenly an insurmountable obstacle had vanished and an inviting path had appeared. The funny thing is, reading back on my pre-Marxist drafts (which were based on a rather anodyne liberal-feminist post-modernism), they didn't need much editing to make them compatible with later theoretical insights. Which reassures me that I had found a theory which fit the facts, rather than the other way around. (My doctoral examiners seem to have agreed.)

Before this turning point, I was an anti-capitalist of an anarcho-liberal variety, but I accepted without question the estimation of Marxism which is common sense on the liberal left - that an authoritarian, anti-human doctrine which when put into practice destroys individuality. But Watson is a member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, an organisation distinguished from most of the Left for always having rejected the regimes of the Soviet Union, Red China, North Korea, Cuba etc. They believe that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was a huge triumph for human freedom and development, but that by 1928 all its positive achievements had been strangled by Stalin and his cronies who destroyed working-class democracy and made the Soviet Union indistinguishable from a huge and highly inefficient capitalist corporation. All the "communist" countries set up later were carbon copies of this sick parody of socialism and not to be supported. So they believe we need another 1917 on a worldwide basis - and let's hope we can do it right this time.

One major revelation was that you could support revolution without having to support monolithic states run by a smug, self-satisfied bureaucracy. But more important was that Marxism is not just an ideology which you can do intellectual gymnastics with, but a guide to action. I should note at this point that as well as being an anarcho-liberal I was also a serious practicing Wiccan. I remember being highly frustrated that my attempts to change reality by mental exercises didn't work. But the alternative seemed to be simply accepting the horror that was the human society I was busily committing suicide around me.

Marxism is an ideology of dialectical materialism - a philosophy which takes the real, physical world as its basis and starting point, but accepts that - as Tori Amos said - "there is the change in the 'what is', once you accept the 'what is'". Human consciousness is based on the base facts of material existence and no higher spiritual principle. But if that consciousness gets to grips with the world as it really is, it can change reality. I saw this as almost the definition of magick that people like Crowley and Uncle Bob Wilson had been batting around for ages. In Marxism as well, we got the idea of a "veil of illusion" that makes the world look different than it really is for most people - Marxists call this "bourgeois ideology".

But whereas all the mystics I'd read were interested in how a person could escape this web of lies and build their own reality more to their tastes, Marxism offered a path to which we could smash the whole thing altogether - for everyone, not just an enlightened elite. This was a way in which I could reconcile my interest in changing consciousness with my anti-elitist instincts. And the more I looked at the mystics and the psychonauts, the more I realised that for them "Question everything" (did you know that that was Karl Marx's motto?) meant "Question everything except the idea that individual consciousness is a thing unto itself which can be worked on in isolation". Because if you start saying that people are not individuals - that they are created by their upbringing and the role they play in real, nasty, going-to-work-in-traffic society - then you open the door to the idea that only a social revolution can actually solve the real problems with humanity. At that point you end up in Guantanamo, or perhaps just on the dole. If you're really unlucky you end up in academia. The quote from Fight Club that "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake!" is actually a revolutionary statement.

So, anyway, I would recommend Watson's Zappa book. He takes a rigorously materialist attitude to Zappa's music - not just interpreting the albums as if they arrived mysteriously from a planet beyond Yuggoth, but talking about how they actually got there - the actual means by which Frank found time to sit down and write this music, how he got people together to play it, how he got some record company to release it. The central idea of Marxist cultural criticism is that art is based on the gross, nasty facts of commercial and psycho-sexual reality rather than some kind of transcendent spark of consciousness. That consciousness is determined by an individual's place in the actual, real situation of human society (psychosexual, social and productive/economic relationships), rather than floating around disembodied. And that the power of lies and ideology does not come from magick Illuminati spells, but from the fact that it is actually more useful to adopt a completely false and disempowering view of reality to live in human society as it is right now. Realising what's really going on is liable to severely and negatively influence your marketability and networking skills in the labour market.

I had come across a set of ideas which actually connected consciousness to the real world in a way that not only made sense, which not only offered an organising principle for my doctoral studies, but actually suggested ways that one - as part of a revolutionary party leading a revolutionary class, in constant battle against the lies which look like reality. For everyone, not just a smug minority of self-declared Illuminati. Anarcho-liberalism, postmodernism and mysticism share this in common - they make you feel much better about yourself. By insisting that ideas and consciousness come first and "create" the world, they allow you a way out from actually doing anything. You can stay in your ivory tower and change your own reality infinitely. Until, of course, you need to go to work or deal with anyone but your immediate friends. That's the point where nasty reality cuts in. And nasty reality cuts in more and more the less money and internet access you have.

I'm not writing off mysticism altogether - hence this blog. I think it's possible that the kind of individual consciousness-change that those people talk about might be able to change just enough "inside the head" to make on able to truly "question everything". But magick alone seems to create smug petty-bourgeois pricks who just think they're cool, rather than bad-ass consciousness warriors who actually do things in the real world which effect people who don't sit around on teh intarwebz all day long. For the world to be safe and sane for anyone it must be safe and sane for everyone. I reject elitism and solipsism. I want to commit acts of magick on a worldwide basis, which involve everyone. And the thing which can change consciousness more than anything else is worldwide workers' revolution.

And that's why I was late for church, Father.