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Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture

Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the post-capitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

9 to 11 minute read

acid corbynism

The term ‘Acid Corbynism’ has created a fair amount of intrigue since its announcement as part of the programme for The World Transformed (TWT) this year. The phrase lends itself to some misrepresentation and therefore we’ll start by setting out a few points about the term before exploring how it might be related to possible developments within the UK dance scene.

As Jeremy Gilbert notes in his recent Red Pepper article, the phrase Acid Corbynism is a development of Mark Fisher’s term ‘Acid Communism’, which emerged out of conversations with Gilbert himself. While Fisher’s book of the same name remains unfinished and unpublished, some of the ideas that were being developed within it were elaborated earlier this year by Plan C activist Keir Millburn in his article ‘Towards Acid Communism’ and by Gilbert in a set of personal reflections that can be found here.

These ideas fed into a set of discussions across dancefloors over the past summer and culminated in the idea of running the TWT panel on the subject. The central object of the discussions was the relation between ‘post-capitalist desires’, popular forms of cultural experimentation, and our own contemporary political moment. It is our hope that the TWT panel can be the starting point for widening those initial dancefloor discussions beyond a small group of friends. We should note here that while we will be pursuing the relationship between UK dance culture and Acid Corbynism, this by no means exhausts the concept.

Acid Corbynism?

The ‘Acid’ of Acid Corbynism should not be confused with a simple reference to psychedelics. Rather, as Gilbert remarks, Mark Fisher was attracted to ‘idea of “acid” as an adjective, describing an attitude of improvisatory creativity and belief in the possibility of seeing the world differently’. It is perhaps helpful to think of this attitude as an antidote to what Fisher called ‘Capitalist Realism’: the loss of post-capitalist imagination that has accompanied the triumph of neoliberalism over the past 30-40 years.

The term ‘acid’ recalls the utopian counter-culture experiments of the 60s and 70s that preceded the neoliberal era but also more recent utopian traces within that era evident within UK dance culture – notably acid house. In either case the term is not meant as a nostalgic harking back to these lost cultural moments but a striving towards the reactivation of what Fisher called the ‘popular modernist’ imagination embodied within them. This would involve the production of genuinely new, innovative cultural forms which gain traction across society rather than in small enclaves of ‘in the know’ groups.

The renewal of such a culture (or counter-culture?) will require a fundamental change in the social conditions of cultural production. In opposition to the neoliberal myth that individualist competition drives innovation, ‘Acid Corbynism’ declares that collectivity is the condition of cultural experimentation and the development of ‘the new’. In a text called ‘Reclaim Modernity’, Gilbert and Fisher set out a number of ideas that might enable the flourishing of popular modernist forms in areas of life such as broadcasting and schooling. Similar approaches might be taken to UK dance music (taken broadly) which we hold to still carry within them potentials for counter-cultural renewal.

Although often thought of as a pessimistic thinker, Fisher acknowledged that traces of ‘the new’ persisted within contemporary dance culture; see for example his review of DJ Rashad’s Double Cup, where he notes that ‘footwork’ (a recent sound coming from Chicago) is something genuinely alien to the traditional hardcore continuum. However, what he felt was missing in contemporary culture was the essential ‘circuit between the experimental, the avant-garde and the popular’.

Popular modernist dance culture

The missing circuit between the experimental and the popular that Fisher is describing is, we would say, already present – perhaps in embryonic form, obscured, dormant – in some sections of UK dance and grime music. In these circles, there is also a growing awareness of the cultural constraints of capitalism; Acid Corbynism is inspired by, and seeks to build on, these elements.

Perhaps most obviously, we can point to initiatives such as Grime4Corbyn and to other grime MCs such as AJ Tracey, Lowkey and JME expressing their support of Labour in the 2017 general election. These figures pointed to the debt burden of education, the authenticity of Jeremy Corbyn himself and the potential privatisation of the NHS as key areas of concern.

It is interesting to note here the ethical agreement between grime and the Labour Party under Corbyn. The former is built on a DIY ethic, with many MCs producing their own beats, running their own labels and doing their own promotion; there is a corresponding aesthetic of self-affirmation and self-expression. This chimes well with the Labour Party’s stance during the general election, where it expressed the fact that the average person is ‘held back’ from fulfilling their true capacities by the current economic model. Capitalism does not mean the freedom to thrive but actually dampens individuality and creativity.

If an embryonic post-capitalist desire was evident in the unexpected support for Corbyn from grime artists, similar politicisation can also be seen to be emergent in sections of contemporary dance culture. We will mention just three examples here.

An album

Coming out of one of London’s most innovative – we would argue modernist – club labels in recent years, Night Slugs, Jam City (Jack Latham) has produced two albums that revolve around capitalism in one way or another. Classical Curves (2012) was the seductive soundtrack to a capitalist dystopia: the squeak of trainers, the flash of cameras, mechanical drum onslaughts and the pristine stabs of synth – exemplified by the track ‘Her’:

Interestingly, Latham’s 2015 album, Dream a Garden, was explicitly a defiant response to our neoliberal impasse. It is a synthesis of political awareness and popular modernist production. He asks us to imagine and will another, better world:

’it seems like there is no alternative to the situation we’re in at the moment. I don’t know how to end the system we’re in, or how to change it, but I do know that it is possible, and that we have a lot more power than we realise…’

The sounds are softer and more human – an attempt to recover love and beauty from the clutches of consumerism. There is hope amongst the wreckage of neoliberalism. Crucially, Latham touches on something foundational to what we’ve been calling Acid Corbynism:

‘Art and music is where you begin. How you feel in an ecstatic club/rave moment…That can be the starting point where you can formulate an opposition to the things that make you feel shit.’

The embryo of postcapitalist collectivity is glimpsed in the moments of soundtracked togetherness that we achieve on the dancefloor. The next step is to turn this series of moments into a conscious process of change.

A radio show

On 8 June, election day, London-based label Circadian Rhythms hosted their regular NTS radio show. Calls of ‘shouts to Diane Abbott!’, ‘bun the Tories!’ and ‘red gang!’ were interspersed with the angular, hard-hitting, yet often playful tracks that characterise the more experimental end of contemporary UK production. This was popular modernism in a 2-hour capsule.

Circadian Rhythms is a workers’ cooperative comprised of producers, designers and artists – one of which is DJ and producer Luke Blackwax. Although the label is primarily music and fashion focused, there is a strong political and ethical impetus to the project. Particularly interesting for Acid Corbynism is its anti-individualist ethos. As Blackwax has explained:

‘Subcultures existing in a real way can’t happen because no one wants to work with each other. Instead of being like, “It’s all about me”, I want to change it to, “It’s about all of us,” because scenes and cultures are built by people pushing together not pulling apart.’

Strength in numbers without a compromise in quality. The Acid Corbynist question here is: what material conditions can be put in place so that subcultures can first become powerful counter-cultures and then truly popular modernist cultures? How do we make it ‘about all of us’ on a large scale?

A club closure

Finally, in September 2016 Boiler Room hosted a live discussion between DJs, promoters, a cofounder of Fabric and Emily Thornberry MP regarding Fabric’s closure and the crisis of club culture across the city.

Beyond the usual debates regarding drugs lurked the spectre of neoliberal capitalism – the true enemy in the room that no one could quite name. Following the Fabric debacle – and before the club was saved – it felt as if a popular movement for the protection of club culture was very much possible.

The #SaveFabric campaign garnered worldwide attention, with many DJs posting telling pictures of the fate of Manchester’s Hacienda club (demolished to make room for apartments, naturally). The word ‘neoliberalism’ was mentioned regularly – global dance music momentarily had an enemy.

21st century socialist dance culture

Fabric has returned, but the structural problems besieging these subcultures remain. Another desirable outcome of the Acid Corbynist project would be the material – and legal – recognition of the already mentioned, world-renowned, dance music scenes that have occurred and are occurring within the UK. In effect, this would be the government itself undergoing some ‘consciousness-raising’ regarding this country’s cultural strengths.

According to the London Mayor’s office, over the past five years a full 50 per cent of nightclubs have closed in the capital. Since 2005, we’ve seen almost the same decrease across the country as a whole, with the number of clubs dropping from 3,144 to 1,733 according to one assessment. While another dance capital of Europe – Berlin – is allowing for a co-operative quarter to be designed and built by the city’s best promoters, London is spatially and economically squeezing its dance scene out.

Instead of being simply ‘open for business’, how about further state investment in nightlife infrastructure in London and across the UK (beyond night tubes)? This would mean the building of well-equipped venues with licenses already in place – ready to be hired by promoters and heavily subsidised for local youth events. There could be rotating nightlife reps for cities and regions, recruited from the local scenes (if possible) with modest budgets so as to facilitate more experimental acts, or acts from further afield, at cheaper ticket prices.

With the right look, lineups, promotion and pricing, such an infrastructure would also give party-goers alternatives to the Prizyms (formerly Oceanas) and O2 Academies that have consolidated the ‘going out’ market for students in particular. This would not be a top-down initiative: in cities across the country you can find innovative, passionate and resourceful scenes that should be involved at the ideas stage of planning; while state resources are necessary, it is only by working with the communities in question that the project will work.

Our online music platforms also have the potential to be transformed and democratised, benefitting listeners and producers in kind. We might, for example, look to emerging blockchain-based platforms like Resonate as ways of democratising how we listen to music instead of contributing to the monopoly shares of Spotify or Apple. Finding a system which no one owns in its entirety but which can be used by anyone and everyone efficiently makes sense from an egalitarian perspective.

These few suggestions point to ways in which a popular modernism can be embedded in a material and social infrastructure. By re-trenching and thereby celebrating dance music culture (here we include everything from dancehall to techno) within the everyday life of towns and cities, you allow the possibility of bringing together the popular and the experimental, Busta Rhymes with Fatima Al Qadiri, JME with Arca.

In short, Acid Corbynist dance infrastructure is intended to be a hadron collider where ‘the new’ might flourish and where people can party. It can provide firm, practical ground upon which we can try to move on from the capitalist realist cultural impasse.

The next step is to turn the concept into a strategy; to achieve something like what we have here proposed, a politicised dance culture movement will need the collaboration of journalists, DJs, promoters, club-goers and club-owners working together to imagine better organisations of space, policy, experimentation and, of course, a good night out.

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