Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Misanthropy vs Activism in Industrial Music

(originally published April 29, 2008 on MS)

Thus, then, in Strategy everything is very simple, but not on that account very easy. Once it is determined from the relations of the State what should and may be done... then the way to it is easy to find; but to follow that way straightforward, to carry out the plan without being obliged to deviate from it a thousand times by a thousand varying influences, requires, besides great strength of character, great clearness and steadiness of mind, and out of a thousand men who are remarkable, some for mind, others for penetration, others again for boldness, or strength of will, perhaps not one will combine in himself all those qualities which are required to raise a man above mediocrity...

-Carl Von Clausewitz, On War

Deciding what to think about the world is one thing. Being able to consistently act on such deduced principles is quite another, and far more difficult. I agree that some sort of upsurge from below is necessary to shake our country's politics up from the severely deranged state at which they're presently arranged.... and I also feel that in the United States where organized opposition to the status quo is very weak, and recent political periods have seen very little in the way of any sort of collective struggles from below doing much or getting anywhere, it's pretty hard for a lot of people to figure out what- if anything- they can do upon deciding that revolt "ought" to happen.

What do you do with yourself if you think society ought to be changed and people ought to do something for themselves, but it appears that not everyone agrees that this should be done or is even possible? Do you attempt to substitute your own particularly radical and militant actions for a mass movement that does not exist? Or do you bow down to the current level of prostration and just wait on the sidelines to eventually cheer lead whatever movement (plagued of course by all sorts of inevitable missteps and manipulation) may eventually arise?

Even if you can find a good, honest, serious group of people to work with, being a political activist with a longer term perspective for years at a time is a very difficult commitment... particularly in the US where there's such mass alienation from political participation. Any political group you take your pick of tends to be approached by most Americans in the same way and with the same gloves as they would approach any other beggar. With or without the stench of liquor and lack of deodorant; someone is asking for you to part with some money or time (which are one and the same, really) for something they want that they may or may not convince you to totally support or believe in and you're most likely to either ignore them, or to just give them a small donation- not to affect any real change in condition- but to feel better about yourself.

Take a look at most people out there on the street with a table and some lit they're pitching... a lot of them are getting paid to be there whether they believe in it or not and if they want your vote for a candidate today they're probably not interested in talking to you tomorrow.

What the hell does this have to do with industrial music?

Industrial, like the punk scene it came from, has always been a bit of a magnet for people rebelling against the status quo. It has always contained images and lyrics that attack established political systems and religions, and young people already estranged from mainstream society find in it a very welcome and all too rare affirmation that they’re not the only ones who are seeing through society’s hypocrisy and looking for alternatives. The music is almost always upbeat, energetic, and confrontational. You hear this stuff and you go to these clubs and this scene becomes one of the few places in most cities you can go to be surrounded by other people who also think like you.

One band whose political honesty and commitment I’ve admired for a long time is Velvet Acid Christ. Not only do they often sing about poignant political issues, but they do this in a way that never appears "forced" or "mechanical", and is always very well integrated into the art. Earlier VAC may have done this a bit more prominently ("Revolution 101", "Intussisception", "Satan Complex 42", etc...), but the thread of political confrontation has run throughout its entire history.

This is one of the things that sets them apart in the best way possible from a scene whose lyric content has for years been ripped to shreds through countless blasts of mindless sexuality to rival the worst of 80s hair metal

escapist fantasy,

and the utter hopelessness of advocated do-nothingism/glorification of feeling sorry for yourself.

Even where tiny bits of political metaphor do work their way into the 'industrial scene' aesthetic it's almost always completely devoid of content.

That's a cool looking flyer, right? With this soviet realist image on it, looking perhaps a bit "industrial" and "hard" and "authoritative". It looks interesting; but what does it mean? Does it mean "let's have a conversation about revolutionary socialism"? Does it mean "Stalinism is socialism and that is better than what we have so let's fight for it"? Does it mean "Communism is evil like Capitalism is evil and fucked up images of the fucked up world are cool on flyers for fucked up music?" Does it mean "Fight the power"? Or "forget about fighting"? Nobody knows. It's just this generic thing.

When bands bring real politics and issues into music and treat them seriously, it helps to give confidence and validation to some of society’s most creative and thoughtful people, who often have the right political instincts, but who are often isolated and think they're the only ones thinking what they're thinking. Insofar as this occurs I think bands like this are fulfilling a positive political role.

But beyond that, I think more often than not the kinds of answers you get from many "political" industrial bands to the above questions about where you can put your energies to contribute to some kind of positive change are usually pretty discouraging. Misanthropy, defined by dictionary.com as "hatred, dislike, or distrust of humankind", seems to hold sway over the minds of many (if not most) bands in this scene. This in turn influences fans, and often does far more to re-enforce than it does to challenge the ideas we're taught by schools, politicians, churches, and the media from the day we're born: That "experts" of people smarter than us are running the world, they're the only ones who can or ever will, and we'd best stay out of their way and not try and resist when they seem to be driving us over a cliff.

Misanthropy is very seductive, usually very painfully learned, and hard to break out of. It's also a bit of a cop-out in that it's a lot easier to adopt than is trying to answer in practice the eternally difficult questions about how do you put yourself out there in the real, political world, in a way that isn't a waste of time and actually has an impact.

Regarding the example of VAC I love his music, but Bryan Erickson is probably the crankiest cynic about humanity I've ever met. Like him a lot of goths and rivetheads seem to dismissively blame “humanity” in general for the arrogance and destruction which only a relatively small handful of decision makers are actually directly responsible for. Rather than seeing themselves as partisans in a fight to open humanity’s eyes and discover its own potential, too often members of this subculture seem convinced that they can somehow live “outside of” or “above” it, and that it’s everyone else’s passivity that to be blamed for all that’s wrong. Double standards and elitism are not unique to any one music scene. But for this genre- which is already so overtly subversive, and whose members are often so intelligent- this is a big disappointment to have to slog through whenever it crops up.

Of course no one is to be personally blamed for their individual shortcomings of not being able to Byronically break out of a 30 year political deep freeze alone on a rock star motorcycle like Eddie in Rocky Horror... Individual willpower can never fully transcend economic and political realities. But what is true about artists is that they have fans looking up to them for a lead and they take what they see and adopt it. Whether they like it or not bands set the tone for the way a lot of people view the world, and if their members are content not to take that responsibility seriously, their fans will continue to suffer for it.

Art and Activism

Artists can't give a political lead to their scene through their actions alone. A movement must exist that they can relate to, interact with, and participate in. This is because artists like anyone else are products of a historical period. They can't operate outside of it any more than anyone else. Ultimately, it’s what is happening politically in a society-not just what any artist is saying or doing- that determines how far and how deep their influence has a chance of spreading.

Think about what it meant for the Clash to play at Rock Against Racism in 1978, or for Rage Against the Machine to play to a crowd of demonstrators and get pepper sprayed outside the Democratic National Convention in 2000. Think about the people who looked up to these bands and what sort of political conclusions they were drawing at that time. The mass movements of the Anti-Nazi League and the Global Justice movement that were aggressively moving forward at these times were able to give these artists more relevance than they ever could have had through their own efforts in any other time.

With regards to my own work with Bajskorv, the song "Blood, Like Rain" would never have been written if kids at Seattle Central Community College didn't protest and kick out military recruiters in January 2005- and help inspire similar actions across the country, including at GWU in DC where I was involved in this when I wrote it. Similarly I don't think "Pais de Sangre" would ever have been written, and certainly would not have been recorded with so much passion, if Juan Monarez didn't have the experience of participating in the immigrants' rights marches in April 2006 in DC. If either Juan or I were writing songs in the USA in say 1997 or 2008, it's quite doubtfully that they would be as politically moving. And if there wasn’t an antiwar or an immigrant rights movement that millions of people knew about and had been a part of, these songs would never have connected with people as deeply as they have.

Today things appear superficially stagnant... though I wouldn't say hopeless. For the past eight years I have been very actively political- always part of something- and riding all the ups and downs alongside others who also had faith and determination. In that time I saw a lot of things come and go and a lot of people's hopes not pan out. In light of all that time it is hard for me to figure out what to do with myself and how to keep my faith in ideas I feel are morally right, and which historically make sense, while every day I'm bombarded by ideological bullshit from every angle, and painful life experience drags me down into thinking that the few great inspiring movement and events I have been able to be a part of are simply exceptions to a general rule: that people are stupid and bad and vice-ridden and I should try and have as little to do with them as possible.

But the point I'd like to emphasize, and argue through with people in this scene, is that there is a value to getting involved, getting out of your comfort zone, to talking to other people, to dropping your egoism and pride and sitting down in a room like someone else's equal and having a conversation with them about what you can do, and trying to build events and movements today even though they may appear futile and even though they may experience setbacks and defeats while you're with them.

Through my experiences with life, politics, people, and the world, I've definitely fucked a few things up, and I’ve definitely had my share of disappointment. But I've also been able to see people at their very best. I've seen change happen and I've seen things I never thought possible occur. Some people can say "people will never change", or "no one cares", but I will never be able to say that because through my own experience I know this isn't true.

When I was 16 like most artsy punk rockers and rivetheads I felt depressed, powerless, and alienated. But then I did something not everyone does and it profoundly changed the way I was able to get through the next few years, as well as what conclusions I was able to draw about Americans, humanity, politics and change: I got into a car and I got out of my neighborhood and the parties and the hanging out smoking cigarettes outside of school, and the petty personal dramas and the bad TV, and I went downtown where things were going on, where there was organizing and people inspired by the Seattle WTO protests and political debates, where there were meetings and forums at 24 hour cafes, and free entrance to an exciting artsy-political cinema run by punk rockers, anarchists and socialists at Georgia State University. I've been in those circles ever since. If I had never taken that first step beyond just reading online about what other people were doing- and actually went down to Little 5 Points to join a march against the Carter Center which presided over undemocratic elections which kept Nader out of the debates in 2000- I never would have met that world and I never would have had the following transformative experiences of

-Marching against a horrible war with 11 million other people on Feb 15th, 2003
-Seeing hundreds of thousands of women and men amassed on the Washington Mall in April 2004 which sent a message to the country that people are tired of sexism and ignorance and the inaccessibility of sexual health care.
-Organizing with other Georgians and reaching out to communities I'd ordinarily never interact with to build a demonstration to tell the Nazis to fuck off in Gainesville, Ga and Little Five Points, Atlanta
-Making a republican GWU student who interns at the white house cry and appear completely discredited when veterans came back at her contempt for people who die in wars at a panel of 50 people I helped organize to let antiwar activists, Iraq and Vietnam war veterans tell their side of the story.
-Giving Bush the middle finger and yelling "fuck you" as his motorcade drove by at his second inauguration with thousands of others saying the same thing right next to me.
-Standing outside the White House with ~250,000 angry antiwar demonstrations in September 2005
-Getting on the news for being part of a demonstration at college graduation where we turned out backs on the speaker (the first president bush) all during his speech, in the course of which me and the other guy in the action looked at hundreds of angry conservative bourgeois and stared them and security down and we were not moved.
-Working with people who are very different than myself at jobs where we've been able to come together and take small- but meaningful- actions to get a little better deal when the managers have tried to pull bullshit on us.
-Working in a restaurant with a predominately undocumented immigrant workforce, where every day we had to watch Lou Dobbs' bullshit on the bar's TV while making food for DC policy makers who think people who work there shouldn't be allowed to visit their children who they haven't seen in years while they've been toiling away- and then finally standing up one day in April 2006 when we didn't work and instead we marched through the streets and demanded amnesty and equal rights for everyone.

I guess that is a partial list of things I've done in my life that really stuck with me. Some things had more of a direct impact than others... but even where movements have come and then gone back into the shadows for a while (ex, where the hell did the antiwar movement go? Abortion rights are still under fire, why no sustained activism or organized clinic defenses?), there's something psychological that has stuck with me and transformed who I am. Seeing that many people take time out of their lives for such important causes on so many occasions, seeing that many people in a numerical superiority to their oppressors- hiding behind security- knowing that it's possible for people to give a shit and to do something about it, seeing people overcome racial and national and sexual barriers to fight the people that hold them both down- I've learned to be a lot more confident, to be unafraid to stand up to bullshit, and to be unafraid to take those small leaps of faith now and then when your heart is telling you to do something but your mind is telling you you're afraid or you can't or you're not sure how people will react....

And most importantly I've seen change happen. I saw abolitionists plugging away against the death penalty for years in relative obscurity until Stan Tookie Williams was about to be executed and then all of a sudden people all around the country blew up at the injustice of this crime. I sat in tiny meetings of sometimes 2 and sometimes 3 and sometimes 5 people to try and pull together some kind of organization against the war... and then I've seen the seemingly impossible happen when ~70 people I've never seen before came out to an action we called in September 2005 which was only made possible by that long, hard, unfruitful work of preparation beforehand. Today the death penalty is on the defensive nationally, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who still believes in the war who doesn’t also believe that God created the earth and man in 7 days. Who would have ever thought this would have been possible in the late 90s, or in November 2001?

My ability to have this perspective about change, and to have participated in these movements, has been largely due to coincidences of time and history. Of course, people who grew up in different times and places may have had different experiences and that will have a big role in determining how they view politics and activism. But when I look at the history of any genre of music, and at industrial in particular, I’m always surprised by how many exceptions there have been to this rule, and how many of the strongest political acts made their mark at times when it wasn't necessarily so acceptable to be outspoken. Here’s just a few examples off the top of my head:

-In the 1980s in Maggie Thatcher’s England Test Dept. took at a stand for numerous marginalized struggles, such as the Miners' strike in 1984, or the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa throughout the decade.
-In addition to its well known positions against animal testing, Skinny Puppy denounced the Iran-Iraq war, which the US was instrumental in perpetuating and which few seemed concerned with at the time, in the song VX Gas Attack.
- Laibach denounced ethnic fighting in the Balkans in no uncertain language in 1994 with its album "NATO", and played a show in Sarajevo where they gave out NSK passports to people who were able to use them to flee the country.
-Leaetherstip's "White Disgrace" is probably one of the most powerful antifascist songs to ever have come out of any genre, and Claus Larsen’s bravery in coming out about his sexuality, enduring the abuse of people who turned his back on him, and writing a very powerful song about it (“I was born that day”) is incredibly moving and inspirational- whatever your own sexual orientation.
-In the early 80s, while the president of the United States was convinced that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuals; Coil produced a dramatic and moving cover of Soft Cell's "tainted love", and they donated proceeds from record sales to medical research on the virus.

You Can’t Keep Dancing...

Industrial today, in the era of "This Shit Will Fuck You Up", is a sick and confused genre. Increasingly devoid of any meaningful content, it all too often seems like actually giving a fuck about the world is as big a faux pas to some people as is wearing blue jeans and a Marilyn Manson shirt to a goth night.

The point of this article and the point for me of doing Bajskorv has been to make the case, through art, that there's a value to being social, to going to events, to working with other people, and to getting to where you can see a bit of your own power, and keep some of that hope alive.

If anyone out there in the scene today were to sit down and read every book about politics or philosophy ever written and become completely sure of the 'correct' political ideology they probably wouldn't feel any less isolated or mopey. But if we get the hell away from the computer, the drugs, and the drink for a while, and take a chance here and there to reach out of ourselves to act in the real world on our convictions, whenever the opportunity is present... I think we could all find plenty reasons to be a bit more hopeful about things.

If we're not doing that, and we're not trying to integrate our art and music with socially meaningful themes that have a relation to what’s going on in the here and now, I want to ask the scene: How much longer can we keep pretending that looking sexy, having a strange hair cut, eating the right food, or knowing how to dance well is going to count for a goddamned thing when the sea levels swallow New York and Miami, when we can no longer afford the cost of transportation to and from our jobs, when people we know are still being sent to Iraq, when jobs continue to be outsourced, when our kids are getting asthma from breathing in our cities' air, and the only advice we get from the "professional" commentators is to tighten our belts, scapegoat immigrants, blame Muslims, and obediently vote for this or that bought and paid for politician so they can "fix" things for us?

Like Jello Biafra said, "You can't keep dancing when your legs are blown off". It's time industrial artists heeded these words, and get a little more serious about being relevant.

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