artists and their politics
I sometimes ask myself one of those stupid questions which should never be asked in the first place – namely, what kind of politics should an artist adopt? When I do, I am reminded of what Oscar Wilde said on the question of the kind of government an artist should live under. His exact words were these. “People sometimes enquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government which is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.” Good old Oscar; I always knew you had the right instincts. So when I ask myself what kind of politics an artist should adopt I invariably come up with the conclusion, “No politics at all.” However, I say this not because I feel artists should ignore what’s going on around them, but because politics leads one to adopt all sorts of consistent viewpoints which are restrictive to artists, whose primary instinct is towards inconsistency rather than consistency, that is to say towards leaving themselves free to follow the logic of their own creative bent, which is at heart open-ended and wayward. Politics, on the other hand, leads you into all sorts of cul-de-sacs and fixed positions. One should be free to change one’s viewpoint whenever the occasion moves one, and adopting fixed political positions doesn’t allow one to do that. Better to be thought fickle and without conviction than be pinned down to a position one can’t wriggle out of. The trouble is that, when it comes to politics, I am much more often against something than for something else. So, in the end, I think that no politics at all – that is no definitive politics – is the best politics for an artist to adopt. That way, at least, you don’t have to be too consistent. (I remember someone once saying to me, “You are consistently inconsistent!!!” That person just didn’t get where I was coming from.)
However, I must confess that over the past 50 years or so my default position has been anarchist more than anything else. But I have so often strayed from that default position that one might be tempted to say that it is almost meaningless. But is it? After all, anarchism is primarily a philosophy of freedom and what could be more true to that than being free not to be an anarchist when the occasion demands. For example, I think we live in a sham democracy, which works rather like a religion, in which we worship this abstract god, called Demos, who is served in a temple called Parliament by a priesthood called the Members of Parliament. Nevertheless, I have in the past voted for one of these Members of Parliament - though not for a while, and probably never again. The last time was in 1997 when I voted to get rid of the Tories. I also voted recently in the Scottish referendum, but that wasn’t voting for a politician or party as such. I haven’t voted since 1997 because I saw that, with the election of Blair, it was out of the frying pan into the fire. I was euphoric about getting rid of the Tories, so I didn’t give too much thought about what was to replace them. I am now older and wiser. So, as you can see, I have been willing to move away from my default position. After all, it would be something of a contradiction for anarchism to become a prison. However, I always seem to find myself returning to it. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe in consistency and politics usually demands consistency of a kind – including anarchist politics which, when I delve into them, repel me no less than any other kind of politics.
All this notwithstanding, I find myself gravitating almost as a matter of course towards the idea of a society which is not organised around greed or political power, a society of people freely co-operating with one another because they need one another if they are to gain the fullest benefit which being part of a society might offer. The more I look at the world as it presently is, the more I am repelled by it and it is this sense of being repelled which makes me look for alternative ways of doing things – and that always leads me back to anarchism, though not an anarchism which has any definitive shape. More like an anarchism which grows out of my impatience with the existing order and which is the negation of that order rather than a blue-print for some new order to appear in the future. And I must confess that this impatience with the existing order is also an impatience with the left-wing ‘alternatives’ offered by that order that we are expected to vote for and through whose good graces the power of the state will be used to replace the direct-action of the people transforming their own lives themselves in their own self-directed ways. The point is not so much to overthrow capitalism and the state but dissolve them in the self-activity of the people acting for themselves, responsive to their own needs and desires on a practical everyday level – a revolution of everyday life, to use a phrase the Situationists coined. How the economy and society might be organised – that is whether enterprises will be run by self-managed collectives, co-operatives, small family businesses, partnerships etcetera - how goods and services might be exchanged or co-ordinated, how commerce and trade might be carried on, how co-operation might be generated between different branches of an economy, how social questions might be dealt with and so on and so forth – these are things people will have to work out for themselves on the hoof, as it were, experimenting, developing and refining their ad hoc solutions as they evolve. It’s not for me in the present to say what will happen, but when you think of what began to emerge in Ukraine at the time of Makhno or Spain in 1936, it should be obvious that people can do better for themselves under their own direction and steam than when they’ve got others breathing down their necks telling them what they should do and how they should do it.
The important thing is not the precise detail of how this or that might be done, but the fact that there is the possibility of some kind of alternative to the way things are done at the moment. Many people say, “Yeah, well, we all know the system is shit, but what can you do? Capitalism is the only game in town.” To me, this fatalism smacks of a lack of imagination. One cannot, of course, spell out in detail what will happen and, even if one could, events in the future will take a different form than those we imagine they will in the present. What is important is not ‘the future’ as such, but the ever emergent unpredictable present.
The future as such does not exist. Nor will it ever exist. There is only the present and only living and acting in the present in response to events in the present (And even the ‘present’ does not exist in the present but a few micro-seconds later when it is registered!) and what ‘future’ will grow from that will emerge only as a continuation of the present. In my opinion there are only two valid tenses – the Present Perfect - immediate memory - and the Present Continuous – immediate experience, sensation, thought and imagination. All other tenses are pseudo-tenses, which is not to say that they do not have a practical purpose. The Present Perfect relates to memory and what has been or happened up to now without fixing a precise time in the past. Such memory really exists outside of time, like Proust’s madeleine cake. The Past tense relates to specific moments in the past, this tense is mediated memory, not immediate memory which exists in the present as the Present Perfect. The Present Continuous is the present we are always passing through. And again, nothing is fixed in it, in the way yesterday or tomorrow are fixed. Hence Descartes was wrong to say “I think, therefore I exist.” He should have said, “I am thinking therefore I am existing.” For whether the fact that he is thinking now means that he thinks (every day) cannot be really established. All he knows is that he is thinking now. The Present Perfect and Continuous are therefore the only two living tenses, the only two we ever really experience and these two tenses are the only ones we need to be able to think about when it comes to saying how an anarchist society might emerge and begin to function.
We exist in, or against the background of, these two presents, so that even an imagined occurrence in the ‘future’ is imagined now in the present. The keen anticipation or apprehension we feel in relation to it exists in the present. This present is all there is moving from ‘the past’ into ‘the future’, neither of which exists in its own right. Thus we have to think in terms not so much of creating a future society abstracted from the present, but finding ways of effectively responding to events in the present which foreshadow a possible future rooted in the present. That is to say that the institutional and organisational means we develop to carry us forwards out of this present into ‘the next’ one will have their origins in that present itself. Of course, it goes without saying that none of these things will come to pass without the right ingredients, ie without large sections of the population feeling that they have come to some kind of impasse with the present system, an impasse that prevents them moving in a forward direction towards a viable and more desirable ‘future’. For people are like sharks in this matter, which die when they cannot go forward. This impasse in the present system may – or may not - drive people to rebel against it and in the process create effective means of sustaining their rebellion sufficiently to overcome and provide an alternative to what they are rebelling against.
Whether or not anarchism will be the result of this is, of course, another question entirely. I don’t have a crystal-ball with which to see the ‘future’. All I have is a belief in the way I think society should be organised - or should organise itself - for the greater benefit of everyone in it. Whether it will ever come to pass, who knows? The important thing is that it might and those who believe in both its desirability and feasibility should argue for it in what ways they can and attempt to persuade others of its advantages.
For artists – poets, writers, musicians, etcetera – nothing has been written to tell them how they should respond to events or dictate what political philosophy they should adopt. I know such things happened in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and they certainly happen elsewhere today, but in the West artists only get marginalised if they say and do the wrong things – which are largely things the establishment frowns upon. They are not liquidated, imprisoned or forced to recant. Some artists have been anarchists, some have been fascists, some high tories, some have been communists, while others have had no politics at all. There is no actual default position for artists as such who, anyway, are probably more individual in these matters than most of the rest of the population. And, of course, they change from day to day, not only in response to the larger world around them, but also to whether they got out of bed on the wrong side that morning or not. An artist’s politics at any one time may entirely depend on how depressed, grumpy, paranoid or euphoric he or she feels at that time. So in answer to the question, what kind of politics should an artist adopt, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say, “Well that’s up to them at the time.” One gets a bit bored by people who condemn artists for their politics. Look at their work, not their politics. What I do believe is that at the creative source of all strong art is something Dionysian, something constantly breaking out of art’s given constraints. But it is in the work you see this, not in an artist’s politics. Nothing that’s going on in the psyche of the artist during creation can ever be faithfully translated into a political position.