I’ve been holding my breath since the UK general election was announced, waiting for the next trickle of “Acid Corbynism” op-eds, calling for a supposedly Fisherian radical politics for the left, and I realised recently what it was for me that stunk about Acid Corbynism’s initial emergence.
My main issue with “the left-wing ideology you can rave to” was that it seemed to think itself backwards. (Or it has so far presented itself backwards, anyway, perhaps inadvertently, in a succession of inconsistent articles.) It has so far come across as a burgeoning left-wing sub-ideology that chooses to incorporate the politics of rave, rather than be a politics of rave that extends itself into a contemporary desire for a new democratic socialism.
It has, unfortunately, in the hands of Jeremy Gilbert, all felt a bit “boomerish”, betraying a woeful disconnection to the social spaces he was trying to champion. Well-meaning, no doubt, but counter-productive in being so out of touch. In all the initial essays about it, it was too much middle class yoga morning, with next to nothing said about the cultural developments of the present moment beyond “Corbyn and yoga are good for you”.
A politics of rave that extends itself into a contemporary desire for a new democratic socialism was surely Mark Fisher’s original intention with acid communism — or at least one shade of his intent. As his essay “Baroque Sunbursts” makes clear, he saw the “acidic” side of his burgeoning politics emerging from a long history of lumpenproletariat outsideness, doing its own thing against the grain, through fetes and carnivals and raves, and he saw this as emblematic of an all too often ignored undercurrent of contemporary desires for movement building and collective subjectivity, routinely suppressed by the state for centuries. His was a call to pay closer attention to those movements and activities that have long disrupted and called into question the cloistered establishment, but also those suppressed sentiments that nonetheless continue to influence the establishment left from below.
Contrary to this, Acid Corbynism’s off vibe has been — despite what it says about itself — to influence culture from the top down, “discussing ways in which a Corbyn project can engender new forms of collective consciousness informed by countercultural projects of the past”, as it was initially described in The Independent, falling into that classic hippie trap of patronising middle class cultural constructivism by going back to the ’60s and ’70s and largely ignoring everything that has happened since.
More specifically, it seems to ignore the countercultural projects of the present where such potentials as those they’re pointing to are already being enacted. This is to say that Corbyn isn’t simply an opportunity for reflection. He’s a symptom of something new in his own right. Acid Corbynism has so far been a bit of a weak diagnosis of what that is. Instead, we are presented with an apparently representative image of a sort of cringe mod revival micro Butlins corporate Dad weekender…
As a result of all this, in most appraisals I’ve seen that come from outside the camp putting out infrequent Acid Corbynite content, Acid Corbynism comes off as a product of London lefty cringe. It’s hard to disagree with that when you look over the majority of the content put out under its name. However, with the election on the horizon, and with my own retweet habits becoming increasingly Corbynistic as the weeks roll on, I’m left wanting to offer up a more generous reading; an avenue that might inject this provocatively empty ideological vessel with some substance. I’d like to call it the Corbyn Continuum.
One of Jeremy Corbyn’s most attractive qualities amongst his supporters is his political consistency. Any aspersions cast upon his character by detractors are often batted away with documentation of his political activism and voting record, finding him to be on the “right side of history” for decades. He’s not some post-Soviet tyrannical Marxist hangover, as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump want the country to think, but a principled man who has consistently stood against the policies of a deepening culture of neoliberalism since 1983. Whether protesting Apartheid, the War in Iraq or contemporary austerity, he has always been a supporter of the downtrodden, the powerless and the under-represented.
What he represents today, then, for so many, is a leftist continuum that has been smothered by neoliberalism for decades. He’s proof that the left weren’t all collectively insane and melancholic post-Thatcher. They simply didn’t have a democratic representative. Years were lost to Blairite centrism as a radical left went underground, and this dip below the political waterline notably occurred in tandem with rave’s own sociopolitical smothering. But, just as hardcore never died, neither have the principled politics of Jeremy Corbyn.
This is to say that Corbyn gives this intergenerational confluence of lost leftists a voice. He represents an always present but consistently undermined current of political energy that has never before had a democratic outlet. (Whether or not it has been looking for one is a separate issue.)
In this sense, Corbyn starts to resemble something of a post-rave candidate for Britain’s political left, and if there is any desirable instantiation of an Acid Corbynism, I think it has to be one that recognises the resonance between the Corbyn Continuum and the Hardcore Continuum.
Here we might turn to Simon Reynolds’ 1990s series of essays on ‘Ardkore for The Wire in which he defines the hardcore continuum as rave’s persistent channelling of a working class political disenfranchisement and a politically smothered collective subject:
Ardkore is really just the latest twist on the traditional contours of working class leisure, the latest variant on the sulphate-fuelled 60 Hour Weekend of mod and Northern Soul lore. With Ardkore, the proletarian culture of consolation has become a culture of concussion: hence amnesiac/anaesthetic slang terms for a desirable state of oblivion such as “sledged” (as in “sledge hammered”), “mashed up”, “cabbaged”, “monged”, and song titles like “Blackout” and “Hypnoblast”.
There’s a sampled slice of rap at large in Ardkore that goes: “Can’t beat the system/Go with the flow”. On one level, it’s just a boast about how much damage the sound system can inflict. But perhaps there’s a submerged political resonance in there too: amidst the socio-economic deterioration of a Britain well into its second decade of one party rule, where alternatives seem unimaginable, horizons grow ever narrower, and there’s no constructive outlet for anger, what else is there left but to zone out, go with the flow, disappear?
But retreatism is just one side of the rave scene. There’s an inchoate fury in the music that comes out in an urge for total release from constraints, a lust for explosive exhilaration — captured in titles like “Hypergasm”. The Ragga chant of Xenophobia’s “Rush In The House” kicks off “E come alive! E come alive! E come alive!” Ardkore frenzy is where the somnambulist youth of Britain snap out of the living death of the 90s, and grasp a few moments of fugitive bliss. Ardkore seethes with a RAGE TO LIVE, to cram all the intensity absent from a week of drudgery into a few hours of fervour. It’s a quest to reach escape velocity. Speed-freak youth are literally running away from their problems, and who can blame them?
This might not sound like it has much in common with Corbyn the manhole-cover-loving constant gardner and parliamentary left-wing figurehead and nor is it supposed to. Corbyn isn’t some perfect embodiment of a proletarian death drive suddenly inserted into our parliamentary democracy, but he is nonetheless a vector allowing long-derided subcultural currents to rise higher within the national unconscious than they have been able to since he first entered the House of Commons.
Because, despite rave’s apparent retreatism, hardcore has never died. It has had its peaks and troughs but it has been largely consistent as a path travelled by so many over the course of dance music culture’s development, fragmenting off into new subcultures that nonetheless retain a shared sensibility of collective action and jouissance. Sinking below the production line of commodified genres has led to its continuation becoming less easy to reify and capture but, chances are, if anything has recently been described as “deconstructed club” it can be fastened onto an almost 40-year lineage of musical experimentation and collective politics. In this sense, deconstructed club is the music press’s attempt to categorise a party that kept on going, stubbornly, on rave’s own terminal beach, amongst the washed-up detritus of past political and musical failures, mudlarking for new sonic futures found amongst contorted old objects.
This new generation has seen and heard the musics of rave, perhaps appropriated and repackaged after the fact, and wonders how we ended up where we did. Compared to now, the alternatives of the rave era seemed numerous if still impotently subcultural. Corbyn, surreally, represents their future prospects within parliament but to say he is representative of these sentiments overall is a patronising misstep.
This is to say that this hauntological beach rave has not been so woefully nihilistic that it needs someone like Corbyn to galvinise it into action. Its persistence has successively held rave’s offspring back from the brink of death and it has given buoyancy to their collective politics at the same time. It is up to Corbyn to encourage their proliferation, not for these scenes to embody Corbyn-supplied political strategies. It is, after all, the parliamentary instantiation of the politics of neoliberalism that are to blame for its near-death in the first place. It is up to Corbyn to dismantle those damaging infrastructures so that these precarious embers might blossom into a new way of life.
Grime’s international popularity and alignment with Corbyn’s politics is the perfect example of how this might be done. Whilst their cross-cultural love-in might have been a tandem surprise to many, it emerged out of this kind of sociopolitical undercurrent, emboldened by a generation that is unwilling to extend the nihilism of past generations any further.
This is to say that to call Grime an Acid Corbynist UK rap scene would be deeply embarrassing for so many reasons. It is Corbyn, instead, who was, for a moment, a exo-Grime political opportunity — offering up an allegiance to be encouraged where other politicians would have shit themselves before an audience with the country’s creative youth. Corbyn, instead, recognised their frustration and offered them his support. They, in turn, offer him theirs. This wasn’t a party political strategy on their part. It was simply the Corbyn continuum in action, with the man listening to their sociopolitical frustrations and vowing to alleviate them.
There is space for Acid Corbynism to grow as an idea along these lines — and it should — but to do so it must pay better attention to its own source material in a way that allows it to overcome itself rather than becoming reified into a control value for Labour party conference tension.
Thankfully, Matt Phull and Will Stronge have already done a semi-decent job of describing Acid Corbynism’s “next steps” — which feels more like a correction of Jeremy Gilbert’s various foundational missteps in being far more explicitly aligned with Mark’s writings over his. They put aside the hippiedom that Mark was always suspicious of, instead drawing on his wider concepts of “popular modernism” and his love of Jam City. (Shout out also to Laura Grace Ford.) They write, summarising their exploration of present (rather than past) potentials:
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.
And yet here, again, the representation is still backwards. There is a sense, in all of these articles, that the intended audience is a disenfranchised “common” left, but it ends up sounding like a cultural reappraisal offered up from within the Labour party itself that seems to ignore the scenes already going from strength to strength within UK club culture more broadly.
Instead, contrary to all intention, the concept of Acid Corbynism starts to resembles a tone-deaf electioneering campaign, excavating previous strategies that have been restricted and penalised by the state infrastructure the Labour party still — regardless of who is leading it — represents.
Frankly, it ends up sounding patronising.
We should note here that Mark Fisher, the supposed inspiration for Acid Corbynism, was heavily influenced by Reynolds and he would later respond to his ‘Ardkore essays in 2009 for FactMag, describing a musical trajectory that continues to resonate, analogously, with Corbyn’s own broad appeal. He would describe the hardcore continuum as “a cybernetically self-correcting system”, pivoting between rave euphoria and its darkside. What was most notable about this for Mark was that these “recalibrations and adjustments would happen without the continuum repeating itself.”
Previous moments were neither forgotten nor reiterated, but subsumed and synthesised into new hybrids; and, rather than individual artist-geniuses, it was the collective ‘scenius’, the interaction between DJs, producers and dancers, that brought about these shifts.
There is a scenic left in the UK but to define it by Corbyn’s own personality rather than his function as a political lightning rod is to undo this sense of a collective scenius in the present, setting up boundaries for what should instead be allowed to freely overflow.
Intriguingly, Mark points to this frustration on the horizon that Acid Corbynism plays chicken with, still commenting on hardcore’s continuation into the present of 2009 in response to Reynolds’ essays on ‘ardkore. He writes:
… a generation younger than Reynolds is frustrated that it has yet to produce a music which can’t be comfortably fitted inside a theoretical framework generated nearly two decades ago. It’s a measure of the robustness of the hardcore continuum (and its theorization) that it should still be holding on after twenty years. Yet it’s also a sign of the slowing of the rate of innovation in popular music, with British dance music, once so furiously inventive, now falling prey to the conditions of entropy which have long prevailed elsewhere. If only there could be a shattering break that would definitively relegate the hardcore continuum to the past.
Today’s younger generation may not have a new “rave” but they have Corbyn, as a political figurehead from that time that looms large over the present, who hasn’t been coopted and undermined and who hasn’t become corporate fodder for lobbyists. He is uncomfortable, just as rave was and still is, and that is his power. The prospect of him being elected prime minister heralds the ultimate success of the Corbyn continuum and its ending. By exploding through its former glass ceiling, Corbyn — and, potentially, rave and the politics its represents — could overcome themselves and their position within culture and society, opening out a space for the radically new.
It is this sort of collaboration that should be encouraged, but ravers have done enough to keep their way of life hanging on by the skin of their teeth. An Acid Corbynism requires a Corbyn government prepared to listen to the communities and collectives where these politics already exist in the here and now.
This is essential because, regardless of whatever it is Acid Corbynism hopes to bring to the table, the musical and political frustrations previously described by Mark have been waning recently — not through a big subcultural-but-commercial genre moment or rave explosion but through an on- and offline scene-building.
Because things have changed since Mark wrote of his concerns for dance music in 2009. Music journalists and musicians are more politicised now than ever before and yet they are still penalised from the top-down. In many respects, Acid Corbynism seems to be preaching didactically to the converted. It is the Labour Party’s own organisers who should be taking a closer look at what is already going on around them in the scenes they are attempting to appropriate the politics of.
The worst way to respond to this would be to point to the ’60s and ’70s. To look upon that era for strategies will lead to nothing but frustration for a new generation that couldn’t give a shit about old psychedelic aesthetics and simply wants to imagine the world anew for itself. Therefore, Acid Corbynism, like the hardcore continuum it professes to celebrate, runs the risk of being a multifunctional canary in the coal mine: for both the demands of the new and the lack of innovation among the old.
An Acid Corbynism that does itself justice would bring these subcultural insights from below to the top, strategising to make rave desires into policies rather than making policies into rave desires, reversing the smothering legislation currently killing the nation’s nightlife and doing more to support cultural endeavors that many passionately seek to keep alive despite the system trying to squash them at every turn.
As such, any “Acid Corbynism” that wants to get itself off the ground must not be reduced to a rave didacticism. It should strive to be a political offshoot surfing the sine waves of the hardcore continuum that lies adjacent to it.
Update #1: This post might already be redundant with the Labour Party doing too little too late. Apparently, Grime4Corbyn will not be making a return for the 2019 general election campaign:
“The general consensus [amongst grime artists] is that they were used,” said one grime manager, who asked not to be named. “They didn’t follow up. They weren’t expecting a general election so soon, and it’s a bit late to go to the grime community now after ignoring us.”