Dreamless Populism

The disarticulation of my “Dreamless Pop” post has very quickly been remedied by a confluence of factors.

Bob was nice enough to share the post on Twitter and call it an encapsulation of some sort of position when — I must confess; as is often the case with my blog posts — it was more like an attempt to articulate something that nonetheless remained on the tip of my tongue before it consequently fell out of my head due to this lack of a firm linguistic grasp on it…

Fittingly, Bob’s use of the word “simulacra” was precisely the jolt I needed to better articulate what it is I find so disturbing about Sex Education

So here goes…


I was watching Sex Education recently, a few days after the previous post had gone up — or half-watching it, I guess, reading a book whilst my girlfriend caught up with the latest season. I had watched the first season with a morbid curiosity but could not stomach the second. This was not entirely — as I thought — because of its content but because of its location also. For all its accusations of rootlessness — part American high school drama, part British college-university romp, part general adolescent situated-identity crisis — I am actually very familiar with its setting.

I am sure I’ve mentioned this before — either on the blog or on Twitter — but Sex Education is filmed on my old university campus in Caerleon, South Wales. It is filmed in a place where I studied for three years and lived for one. It is also the place where I met my long-term girlfriend and countless other friends.

Watching that show is like sticking my head in a waterfall of memories. Forget Proust’s whiff of madeleine cake, it’s more like a snuffed line of simulated nostalgia that violently overrides the actual experience of being there.

Graduation, Caerleon, 2013

We were talking about the series, following a more recent episode, when I asked her how she managed to stomach the show’s wokeness that is laid on so thick. She acknowledged it was often egregious but that it didn’t get too much in the way of the story for her, which she enjoyed regardless — fair enough — but, personally, it makes me cringe, and I realised the other day that the reason I find it so hard to stomach is precisely because it entertains the existence of some impossibly woke academic environment on a campus that has explicitly fallen victim to the worst neoliberal university practices. It is a simulation of wokeness dancing on the grave of those ideals it performs and says it holds so dear. It is, in this sense, precisely a sort of poor-taste simulacra that renders its over-scripted good intentions as little more than apolitical entertainment despite itself.

I should emphasise here that I am not using the term ‘wokeness’ to give scaffolding some liberal conspiracy that seeks to undermine the creative power of political incorrectness. However, as has been explored on this blog before, I do think transgressive arts must continue to carve out a space for themselves in the face of an institutionalised moralism, and most of what thinks of itself as oppositional these days can barely defend such a claim under pressure. This is a far more legitimate critique than the rightist one, I think, because this “wokeness” is a decontextualised band-aid for far deeper structural problems that few people seem capable of separating from the capitalist forces they say they are fighting against.

(Again, this was something that came up at the Capitalist Realism conference, where a troupe of avant-gardist improvisers betrayed an unawareness of their own complicity in the institutional capture of supposedly radical politics and artistic actions.)

Custom Sign Found in the Darkrooms, Caerleon, 2011

Sex Education, as a cultural product, is the perfect encapsulation of this. It is a show that cannot go five minutes without tripping over an oddly bureaucratised form of political communication but it does so — oh so tellingly — on a site of great cultural and political loss.

Caerleon campus only exists as a film set for this slab of Netflix wokeness because the listed status of the clock tower has thwarted developers from demolishing it to build a new housing estate. Prior to this thwarting, Caerleon campus was home to the largest photographic dark rooms in Europe where photography was taught for over one hundred years and where countless generations had their tandem artistic and political awakenings.

This was true for me as well. It was a home where I was first politicised, developing both a class consciousness, as I came to understand why I felt Newport, South Wales, was a home-away-from-home and so similar to my actual home of Hull in Yorkshire — short answer: both post-industrial towns on estuaries left to decay and atrophy despite (or, arguably, because of) an established history of radical cultural action — and a wider political consciousness, travelling to London for my first protest march in my first year of university to oppose the trebling of tuition fees that would not effect me personally but would effect countless others after me.

With this burgeoning consciousness emerging from a generally deflated sense of my own political agency, Newport was a place of hope for a radical future, both in terms of politics and culture — with the two being explicitly intertwined as a place where prescribed aesthetics standards were told to go fuck themselves on the daily and where a small town working class consciously “avant garde” community was going from strength to strength, despite persistently butting heads with the local council.

This wasn’t new. It was heartening to learn that this sort of activity was part of a Welsh continuum… And was well-founded in Newport itself as a city… But the slow creep of neoliberalism was well-established also, at least by the time I got there…

Large Format Workshop, Caerleon Studios, 2013

First, the Newport polytechnic — founded in 1840 to educate local workers and tradespeople, and where photography was first taught as a trade as early as 1910 — was transformed into the University of Wales, Newport, following the nationwide culling of polytechnics in the 1990s.

This process brought together a broad family of technical colleges under a single managerial authority, cementing the neoliberal oversight of a prior patchwork of empowering spaces. As time went on, it was revealed — to the surprise of no-one — that those in charge were caught in a spiral of overspending, building new campuses they couldn’t afford and trying to continue to expand beyond their means. Before long, UWN got into trouble, and was eventually gobbled up and consolidated into an even bigger institutional body: the University of South Wales — a Cardiff-based university. (This is a process innocuously documented on the university’s website, of course, with no reference made to the perpetual upheavals that underlined its haggard development.)

This final merger came at a very tense time for the area. It occurred during the final year of my studies in 2013, which was the same year that Newport’s Chartist mural, library and art gallery was controversially demolished to build a garish new shopping centre. These actions, though distinct from one another, nonetheless felt they were both part of the same socio-political process: the broad neoliberalisation of the city and its institutions. It had already happened elsewhere in the city. The polytechnic’s old site in the city centre, for instance, before it was based before the move to Caerleon, had already been transformed into luxury flats during our time there and, following the merger, when the beautiful Caerleon campus was sold off, it felt like that was the final nail in the coffin for a tradition that was far from dead. Its smothering was merely a byproduct of mismanagement by higher-ups.

This really is unbelievable when you consider the university campus on its own merits. In many ways it was outdated, rough around the edges, dysfunctional, relatively isolated from South Wales’ urban centres, but it was ours. It wasn’t some former private school turned fancy institution, as it superficially appears in the series. It was primarily a campus occupied by young people studying either an arts degree or a sports degree, in the orbit of a still proudly working class town. It was a really beautiful place to live and study and that felt all the more important considering how academically maligned the courses taught there were. In fact, the campus was a large part of why I wanted to study there. I’d been to open days in London (Elephant & Castle) and Farnham but immediately felt these campuses were hostile to “someone like me”. Caerleon was different. It felt right and continued to feel right for the three years that followed. (I’m still in touch with the lecturers there.)

When it was reported that the campus had been sold off, it felt like this was partly why. We weren’t allowed to have nice things. The new base in Cardiff’s city centre might be better connected and immersed in local business infrastructures but Caerleon was special precisely because it felt like a haven apart from all that bullshit. It was a place to experiment — and we really did experiment.

This is not to say that a radical political sentiment died with the institution — it certainly wasn’t an institutionalised product — and thankfully many of the lecturers who encouraged this kind of engagement with the world remain on the staff — but I do not think that anyone would deny that decades of growth had been amputated without a second thought. The task became less one of extension and more one of rebuilding, and it was a task that had to be pursued under an intensification of the university’s mechanisms of bureaucratic anti-production.

Metal Recycling Area (Repurposed as our ‘Common Room’), Caerleon, 2013

With all of this in mind, it becomes very difficult not to be wholly cynical of a show like Sex Education, preaching radical but tellingly bougie politics of communication on the piss-soaked grave of a former polytechnic. Its politics are, of course, important, but so is the context in which they are contained and puppeteered. Take, for instance, Sex Education‘s persistent exploration of the politics of interpersonal consent. What becomes of this topic when it is dramatises on a site where the previous occupants were turfed off without any consultation? This may sound a bit too much like a Justin Murphy logic gate but surely if we are to take the show’s dramatic politics seriously we should be able to extend these politics beyond the fictional relationships of individuals and apply it to the very real situated politics of its location and the communities that called it home? Removed from its fictional bubble, the show becomes nothing but a parody of itself.

It is this disparity that I thought of this morning whilst reading Will Davies’ Guardian op-ed on the persistent radicality of the humanities within neoliberal institutions. (The fact that Davies teaches at Goldsmiths probably goes someway towards explaining how he is able to write from an apparent bubble of hope. The historical continuum of HE experimentation that Davies gestures to has long been impotent, broadly speaking. If the government is now lopping off humanities courses, it is less a active culling and more a sign that neoliberalism has decided to stop playing with its already butchered food.)

Interestingly, Davies argues against the political right’s cooption of “a bogey-ideology known as ‘wokeness’, constructed by conservative commentators and ‘free speech’ advocates, [that] now serves as an all-purpose bin into which any form of activism, complaint or critical theory can be thrown.” The problem with this — and the article at large — is subtle. There is no denying that a cross-section of small-c and big-C conservatives in this country despise the persistent influence of the humanities, as Davies argues, but to say that ‘wokeness’ has been constructed by the right is wholly disingenuous. It is a term — both positively and negatively — that has the left’s fingerprints all over it.

This is to say that Davies may be right in fingering the contemporary culprits of educational dismantling but his analysis just feels hollow — a sort of extension of student populism that is about two years too late, and by ignoring the left’s own failure to tackle and preempt current problems, the article reads as nothing more than cheerleading puff piece, preaching to the converted.

(Sidenote: I have more to say on the specifically anti-modernist tendencies — and I do think they are that specific — that Davies points to within the Johnson-Cummings cabinet but I want to save that for another post.)

Void Wallet Contents, 2014

To better articulate what I mean by this, I think it is worth emphasising the fact that Davies deploys a right-wing conception of “wokeness” — now culturally dominant — over a left-wing one.

On the left, “wokeness” has, until recently, referred to a well-established slang term borrowed from African-American political discourses referring to the possession of a kind of raised consciousness. If you’re woke, you’re awake to the banal injustices of a quotidian and marginalised existence. That’s pretty much common knowledge at this point.

The right’s disparaging and cynical use of “wokeness”, however, reveals (at least in negative) a sort of empty and apolitical leftism that has run riot through many of the left’s attempts at political organising in recent years. This is to say that the collapse of “wokeness” as a political contagion — from a call-to-arms to a disparaging and cynical label thrown at moralisers — is as much the fault of the left’s incompetence as it is the right’s penchant for cynical cooption.

Take this Medium post by @scenicpasture on “Apolitical Corbynism” — an excellent post that goes someway towards articulating the two factions that really gave Corbyn his staying power in the UK since 2015: a new politicised youth on the one hand, but also middle class apolitical former Green Party voters on the other. They write:

In the case of Corbyn, he inspired people who previously hadn’t been involved in parliamentary politics and who certainly had no interest in the intricacies of left factions and alliances. That appeal was largely to “graduates without a future”. There’s a big chunk of these people who were very happy attending Occupy, the demonstrations orchestrated by XR, and needless to say were proud to march for a ‘People’s Vote’. Each of these moments were, in their own way, apolitical insofar as they were attempts to ditch the constraints of parliamentary politics and appeal to something ‘beyond’. In XR’s case, this was completely explicit in their calls to establish ‘citizens assemblies’ (which under scrutiny turn out to be panels of wonk NGO experts. The Marxist critique of these forms of politics are well-documented and I won’t rehearse them here, the point for me is that in the absence of anything else they were the only game in town. The generations that attached to these political modalities did so out of the wreckage of the end of history, the failure of New Labour, the failure of social democracy in the 20th century, which occurred inextricably with the collapse of the labour movement and its institutions. Corbynism aspired to rebuilding these things, but was always just aspiring, was always in lieu of them, and therefore was in fact closer in its origins to these forms of apolitical populism than I think has previously been acknowledged.

The merits of this form allowed us to function and work as organisers without the usual baggage, and at its height produced the hysterical joy of the 2017 election. That election feels dream-like in hindsight, precisely because it did seem to actually achieve what apolitical moments always claim to be able to achieve: transcending the parameters of ideology and politics as such. Could such a colossal upheaval have happened without Corbynism’s broad, moralistic appeals to decency, change, standing up for “the many”? I’m not sure. However beneficial, though, it was precisely this strength of apolitical Corbynism that, in part, engineered its downfall. This downfall came chiefly from the despicably vain, juvenile remain campaign, indulged by far too many people who in a state of flailing panic should’ve toughened up and known better. But also, I’d argue through a specific political-cultural tendency that emerged under late-Corbynism; self-flagellation and capitulation. Taken together, these outcomes have now engineered a situation where Keir Starmer is seen by many Corbynistas as the right successor to whatever Corbynism was about. It’s worth emphasising how absurd this is. Starmer is utterly archetypal of everything that Corbyn was supposed to replace. He is a character-less centrist, interchangeable with any prominent man among the liberal professional managerial class. If someone showed you a picture of him and said he’s the head of Save the Children, or an investment bank, or the Liberal Democrats, you’d have no difficulty believing them. His appeal to exhausted, depleted, Corbynistas comes from the same empty, directionless desires of apolitical populism. Just as Occupy never articulated a demand, just as XR was somehow apocalyptic without being antagonistic, just as People’s Vote wished away 17.4 million people; so too Starmer, by looking nice and sounding posh, will alleviate Labour of its existential contradictions.

Sex Education, to me, is the ultimate cultural encapsulation of this. Whilst its script is over-wrought with pseudo-ethical negotiations of contemporary adolescent conflicts, attempting to place it at the vanguard of a new form of “woke” political communication that presents a seemingly utopian high school experience for the temporally displaced left, it is also wholly impotent and removed from the actual political struggles it is indirectly parasitising.



Endnote: Notably, the book I was reading whilst having these thoughts, with Sex Education playing in the background, was Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. I don’t have it with me whilst I’m writing this post but it’s introduction and first chapter helped to articulate how this apolitical wokeness is itself a product of neoliberalism’s cultural logics, and that is precisely because of the way that neoliberalism — and neoliberal universities most explicitly — iron out the creases and differences of our political spaces of action.

Niall Gallen hit on this too earlier today when he tweeted:

I think he’s right. I responded:

I was thinking exactly this whilst reading Jameson the other day. The absence of ‘neoliberalism’ from his description of the mechanisms of “late capitalism” at the start of Postmodernism… is telling. [1] Precisely because, as the elephant in the room, he is trying to prise the economic and the cultural apart in order to understand how they affect one another. Neoliberalism emerges as an ideological project for smoothing out [these] discrepancies. [2]

Wokeness was a concept that fell into this trap all too easily — the way that “woke” has been turned into a ironic marketing ploy by the likes of Burger King in recent weeks is a case in point.

If neoliberalism is to be have continued valence as a political term, the left must be capable of seeing its developments and influence from within its own ranks, not just pointing to it when the right gets its way.



Update: Many thanks to Gareth Leaman for sharing this post on Twitter. His own article on Sex Education and South Wales for the Wales Art Review is an excellent extension of some of these points. Go check it out.

Leave a Reply