Broadcast Me a Joyful Noise: The dissemination of politics and the spirit of folk

What exactly is “folk” about “folk politics”?

We’re ready now your cause to join,
Whenever you may call,
To make foul blood run fair and fine,
Of tyrants great and small.
“Well Done, Ned Lud”

What exactly is “folk” about “folk politics”? In their critical account in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek use the term to describe a kind of parochialism which has, we are told, paralysed leftist movements worldwide, by privileging the immediate, the local, the everyday, and the ethical over the long-term, the global, the structural and the political. Crucially, folk politics rejects at the outset “any process of constructing a universal politics”, instead prioritising the “suffering of the particular”, and therefore fatally limiting the horizons of leftism 1. The term is chosen both as a reference to the critique of “folk psychology”, and to the concept of “folk” as “the locus of the small-scale, the authentic, the traditional and the natural” 2, and examples of its various manifestations can be found in everything from the Zapatista movement to campaigns within the last five years to save British hospitals from closure.

Momentarily putting aside the risk of falling into a naive folk psychology ourselves, it would seem that an obvious response to this conceptualization arises in relation to the most immediate point of reference for the concept of “folk”: music. The so-called “folk tradition” comprises a large corpus, encompassing various dispersed national and ethnic cultures; in short, a designation generalized to the point of defying any exacting, rigorous definition. More precise geographical designations, such as “English folk music”, are themselves marked by the diversity of influences which have forged the various regional cultures which, although easily hypostatized by nationalist interests, are in fact constantly shaped by the mixing of populations, before there is any question of their homogenisation as a national musical genre. It is easy to forget that even the Anglo-Saxon culture often identified with traditional British cultural practices (and indeed with the origins of English folk music) was itself the product of the miscegenation of various European ethnic groups over an extended period of time.

But perhaps the apparent emptiness of the signifier “folk music” is precisely its potency. Because folk music is by its nature anonymous, disseminated orally over several generations, there can be no “authentic” version of a folk song, no text from which all others would be derivations. Much like, according to Lévi-Strauss’s formulation, each version of a particular myth is an equally authentic iteration of the myth, so it is with the folk song. Equally, the musical forms of folk tend to be extremely basic, employing the rudimentary harmony common to most Western music; almost no folk songs require musical expertise to perform, and so the form is inherently democratised, so to speak, with the result that a folk song can be learned and disseminated easily and quickly, with no special resources required. One can therefore see how, viewed from another angle, the “folk” is in fact an explicitly universalist category, precisely because it is virtually subtracted from strict predicates or determination of form, origin, or source, beyond the minimal criterion of transmissibility. Or, to quote Kris Kristofferson’s summation of folk’s Appalachian offspring, “If it sounds country, man, that’s what it is, it’s a country song.”

One of the few confident determinations that might be made about folk music is its relationship to the working class. As John Tams puts it in the introduction to his programme on the folk music of the Luddite movement, these are “the songs that hold working class history together” and bring us closer to “the people and the reality of what working life was like, and the struggles and the turmoil and the battles that were fought by working class men and women.” Folk music forms a discontinuous history, a kind of fossil record of the working class (with the exception that, by a kind of Crichtonian magic, each folk song can be given new life in the present, simply by its performance). This relationship is not simply historical, but structural. Like folk, the working class as a category is not best defined by particular predicates, but rather as “empty”, relational, so as to be the subject of a universalist and not a particularist politics; as Jacques Rancière has put it, the “part of no part” within the social body. This is perhaps the simplest explanation of what separates class, within the materialist vision of history, from other kinds of identity.

Luddism and folk

The Luddite rebellion is an almost legendary episode in British working class history, which saw groups of labourers in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire organize to destroy mill equipment in protest of the introduction of automation and the concurrent degradation and cheapening of skilled work, which threatened to destroy the livelihoods of the craftsmen. As a direct response to the reorganization of production that attended primitive accumulation, the rebellion was certainly one of the last major birth pangs of capitalism in England. Moreover, in its immediate, reactive, and local character, Luddism is certainly an ur-form of folk politics, and yet, according to E. P. Thompson’s landmark account, it cannot be reduced to the limited field of vision that apparently characterizes that category of politics:

On the one hand, it looked backward to old customs and paternalist legislation which could never be revived; on the other hand, it tried to revive ancient rights in order to establish new precedents. At different times their demands included a legal minimum wage; the control of the “sweating” of women or juveniles; arbitration; the engagement by the masters to find work for skilled men made redundant by the machinery; the prohibition of shoddy work; the right to open trade union combination. All these demands looked forwards, as much as backwards; and they contained within them a shadowy image, not so much of a paternalist, but of a democratic community, in which industrial growth should be regulated according to ethical priorities and the pursuit of profit be subordinated to human needs. 3

It is fitting, then, that the Luddite movement - which had the outward appearance of a local, reactive politics, but, examined in more detailed, perhaps harboured a much more universalist, political core - was intimately entwined with folk music. Kevin Binfield writes, in his commentary on Luddite texts, that “Luddite songs and poems performed special functions… Some are celebratory or self congratulatory. Others are inspirational… others lament hardship” 4. Many Luddite songs centre on the largely mythical figure of Ned Ludd, around whom the movement organized. The function of this, Binfield argues, was to aid in “the formation of a variable but collective Luddite identity” 5. Similarly, this kind of symbolic correlate allows for the transmission of a politics whose precise strategies and ideas, during a time of intense activity, may be disorganized and unclear, via the centralizing figure of the individual. As Alain Badiou writes, with regard to the history of revolutionary politics:

In these proper names, the ordinary individual discovers glorious, distinctive individuals as the mediation for his or her own individuality, as the proof that he or she can force its finitude. The anonymous action of millions of militants, rebels, fighters, unrepresentable as such, is combined and counted as one in the simple, powerful symbol of the proper name. 6

We are led to ask, then, whether we can identify a modern correlate to this kind of democratised, participatory cultural transmission, and if so, how it mobilises proper names, political ideals, and concrete practice, within the contemporary context.

Contemporary political disseminations

Despite initial estimates proving to be excessive, the youth vote was nevertheless crucial to Labour’s gains in the General Election, leading YouGov to conclude that “age seems to be the new dividing line in British politics”. It is tempting to explain this development simply by reference to the Labour manifesto, which certainly offered a politics which was much more palatable to the majority of the youth, composed as it was of policies which directly appealed to both its material interests and to the construction of a general vision of equality and participatory democracy at the basis of national government, in contrast to the neoliberal consensus which has dominated British politics for decades. But to leave the answer at this would seem to telescope two phenomena into one, since there must be a distinction of some kind between policy and the transmission of policy. In other words, the ideas are worth little if they are not adequately disseminated. In terms of a youth which engages less and less with the traditional modes of political transmission - newspapers and television - this is an open question.

There has recently been some heated discussion among socialist communities on both sides of the Atlantic over the usefulness of memes - widely shared digital items created within a participatory and self-referential cultural field - to leftist politics. This might seem like an utterly trivial point, but if we accept that memes are a ubiquitous form within the social media terrain on which the great majority of young people in both Britain and the USA now conduct their lives, it would in fact appear more absurd to ignore the category, especially within a socialist left that has been distinguished historically by its contributions to the study of culture. Yet there is also a potent argument 7 that genuine socialism, if it is to achieve success, must appeal to economics, to people’s material interests, where the “culturalism” of the creation and dissemination of memes would be at best an example of the left “talking to itself”, and at worst the kind of operation that more befits the petty-fascist right. This line of reasoning has claimed the Marxist metaphor of the base and superstructure as the grounds for its conclusions: Marxists, we are told, prioritise the determinant base of economic relations over the superstructure of ideology and cultural artefact.

Stuart Hall has shown, in his lecture “Rethinking the Base and Superstructure”, how multifarious and problematic this metaphor actually proves to be in the work of Marx, tracing the different subtleties it takes on within the contexts in which it is invoked - subtleties that were emphasized by Engels, contra deterministic (or “vulgar”) Marxism: “Rather than a simple base-superstructure determinacy, Engels posits an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which overlap one another and give rise to a single result” 8. Hall reminds us that “Marx’s object of analysis is capitalism as a mode of production at a very high level of abstraction,” which means he is always led to “bracket other kinds of determinations, which are crucially important to understanding actual societies in real historical periods,” whereas “at the level of the specific conjuncture, all kinds of social and political forces come into play that could not conceivably appear at the level of the mode of production,” with the result that, in the case of specific historical sequences, one must still  “understand how different political parties constructed different ideologies and different sets of slogans” 9. In other words, the apparent determinacy of the base over the superstructure is never, even in its first formulations, a straightforwardly causal relationship, but rather an abstract, overarching metaphor by which is condensed a complex dialectical relationship between economics (which itself is a broad category in Marx, encompassing social relations of production as well as the economy in the traditional sense) and ideological or cultural formations.

All of which is to say that within a certain concrete historical configuration - for example, contemporary British politics - it is literally impossible to hold to a strict dualism of economy and culture, even if doing so were not in contradiction to the dialectical stipulation of historical materialism. This much is evident in Marx’s most important historical work, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, which is very far from an economically-determinist account of a historical episode. As soon as one makes an appeal to politics within a public sphere, one deposits a document of culture 10. With this in mind, the question of memes, as a pervasive cultural form, must surely become pertinent to (at the very least) a discussion of youth political engagement in Britain. Indeed “election memes” have, in some quarters, been ascribed a startling level of contribution to Labour’s success. While we may be wary of following these pronouncements all the way to their hyperbolic conclusions, it is nevertheless the case that during the election, memes - and other viral content - saturated the news feeds and timelines of a great number of young people, many of whom would have not otherwise been confronted with the political in such a consistent form, nor within a platform with which they were voluntarily engaged (as opposed to adverts, news media, and party political broadcasts, with which the same young people might be characterised as inconsistently and passively engaged).

It is impossible to draw precise, empirical conclusions about the effect memes had on youth turnout, and especially on the Labour vote in the 18-24 (and perhaps also 24-29) category, which increased significantly in 2017 compared with 2015, given the fact that none of the major polling associations have attempted a survey of their impact. The admin of “June 8 Shitposting Club”, which produced and/or distributed much of the most widely shared content on Facebook during the election, suggested to me that “Breaking down policies and moments from the political world into bitesize, often absurd jokes has engaged people at the very least in a passive manner about political ideas”. My own discussions during the composition of this article have unanimously suggested that memes had some kind of effect on the way in which young people engaged with politics during the election. Nevertheless, we are forced to leave the empirical question open until more substantial work has been done, and instead to limit ourselves to more theoretical speculations.

Returning to the question of folk, it is not difficult to draw comparisons between what we have identified as the universalist attributes of the “folk” as a concept and elements of the meme as a form. Like folk music, memes are an essentially indeterminate category by definition: while at any given time there are forms which are identifiable as meme “templates”, any attempt at a taxonomy of meme formats will find itself obsolete as soon as it is formulated, since the pantheon of memes is always in a process of evolution. Indeed, election memes bore this out, employing existing templates as well as creating new forms in response to the specificity of the election as their material, and specific events during the election itself: this distinction itself, between the established and the ad hoc, then forms its own dialectic, producing yet more forms within the necessarily self-referential field of memes 11. Moreover, the meme is an explicitly participatory medium, taking little skill to produce and even less to “perform”, that is, to share and disseminate. Like the Luddite folk song, the election meme performs a complex of functions: imploring young people to register to vote, lampooning political figures, discussing policies, commenting on events during the respective election campaigns, etc. For this reason it is difficult to identify a singular purpose of the political meme form. I would like to suggest that it is more useful to in fact simplify this function, and regard the global effect of the form as contributing to the elaboration of a popular “spirit”, which must accompany any movement which hopes to enact change on a mass, democratic level 12.

Let’s be clear: it is by no means the case that we could argue that something like memes could do the work of older forms of political organisation and participation, nor indeed that the former could have had any real efficacy without the elaboration of the kinds of policies which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have been devising and continue to devise. Yet it does seem necessary to make an (albeit modest) intervention with regard to the question of “politics vs. culture”, which, like the related (and extremely vexed) question of “class vs. identity”, is overdetermined by the very way in which it is formulated. This is to say, the “vs.” already presupposes the kind of division which the dialectical form of thought is supposed to overcome. Historical materialism, as an overarching method of understanding the antagonisms which give form and movement to historical societies, will always proceed from the material conditions within a given society, but this does not permit us to somehow believe we have transcended culture, or that we alone are able to put on the glasses of economic materialism and “see through” the obfuscations of ideological culture. Nor does it mean that the real, historical process of a political sequence can somehow be divorced from the culture within which that process takes place. A socialist politics divorced from humour, joy, and frivolity is in fact formally limited. On this, we will give the last word to that most acute of historical materialists, Walter Benjamin:

The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turn, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history. To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed.

  1. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Verso Books: New York, p. 11. 

  2. Ibid, p. 10. 

  3. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Pantheon Books: New York, pp. 551-2.  

  4. Kevin Binfield, Writings of the Luddites, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, p. 95. 

  5. Ibid, p. 96. 

  6. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Books: New York, p. 250. 

  7. Since this discussion took place on Twitter, it is hard to cite adequately; the argument here is a paraphrase of that of prominent American leftist writer [Frederick DeBoer] (  

  8. Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 85 

  9. Ibid, p. 92-94.  

  10. I owe this precise formulation to the writer and cultural theorist Sam Kriss.  

  11. Compare this to Binfield’s analysis of “General Ludd’s Triumph”, the Luddite anthem, in which he points out that the song “is celebratory, fitting the rhetorical form of the eulogy, but the form is certainly not pure”, introducing innovations befitting the subject matter of Luddism and the rhetorical purposes of the work. See Writing of the Luddites, p. 97.  

  12. This idea is closely related to what Tom Whyman has recently discussed under the category of “political phantasy”.