The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a combination of past and present

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What would have happened if Karl Marx had become a poet? In this article, Peter Raynard takes The Communist Manifesto to new, poetic levels. 

The Foundation

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

As many readers will know, Karl Marx wrote these words, but used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. The words were swapped in a 2012 lecture by John Lanchester (he of Whoops, and Capital) marking Marx’s 193rd birthday, to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape.

But as well as Marx’s prescience, he has also been lauded for his literary style of writing. In Robert Paul Wolff’s book, ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’, he references Edmund Wilson who likens Marx to the great ironist, Swift.

“Compare the logic of Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ for curing the misery of Ireland by inducing the starving people to eat their surplus babies with the argument in defence of crime which Marx urges on the bourgeois philosophers…: crime he suggests, is produced by the criminal just as ‘the philosophers produce ideas, the poet verses, the professor manuals,’ and practising it is useful to society because it takes care of the superfluous population at the same time that putting it down gives employment to many worthy citizens.”

Where Marx may have used satire in Capital, The Communist Manifesto is more of a Promethean tragedy; or as has been argued, Marx is more of a dialectical Promethean;

“the idea or practical conviction that what is made can be unmade, what is bound can be unbound by purposeful action. It is the sober acceptance that stealing fire from the gods will have serious consequences that will ultimately lead either to the emancipation, or the annihilation, of humanity.”

The Combination

Karl Marx had two great loves in his late teens, which he put into practice by joining two social clubs when at the University in Bonn; the first was the Tavern Club, which his father disapproved of because of the prevalence of drunken duels (it’s said that Marx did in fact engage in a duel); the second, was the Poets’ Club, of which his father did approve. Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’ I wonder what impact he would have had, if he became a poet.

But as we all know, he didn’t and some twelve years later, he wrote The Communist Manifesto. However, the mix of prescience, satire, and tragedy in theses writings seemed to me to be the perfect ingredients for a poetic response.

In January this year, I was introduced to the poetic form of coupling by Karen McCarthy Woolf. The form is a poetic response to a piece of text, where the poet divides up lines of prose and responds with lines that include rhyme, repetition and assonance. I took a paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. I decided to explore the form further; writing the Preface, then Part One, and so on, until three months later I had matched 12,000 words of Marx’s masterpiece with roughly the same amount of my poetic own.

Drawing on a wide range of references, I have tried to situate the Manifesto in a variety of contemporary cultural places, in particular to emphasise the dialectic nature of the text, in the form I am presenting. This is complemented by a series of images, again matching the bound with the unbound. As far as I am aware, this is only the second poetic response (after Brecht) to the Communist Manifesto.

Below is a sample of the book, where Marx is describing the rise of the bourgeoisie:

Extract from The Combination

(rise of the bourgeoisie)

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production
a set of pipes excavated from the intestines of serfs

was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed
because the human body parts were too emaciated

for the growing wants of the new markets
who were still yet to discover the delights of the flesh

The manufacturing system took its place.
robots of various stomach sizes, blustered and bulged their way ahead

The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class
something the middle class did very passively aggressive like

division of labour between the different corporate guilds
confraternity contracts between belligerents, some say

vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop
atomising systems turning the metal of men into powder

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising.
man-sized tissues no longer required, as it was nothing to be sneezed at

Even manufacture no longer sufficed
hands took to the machine not the article of craft

Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production
playthings of the mind, exponential change in fortunes, spin the wheel

The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry
all hail the shibboleths of mammon and their bloody tongues

the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires
poor souls in the middle playing catch and missing

the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois
come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Modern industry has established the world market
connecting cracked palms that never shake hands

for which the discovery of America paved the way
with their independent isolationist do-what-I-say

This market has given an immense development to commerce
so fly high my sweet nightingales of the east, you bulbul song birds

to navigation, to communication by land
enabling the troops of civilisation and Sodom to rape for progress

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry;
a cleaning up if you will of virulent middle-aged faces

and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended
like a pop-up book with a mind of its own

in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed
maturing like cancerous cheese on a wood-rot board

increased its capital, and pushed into the background
its nodules of self-aggrandisement, displacing

every class handed down from the Middle Ages
and so say some of us, and so say some of us, for

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie
the one percent to you and me

is itself the product of a long course of development
yes, yes, yes, we know what you meant

of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange
round and round we go, where will we stop – hold on, I know!

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied
by the ‘gertcha’ of Chas and Dave eulogising the end of days and

by a corresponding political advance of that class
who still dance on this parliamentary isle to Milton’s ‘light fantastick’

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility
as it was, as it is, as it was always meant to be

an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune
oh for those lazy, crazy anarchistic days, sat around a smoky haze

here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany)
where townsmen gave purchase to their rights with moneyed fists

there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France)
the 98% of us scrapping over a share of bronze medal

afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper
the threads of stratification began to untwine

serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy
the Naxalites of India can tell you a thing or two here

as a counterpoise against the nobility,
it always comes down to standing, back straight!

and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general
whose spines were now curving to the submittal

the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry
with all its rising fallacies and clocking on palaces

and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State
the porous borders of innovative disorder

exclusive political sway.
you turn if you want to, but the old lady of England, is not for turning

The executive of the modern state is but a committee
with their bingo numbers to hand & Saturday night covers band

for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
so not the main party to make us all free

About the author of this post

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com). He has written two books of poetry, his debut collection Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination, a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018), available here.

 

References:

Barker, Jason (2016) EPIC OR TRAGEDY? KARL MARX AND POETIC FORM IN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (sourced here)

Lanchester, John (2012) Marx at 193 (LRB podcast)

Nicolaievsky, Boris & Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1933) Karl Marx: man and fighter (Pelican Books)

Wolff, Robert Paul (1988) ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’ (University of Massachusetts Press)

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Remembering Ursula Le Guin: never forget her call to imagine alternatives to capitalism

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News of the death of Ursula Le Guin at the age of 88 has hit the literary world hard. The sharp-minded, large-spirited, incomparably brilliant Le Guin  brought literary depth and a tough-minded feminist sensibility to science fiction and fantasy, and for many stood as a triumphant champion of the written word – and books in general, as well as a powerful cultural figure fighting against the catastrophic ills of capitalism.

In addition to more than 20 novels, she was the author of a dozen books of poetry, more than 100 short stories (collected in multiple volumes), seven collections of essays, 13 books for children and five volumes of translation, as well as a writing guide for aspiring (and established) writers.

Her books and stories often challenged prevailing societal sensibilities, and at every turn she saw fiction and writing as a powerful tool to fight against the powers of corporate greed. Indeed, so many of Le Guin’s stories serve as timely reminders of the human capacity to keep dreaming of better worlds no matter how the grim the actual situation.

Indeed, as she was honoured for her contribution to literature at the 2014 National Book Awards, Le Guin used her platform took aim at publishers who placed profit before art – calling on writers to imagine new alternatives to capitalism.

At a time when it seems as though the power of corporate neoliberalism cannot be exposed as any more rigged and corrupt – and designed only to benefit a miniscule few at the expense of the entire human race (indeed; the pursuit of profit above all else has left the planet facing catastrophic climate breakdown) – it is a crying shame (to use that oft-over used phrase) that society has lost a figure in Le Guin who saw the world clearly for what it was and called on us to act.

As a small tribute to her continued calls for freedom and change, we’ve reprinted the transcript of her National Book Award speech below.

“To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”

Literature for change: vital reading for the left-wing optimist

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We live in difficult and uncertain times and the world around us seems increasingly full of fear and terror: it is easy to lose hold of hope and grow cynical and weary. But this is the sort of attitude that suits only those who would seek to exploit these feelings to push agendas that nobody wants.

The newly announced general election in the UK is a prime example here. Brexit is not the sole issue facing the country and a general election should not be used as a battleground on which to debate it; least of all because in the debating of it the government will be able to hide the fact it has no clue or plan or strategy. Yet unless we demand and fight for a more positive world and put other issues on the table; we will hear of nothing else over the coming weeks. There will be no talk about the fact that wages for the majority have stagnated or fallen every year the conservatives have been in power; there will be no talk about the fact that we are working longer and harder for no reward, as our physical and mental health and wellbeing deteriorates; there will be no talk of the rising levels of misogyny or hate crime; of the crises in our public services created by privatisation; or of the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our world.

We have the power to change this; to stand up to the politics of hatred and division. Optimism is a strategy for building a better world – if you believe human beings have an instinct for truth and justice and equality; and you believe there are opportunities to change things so we build our society around these pillars – rather than those of fear – then there’s a chance you can contribute to making a better world. “Don’t mourn – organise!”

To help you do just this, we’ve picked out some of our favourite left-wing books. We’ve tried to avoid the obvious tomes of Marx, Lenin and Kropotkin – and instead gone for alternative inspirational, informative, interesting and accessible texts. Check them out!

1. Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay, by John Lanchester

We have been living with the fallout from the 2008 banking crisis, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Fortunately, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, as – without any irony – the publishing industry reacted to the near total failure of modern capitalism by successfully pushing out to the market books that tried to explain the crisis and the myriad political consequences of it. Few of these books, however, are as pleasurable to read as John Lanchester’s “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.”

The snidest villains and the greediest buffoons in the narrative are the bankers and other financial wizards who began recklessly playing with new, risky, little-understood tools to get richer faster — tools that ostensibly hedge against risk but also dramatically increase it. If you don’t know how derivatives or credit default swaps work, or what securitization is, or why futures are riskier than options, this is a book for you

2. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

A painfully well-researched, addictive romp through Friedmanite economic terrorism by one of the best journalists working in English. Read this book and you’ll understand how and why world governments are capitalising on the economic crisis to impose austerity on ordinary people.

3. Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? By Mark Fisher

The late, great, Mark Fisher identified the paradox of modern capitalism: that the more it fails, the deeper it becomes entrenched. The more people rail against it, the more powerful it appears to become. Yet while Fisher does not identify a single tool or solution to help us achieve the radical social change necessary to displace capitalism, he does however, hint at what any theoretical tool or idea must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

4. The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

A powerful explanation of the nature of violent uprising and the psychology of oppression.  Almost every page contains quotes that one wants on a poster or revolutionary t-shirt (after all, in the words of Billy Bragg “the revolution is just a t-shirt away”).

5. Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s tome is an inspiration for three centuries of subsequent human rights thinking. She identifies natural rights as being just that – rights; and not to be denied to any group in society by another.

6. The intelligent woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, sovietism and fascism, by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s 1928 work is a brilliant debunking of the myriad excuses for inequality. He argues that women of all classes must free themselves from economic dependence on men, and points to traditional family structures and familial roles as being at the heart of patriarchy. Capitalism is the villain of the piece (as well it should be), as Shaw argues for a humanity driven by forces of love and compassion, rather than self-interest. Intriguingly, he also posits that men will never be truly free or able to reach their full potential until women are free and released from bondage.

7. Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood

An evocative portrayal of life in depression-era Britain, the fact that Greenwood’s Love on the Dole remains in print stands as a testament to a lost industrial culture, and also as a story that speaks its essential truths loudly whenever times get hard.

“I have tried to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole,” Greenwood reflected, “the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth.” As austerity policies continue to deprive millions of men, women and children in the UK and elsewhere of essential decent living standards  and newspaper columns bulge with warnings of yet another generation laid waste by unemployment, it’s a mission statement that we would do well to take up.

8. The Cultural Roots of British Devolution, by Michael Gardiner

For citizens of the UK and Europe, the very real possibility of a break up of the United Kingdom demands proper study and research. Scottish devolution and independence takes precedence in Gardiner’s tour de force of a book; yet within it we can also pick out the same recurrent features of “British” culture and politics that have created the climate for Brexit and the push for greater powers for Wales and Northern Ireland.  Gardiner makes, for instance, concrete and extraordinary connections between, for example, English rave and a new unBritish, pro-democratic Englishness. Its scope makes it sightly wandery at times; but this is part of its appeal: unlike anything else in the subject you’ve read.

9. The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

One of the first books to give a voice to marginalised and ‘otherised’ groups in post-war British society, this is not only a novel about race and survival; it is also a novel about the city. Selvon’s descriptions of post-war London are so powerful and evocative that one fancies oneself alive and present on these same streets. He brings to life the grubby, working-class backstreets of the Harrow Road and Notting Hill, and the seemingly unbreachable divide between them and the rich neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Hampstead. He shows how London is not one city, but a compendium of many little cities: there is no such thing as one London or, indeed, one Britain.

The message of The Lonely Londoners, then, is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common – our humanity. As the novel says: “Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.

10. The Coming Insurrection, by The Tarnac 9/The Invisible Committee

This short book, written in 2005 by an anonymous French collective known only as The Tarnac 9 (also sometimes known as the Invisible Committee) has become a core text for radicals and revolutionaries across Europe and the Middle East. The slender text is part antimaterialist manifesto and part manual for revolution. The writers expound at length on what they see as a diseased and dehumanizing civilization that cannot be reformed but must, they contend, be torn apart and replaced. To that end the authors direct their readers to sabotage authority, form self-sufficient communes and learn how to “support a conspiracy against commodity society.”

 

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list and we’d ask anyone and everyone reading to respond in the comments with their own essential articles, books and texts for organising and mobilising as a progressive force against the disastrous forces of capitalism.

Now, here’s a video of Charlie Chaplain. Because reasons.

 

Poetry as protest

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We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery.

The cries against this state of affairs are often silenced or minimised precisely because there is a lack of available tools to articulate an effective challenge. Beyond the obvious decline of trade unions and collective action, there is also a lack of control over language itself; we are unable to change the terms of argument because we are not in control of the narrative or discourse in which we find ourselves.

The reason for this is two-fold.

Firstly, the mainstream media is controlled by elite corporate power – 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the USA, and just 3 corporations control 70% of the media in the UK. The media therefore has none of the independence or freedom that is supposed to make it a tool of the people to challenge power. Noam Chomsky explains this problem pretty succinctly:

“The media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”

Secondly, the rise of social media – which was trumpeted by many as a means of empowering the people and removing the power of corporatized media – has not delivered an age of enlightened thought. In fact, the opposite has occurred; with a rise of misinformation, and the creation of siloed communities of likeminds who more often than not confirm, rather than challenge, existing biases held by individuals. Rather than open people’s minds to new ways of thinking, social media reduces our willingness to be open minded and reinforces our entrenched opinions. Recent studies have shown that documentary maker, Adam Curtis, was perhaps right when he claimed the internet and social media were doing the opposite of what they were created to do:

 “[They] facilitate communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each other’s assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits.”

If the problem lies within articulation of thought, therefore, the solution must be one which enables effective expression of ideas just as effectively as the political language of our current demagogues currently delivers a succession of political victories for neo-fascists like Donald Trump and the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party that currently finds itself leading the UK with an unelected Prime Minister.

And so this leads us to poetry – which perhaps may be surprising, given we live in a time when poetry is so often dismissed as being irrelevant.

Yet while poetry may now be found on the margins of public discourse, it is no less important. This is because poetry, like political language, is rarely spoken without intention. Furthermore, poetry has advantages and intrinsic attributes that political language and rhetoric lacks: including – but not limited to – a drive towards articulating a truth that is universal. Consider the words of the brilliant activist and poet Audre Lorde:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Rather than seek to confuse the listener and disguise meaning in order to achieve malicious objectives, in the way politicians so frequently use ‘triangulation’ and jargon to cover their true intentions; poetry by contrast seeks to make clear that which was uncertain or hidden.

Unlike political speech, poetry cannot afford to misuse language. Should a poet do otherwise, they sacrifice the very reason for a poem’s existence. Because above all else the language used in a poem must be precise and accurate. Every word must be chosen with the utmost care. Every word must count towards an ultimate goal – which is the delivery of meaning to the reader or listener of the poem. Above all, this goal must be towards truth – as Wilfred Owen wrote: “true poets, must be truthful”.

The poet must therefore labour over exact, precise articulation – since the poet understands that every word used creates a world, creates a meaning (to follow Derrida and Lacan), and that each word added or removed alters this meaning, and alters the world.

This touches upon what makes poetry so powerful as a tool of protest – as a weapon we can use to challenge the malicious powers that have risen to prominence in this age. Because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.

Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

Of course, the idea of poetry as protest is not new. In 1819, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

More recently, the swinging sixties and the Vietnam war also saw protest poetry emerge and blossom. See, for instance, Adrian Mitchell’s Tell me lies about Vietnam (available for free via The Guardian), a few lines of which are printed below:

“Every time I shut my eyes, all I see is flames
I made a marble phone-book, and I carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam”

Then you have the searing, satirical masterpiece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, featuring lines that simultaneously call for change while comically critiquing the current state of affairs:

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

Scott-Heron’s lines work on the page; but they are also made more powerful by his own incantatory delivery of them. His voice electrifies the poem and gives it new meaning, and – for some – makes the possibility of revolution and protest more real.

Yet the performative element of spoken word poetry perhaps is also one of the charges sometimes levied against it. Scott-Heron’s poem even serves as an example here: precisely because his call for the revolution not to be televised will for most people be watched on television screens (or, in this age, on computer screens). There is a touch of cynicism to Scott-Heron’s poem, too – an acknowledgement that his poetry lives in a world in which a protest against mainstream media is the exact sort of thing that will be broadcast across mainstream media.

This, of course, is a paradox of modern capitalism, touched upon by the late, great political theorist and writer Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, who uses the example of Kurt Cobain to illustrate the point:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to have give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.”

Fisher’s outlook on our future hinges on our ability to effect radical social change. Yet he is pessimistic mainly because he does not identify a clear tool or solution to help us achieve this. He does, however, hint at what any theoretical tool must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

The final sentence is crucial, here – because it highlights the way forward. In order to overcome the capitalist system that has produced the age of Donald Trump and ‘alt-facts’, it must be shown to be unreal – it must be shown to be false.

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Will writers lead the next revolution against the world of alt-facts? Photo credit: Ed Lederman/PEN America

Once again, poetry appears as a real solution – for it is perhaps only poetry that has the ability to reveal this reality effectively. To return once more to Lorde, by revealing those in power for what they really are, poetry can become more than protest – it can incite the radical change needed for revolution:

“I want my poems–I want all of my work–to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can’t separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I’m paraphrasing her–that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That’s what I want to do with all of my writing.”

Regardless of whether the revolution is televised or not, if it is poetically led, it will become irresistible; and if it becomes irresistible, then perhaps it will also become inevitable.

So, where is this poet-warrior-led revolution going to start? And where are the poems to inspire it? Well, we’ve launched our Haikus for the NHS’ poetry project to – hopefully – ignite the initial revolutionary flames. Why not let the spirit of poetry as protest burn in your inkwells and get involved ahead of the national demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service on 4 March?

On the commercialisation of literature

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Why do we write? Litterateurs throughout history have often taken time to reflect on this question. Yet with the advent of neoliberalism and the proliferation of commercialisation that has taken place within most capitalist countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, it often seems as though the only purpose of fiction, of publishing, of writing itself – is to make money and sell books.

Indeed, it often seems as though we have ignored Stephen King’s protestations that “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

Instead, our culture seems at times obsessed with bestselling novels, not because they are necessarily the best novels, or even particularly well written; but because they are best selling novels. And when the only metrics of worth we use to discern what has value and merit and what doesn’t is by casting an eye over how much something sells, it surely seems as though we are in danger of missing out on what is really, actually important.

Independent writers and authors have often attacked and railed against this commercialization of writing. In 2005, for instance, the Society of Authors raised concerns over the music retailer HMV’s takeover of Ottakar’s bookstore. And, as pointed out in this article from Litro Magazine, when all that matters about a book is whether or not it sells copies, the inevitable result is a contraction of ‘newness’; as publishing houses simply print copies of books that are copies of commercially successful novels (which themselves are copies of other best selling books).

And it doesn’t just affect the quality of the writing we read. Increasingly, capitalist power structures drive the commodification of literature, and literary icons. We now see t-shirts imprinted with the face of Jack Kerouac or quotes from Jane Austen novels. We hang posters instructing us to “keep calm and read on”. We dry our dishes with Charles Dickens-themed dish cloths. In this world, what does it say about our society when we choose to reduce these people and pieces of culture to mass-produced commodities?

Railing against such developments in literature may not seem particularly new. Indeed, fears over the direction we are heading, culturally, have been raised for decades (though these warnings have rarely been heeded).

Think of the words of one of the true literary masters, Jorge Luis Borges. In a 1970s discussion with Argentinian writer Fernando Sorrentino, Borges considers how the commodification of literature threatens to warp its metrics for success:

“It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.”

 

Borges – as he so often was – here sounds remarkably prescient. And as we continue to live with the impact such commercialisation and commodification of literature has had on our literary culture, it seems more than unfortunate we were not able to pay much attention to the author’s warnings.

But this is not to say we can do no more on the subject. Indeed, quite the opposite. By recognising what is and is not important in literature and writing, we – as both readers and writers – can discern for ourselves just exactly what constitutes literary success. As Neil Gaiman wrote: “read the books you love, tell people about authors you like, and don’t  worry about [which books are best sellers].”

One letter from Charles Bukowski will make you want to quit your job and become a writer

charlesbukowski

“The kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it?” asked literary legend Willa Cather when pondering the trade aspiring creatives must so often make between pursuing their creative passions and working to pay the bills. It is a question that deserves attention, particularly so at a time when working hours are increasing and worker’s rights diminishing.

It’s also one we perhaps don’t ask ourselves enough: for at its heart is a difficult subject to face – the matter of whether we are a) brave enough to quit our soul sucking day jobs to do what we really want, and b) actually destined to be writers and artists.

Indeed, we must recognise the sentiment of acclaimed poet Charles Bukowski famous poem, So, you want to be a writer (Don’t do it) – “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you, in spite of everything, don’t do it”. And we must question whether or not we really possess within ourselves the burning desire to write, to create art, and whether we actually find some solace in the excuse our jobs give us not to act on our creative impulses. As though there were some fear that, should we in fact have the freedom to do so, we would end up just sitting around all day watching TV and eating toast in our pants.

accountant

‘Accountant’ by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. How in the hell can a man enjoy being awakened at 8.30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you make a lot of money for somebody else and asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so? 

Bukowski, of course, understood better than most the crippling effects of capitalist working structures. He is, after all, the man who asked: “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

It is the sort of question that can only ever be asked by someone who has lost years of his life to the mundanity, and creativity-stifling world of modern work. And before he became a full-time writer, Bukowski took a string of blue collar jobs, working as a fill-in mail man for the US Postal Service from his 30s right on into his 40s.

Like many creatives today, Bukowski also found himself stifled by working for the man. In 1969, the year before his 50th birthday, he was still working as a mail man, and pulling some gigs here and there on some small underground magazines. And it was from this position Bukowski found himself faced with the challenge we set out at the start of this article: to essentially “put up or shut up” – and quit his stifling job for the risky life of poet and writer.

Bukowski had caught the attention of Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, who offered the poet $100 a month to quit his job and dedicate himself solely to writing. While many creatives might dither here, adding up the costs of bills and thinking perhaps even of pensions; Bukowski was in no doubt about his decision. He took the chance gladly, and just two years later, Black Sparrow Press published his first novel, titled – appropriately – Post Office.

It was an opportunity Bukowski did not forget – although it did take him time to remember to thank his early champion; writing to Martin some 17 years later to express his gratitude. Belated the letter of thanks may be; but it nonetheless remains beautiful, and incredibly poignant today. The missive emanates Bukowski’s characteristic cynicism, but also his deep sensitivity, and a touch of self-conscious earnestness.

The letter is here below, in full;

“August 12, 1986

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’sovertime and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Hank”

 

If Bukowski’s letter doesn’t convince you that it’s perhaps finally time to quit your soul sucking job and start working on that novel you’ve been working on; then perhaps try Neil Gaiman’s deceptively simple-sounding rules for writers. Consider, also, the way other aspects of our modern world may be affecting our creative urges – and how things like technology may be dampening our creativity.

And, of course, always remember that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are here to help. So sign up for our free, regular newsletter of everything interesting!

The best literary stocking fillers

stocking

The average British family is set to spend over £800 this Christmas. It’s possible that quite a lot of that will be splurged on some of the wide range of Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise currently piled high in every shop window – from your Lightsaber BBQ tongs to your BB-8 oranges.

Star Wars images

While we’ve been puzzling over just what it is exactly about oranges that makes them suitable Star Wars-themed, we’ve come to the conclusion that some of the best purchases you can make this Christmas may be on items that have a far longer shelf-life and far greater usability than Star Wars fruit and utensils. Although of course that Star Wars Darth Vader toaster is a must-buy for all your estranged aunts, uncles, first and second cousins.

We’re of course talking about books. Not only can they be read again and again, and invite us to explore new worlds and entire new universes, they also help us think differently about the world – and they teach us about wonderful new ideas. They’re also good for us, too. Perhaps even better than the vitamin C you’ll get from those Star Wars oranges. As this paper in the journal Science points out, reading literary works cultivates a skill known as “theory of mind”, which is described as the “ability to ‘read’ the thoughts and feelings of others.” So books make us nicer, basically. If there is anything more appropriate at Christmas, then, we certainly haven’t come across it.

So which books should you buy for those special people in your life who aren’t getting that Vader toaster? Well, surely size comes into it – because they have to fit into stockings of all shapes and sizes.

To help you narrow your options down, take a look at some of our suggestions, below:

  1. Penguin Little Black Classics

Penguins-Little-Black-Cla-009

80 little books to choose from – one for each year in the life of Penguin Books and each around 60 pages long – give you a wealth of options to choose from. These extracts of wider classical literary works are sure to offer choices to meet all literary tastes. Authors include Karl Marx, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Plato, Caligula, Keats, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens. What’s not to love?

  1. The Absent Therapist, by Will Eaves

 

absent therapist

Technically described as a novel, this delightful little book will fit any stocking – but would also be a great find under the Christmas tree. A collection of mini-narratives, each with a precise tone and occasional touches of poetry, feature stories of artificial intelligence and musings on philosophy, of travel and adventure, and of course, family feuds – without which it simply wouldn’t be Christmas.

  1. On Inequality, by Harry Frankfurt

On inequality

Certainly one for the more miserly Christmas gift receiver, who will undoubtedly point out that the credit-fuelled Christmas expenditure is forced upon the poorest in society by those marketing and corporate execs who bombard us with advertisements designed only to make us consume endlessly on a finite planet. But this fascinating book by New York Times bestselling author Harry Frankfurt addresses one of the most divisive and important issues of our time – inequality.

  1. A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice

Guinea Pig

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Few people realise that this same truth applies to Guinea Pigs. This brand new abridgement to the classis Jane Austen novel helps set the record straight in this regard.

  1. A satirical spoof of the classic ‘Peter and Jane’ series

Penguins new Ladybird books

Penguin’s new series of spoof Ladybird book titles, modelled on the Peter and Jane learning reading books from the 1960s and 70s have been selling out in their hundreds of thousands as potential stocking fillers. They feature “The Ladybird Book of Sheds” and “The Ladybird Book of the Hipster”. Yet they have been inspired by books they initially threatened legal action over – the wonderfully satirical ‘We Go to the Gallery’ by Miriam Elia. Instead of going for the spoof of the spoof, why not get your loved ones the real thing?

  1. The Jeremy Corbyn Colouring Book, by James Nunn

Jeremy Corbyn colouring book

A fantastic twist that has accompanied the explosion in popularity of adult colouring books, as well as in left-wing literature, James Nunn’s Corbyn-themed colouring book is a wonderfully interactive gift for people on all wings of the political spectrum. Not only topical – Corbyn is, after all, a massive part of our cultural consciousness at the moment – the book also shines a light on a man whose message of kindness, respect, love and honesty surely fits perfectly with the true meaning of Christmas.

  1. Where’s the Wookie?

Where's the wookie

If you really can’t avoid getting in on all the Star Wars hype, we can’t think of many better stocking filler options than this suitably fitting take on the classic ‘Where’s Wally’ book series. You might think that an eight-foot tall walking carpet is not going to be difficult to spot, but you’d be surprised. This book will have you scanning some 40 pages depicting elaborately detailed scenes from the Star Wars universe in search for Chewbacca. Sure to distract people of all ages from trying to work out where that Vader toaster is.

Is the commercial media machine killing creative culture?

John Steinbeck

As prophetic dreams go, few are as discomfiting – due to their close proximity to reality – as one nocturnal epiphany John Steinbeck conjured up in the mid 1950s.

A rare writer of uncommon integrity, with a deep resistance to commercialism and a supreme faith in the human spirit, Steinbeck felt the need to pen a short letter to his literary agent and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Otis, after one specific dream caught him off guard. Indeed, the missive speaks volumes about what is perhaps the most significant threat to creative culture today.

In late July, 1956 – some 50 years before Buzzfeed – Steinbeck writes:

“Do you ever dream of getting letters? I used to a lot but haven’t lately until last night when I had one very clear and sharp. I can even see the stationery. It was from Otis Wiess and it said, “We would like very much to print your book The Short Reign of Peppin IV and think we can do it in two large installments. There are, however, certain changes we would like you to make in order that our readers will be more interested. The pace must be considerably speeded up and many of the historical and literary allusions must be removed since they will only confuse our readers. We should also want you to add three new characters and several episodes which are too long to put in a letter. I should like to meet with you to tell you of the changes we will require. Will you please let me know when this will be convenient?”

It was all perfectly clear. When the clock went off this morning I was busy typing an answer and had got as far as “Dear Otis: I have your letter and am deeply pleased with your interest in my book. I would like to suggest to you that rather than put in new characters and episodes, that you get new readers—” And I woke up thinking this was funny as hell and just laughing at my own cleverness. Isn’t that an odd and perhaps prophetic dream?”

Prophetic indeed. After all, we are in constant dynamic interaction with this thing we call culture – which is shaped by our values and, in turn shapes what we come to value. The question of balance between catering and creating is one that is asked by countless aspiring creatives: whether it is the responsibility of those involved in cultural enterprise to cater to what the people already crave, or else to create new, more elevated tastes by insisting on the substantive over the vacant?

It is pretty clear where much of the corporate media (i.e. culture and art for profit at all costs) stand on the issue. How else to explain the constant stream of novels that are copies of other successful novels, and the sequels and prequels of movies, and the exhibitioning of photography and art that is simply clones of previously successful pieces of art or photographs?

There is undoubtedly a necessary dialogue between catering and creating; yet it is difficult not to side with E.B. White, who famously asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” and that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yet irrespective of White’s idealism, we find ourselves immersed in a culture that purveys endless memes of cats because – we are told – that is what we want. We don’t want new films. New stories. New art. New ideas. We want cats getting stuck on treadmills. We want cats looking grumpy. Sometimes we want dogs chasing deer but that is about as far as originality is allowed to stray.

This is part of an overarching narrative that is suffused with a rather insidious implication that cat GIFs – and the occasional inspirational (though usually misattributed) quote superimposed on some stock image of a sunset – are all that we as a people are capable or worthy of wanting or understanding. Increasingly, our agents of culture are abdicating their responsibility to create more elevated tastes and capitulating to catering.

What is to be done? As aspiring creatives, the challenge is and may always remain: do something different. Create something new. It may be difficult. There may be less money in it. But it is possible. It has to be. In the words of Captain Picard, you just have to “make it so”.

 

All the laurels in the world, and you give me these?

I woke up this morning
thinking I’d won the
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

This is where love and capitalism
has got me, having me on that
I can win a horse race in Paris,

when it’s obvious that
I’m only any good over
the jumps at Wolverhampton.

About the poet

Rishi Dastidar has worked as a journalist, copywriter and poet. He has written for a wide variety of brands in different sectors during his career, while his poetry has been published by the Financial Times, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre amongst many others. His work was most recently in Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). A winner of And Other Stories short story prize in 2012, he has also had reviews published in the Times Literary Supplement. He was part of the 2014-15 Rialto / Poetry School editorial development programme, and also serves as a trustee of Spread The Word.

See how it feels

commute-2

He wanted to kill someone. Not anyone in particular, or for any particular reason – he just wanted to see what it felt like.

He didn’t want to get caught, though. He’d be careful.

He bought a high-powered collapsible rifle with a silencer from a bloke’s mate’s friend of a pal, and found an old abandoned building in Bethnal Green that was right next to the railway line to Liverpool Street.

He went in, suited and booted at 7.00am. He found an old fridge to sit on, opened the briefcase and constructed the gun.

Sitting in the darkness (away from the window, of course), no-one knew he was there, and once people did they wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway – no-one would know exactly where they were, and by the time they’d called the police he would be gone.

Then he simply waited for one of the frequent trains to stop outside, as it waited for a platform at the next station to clear.

He just wanted to see what it felt like.

Eventually a train arrived. Commuter traffic into which he’d blend perfectly; all suits and power – he nearly tried to justify it in his mind as a statement against capitalism. Some protest.

There was a man facing towards him, reading a book – he’d do.

He peered through the scope, adjusting it as he did so. Between the eyes was industry standard, he’d been told.

The cross hairs on the bridge of the nose, and the man looked up – looked straight at him. Blue eyes.

SPINCH.

The man’s head was gone, and screaming erupted from the carriage.

He sat down, collapsed the gun into the briefcase, took the stairs three at a time, and then out onto the alley where the screaming was ripping apart the sky.  Under the bridge and away – turn left onto the street, and off towards the station. A few of the male commuters had managed to get free. They ran towards and past him, not even a second glance.

So, how did it feel, he considered.

Not much cop. Bit of a disappointment, really.

About the author of this post

The Goatman – due to the usual experiments going wrong &c &c, The Goatman is  an internationally-available gentleman of letters, raconteur and wit. His amorous conquests are myriad, his taste in whisky of renown, and his ability to look comfortable in extreme situations is of significant scientific study. He has been known to conspire with Vagabond Images.