Anxiety: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, June 2022

I’ve always been anxious. Fidgety, agitated, hyper; I was so talkative and disruptive during my early elementary school years my teachers isolated me to my own desk in the back of the class. I still rocked myself to sleep during my adolescence while listening to 50s pop music on AM radio, then early 60s rocknroll on the FM dial; a habit I had to break anticipating dorm life at  UCSC’s Merrill College. My politics turned left anarchist my senior year in high school, and stayed left of the Left ever since. I’ve always gravitated to the action faction of any organization or movement I belonged to, ultimately adopting the 2 June Movement’s mantra: “Words cannot save us! Words don’t break chains! The deed alone makes us free! Destroy what destroys you!”

“Action for action’s sake” became a political panacea, it’s own anodyne, a knee-jerk reflex that superseded critical thinking. It was an easy way for me not to challenge my ultra-gauche political analysis and avoid self-criticism. When in doubt, act. Somewhere in this political process I started self-medicating—first with marijuana, then alcohol—trying but never succeeding in slowing down, blunting that relentless “on edge” sense to my life. I was, and am still dealing with emotional pain, though I’m not quite sure the cause of it. Both my Polish parents survived forced labor camps during the second World War and my father was a falling down alcoholic. There’s a basis in family trauma for my interminable anxieties. Continue reading

Party of one: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2022

Four independent workers’ soviets operated concurrently in Moscow during the Russian 1905 Revolution. Proud Soviet historians were always quick to point out that the one aligned with the Bolsheviks operated a bomb-making operation out of Maxim Gorky’s apartment. Meanwhile, the more famous 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet, precursor to the 1917 Petrograd soviet, had puzzling gaps in its official Soviet history until the anarchist historian Voline published The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 in 1947. In it he revealed that the soviet met in his St. Petersburg apartment.

Aside from the usual disputes over primary and secondary evidence or what constitutes historical fact, and before any arguments over what a particular history signifies, there are always the missing parts of history. What I mean is the things that happened and affected the course of history but that never got recorded in the historical record and thus were subsequently forgotten. The 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet met in Voline’s apartment and contributed to the development of soviet power whether or not that fact was entered into the historical record prior to 1947. So yes, if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound. Continue reading

Trump’s workers’ party debunked: “What’s Left?” January 2021

It pisses me off.

In 2015 Breitbart ran a story by Lisa De Pasquale entitled “Political Punks” that détourned the famous 1976 Ramones record cover by superimposing the heads of rightwingers Greg Gutfeld, Clint Eastwood, Ann Coulter and Gavin McInnes over the four original band members.

Blasphemy! Continue reading

Rob Miller, Tau Cross and the spiritualism of fools: “What’s Left?” August 2019 (MRR #435)

Music in the 60s tended to be godawful serious. The folk protest music was self-righteous and the rock and roll was full of itself. I’ve had a decent sense of humor about most things, including music, and thanks to my rather broadminded parents I was introduced early to Spike Jones and Tom Lehrer. When I transitioned to all that hippie music I appreciated the satire of Phil Ochs and The Smothers Brothers and the sarcasm of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and of course Captain Beefheart. And I enjoyed the music of various outliers, the surreal humor of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (“Yeah! Digging General de Gaulle on accordion./Rather wild, General!/Thank you, sir.”) and the playful Americana of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. When I heard that vocalist and guitarist Jim Kweskin had joined the Lyman Family, the LSD cult of banjo and harmonica player Mel Lyman, I was taken aback.

I mean, the 60s counterculture was full of cults centered around charismatic asshole men, from Charles Manson’s Family to the Process Church, Steve Gaskin’s The Farm, and David Berg’s Children of God. The New Left was little better, spawning the likes of Lyndon LaRouche, Donald DeFreeze’s Symbionese Liberation Army, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, and Marlene Dixon’s Democratic Workers Party, one of the rare political cults lead by a woman. And let’s mention Synanon, the Élan School and Scientology simply in passing. For all the talk about spiritual or political liberation back in the day, the first kneejerk response by people seeking their own liberation was often to join an authoritarian mind-control cult. So no, I wasn’t really surprised that Kweskin was part of the Fort Hill Community in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Mel Lyman had been called the East Coast Charles Manson by Rolling Stone in 1971. I was seriously disappointed however, and I just couldn’t listen to his music anymore.

So I get it. Continue reading

Monthly column rules

As you might have heard, Maximum Rocknroll will stop publishing the print edition of the magazine as of May 2019. MRR itself will continue in digital form, although it may take awhile to get everything planned, sorted, scheduled and posted online going forward. My monthly column “‘What’s Left?’ by ‘Lefty’ Hooligan” will also continue online, providing analysis and commentary on the news and politics, abiding by two rules:

#1 DEADLINES: Columns will be published on the first of every month.
#2 WORD COUNT: Columns will be no longer than 1,500 words each.

Tim Yohannan. ¡Presente!: “What’s Left?” May 2019, MRR #432

[E]verything that was in opposition was good…
Michael Baumann, How It All Began, 1975

No one who likes swing can become a Nazi.
Arvid (Frank Whaley), Swing Kids, 1993

It was Movie Night at Maximum Rocknroll at the old Clipper Street headquarters circa 1994. The featured movie was Thomas Carter’s 1993 film Swing Kids. It was Tim and me and maybe one other person. I think Tim actually made Jiffy Pop popcorn and I had my ubiquitous six pack. The plot was simple; as the Nazi Party rises to power in pre-WWII Germany a tight countercultural scene of young kids grow their hair long, wear British fashion and use Harlem slang as they listen to banned American swing music, hold underground dances and street fight the Hitler Youth. Two rebellious young men take different paths—one into the Hitler Youth, the other into the Swing Kids and eventually jail.

The parallels to the mid-1990s were clear, with the rise of the Right politically and the explosion of punk’s second hardcore wave in the streets. After the closing credits rolled and Tim popped out the VHS tape he made the connections explicit. “Punk is like swing was in Nazi Germany. It’s the core of a revolutionary youth culture with rebellious kids resisting fascism in the streets.”

Tim loved punk, no doubt about it, but he was also on a mission. He not only wanted to cover the scene and its music, he wanted to push the politics of punk to the fore. And that link between punk music, the scene, its politics, and the fight against the Right is crucial to understanding both Tim Yo and his project, MRR. Tim considered MRR a lynchpin between punk music and the punk scene on the one hand and the Left’s fight against reactionary politics on the other hand.

Continue reading

Crossing the line: “What’s Left?” March 2019, MRR #430

[The Motherfuckers are] a street gang with analysis.
—Osha Neumann

Fuck shit up!
—hardcore punk catchphrase

Conservatives are the new punk.
—alt-right-lite catchphrase

When I read Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s political memoir Wie Alles Anfing/How It All Began in 1979, about his experiences as a West German urban guerrilla, I took to heart his slogan: “Words cannot save us! Words don’t break chains! The deed alone makes us free! Destroy what destroys you!” The feeling behind his words resonated with the aggressive, direct action-oriented anarchism I’d developed since 1968, but by the late ‘80s I’d abbreviated those sentiments into the phrase “fuck shit up.” Fuck shit up was a hardcore punk war cry. Bands from Useless Pieces of Shit to Blatz wrote songs with the saying in the title and the lyrics. There’s no more punk an expression than “fuck shit up,” which is abbreviated FSU in graffiti. Continue reading

Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410

“Welcome to our humble abode,” Jake greeted us at the front door with a bow, doffing his dented black top hat with a flourish.

I was with a gaggle of fellow peaceniks from the Action Committee for Peace and Justice in Ventura. We were visiting Jake and Connie’s home, a rented two-bedroom bungalow in Ojai. It was a balmy summer night in 1970.

I turned 18 in a month and was required to register for the draft, having graduated from high school. As a peace activist in good standing, an anarchist pacifist with plans to pursue a Conscientious Objector deferment, I was freaked out. I’d also just started smoking marijuana or, more precisely, I’d just started feeling the effects after having inhaled for several weeks before. I wanted some smoke to calm my nerves.

“Hey Jake,” I said to the tall, skinny UCSB student wearing a tie-dyed vest. “Do you know where I can score some grass?”

“Connie can give you a referral,” he laughed, then tossed a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s somewhere back there.”

The party was wall-to-wall, with people also crowded into the rambling backyard. Sixties rock music blared, at the moment “Buffalo Springfield.” Most in attendance wore some sort of head gear, as hats were one of the party’s themes. Long hair and marijuana smoke abounded, as did tobacco smoke and denim apparel. I was tempted to ask any of the individuals passing around joints to pass one my way, but I was shy. Besides, I was interested in quantity, an ounce at least, and I didn’t want to get fucked up before negotiating the purchase. I found Connie, a zaftig woman who also attended UCSB, in the tiny kitchen pouring shots of tequila and arranging them on a serving tray. She wore a colorful Spanish peasant dress and an incongruous brown fedora. I declined when she offered me a shot, as I hadn’t yet started drinking alcohol.

“Anybody you know selling any grass?” I asked.

“Nigel’s got weed, acid, mescaline, coke, crosses, reds, anything you want.” She smiled and downed some tequila. “He’s around somewhere. Black bowler hat.”

Just then, a pair of scruffy males in their thirties I knew all too well from various anti-war meetings barged into the kitchen, arguing and exchanging insults. One wore a teal Mao cap with a Peoples Liberation Army star, the other a dark gray Bolshevik cap a la Lenin with a Red Army star. As they upped the volume of their row, Connie rolled her eyes at me, and hastily exited the kitchen carrying the tray of tequila glasses.

“You’re a fucking moron, Roger,” the Bolshie cap bellowed. “The NLF is the legitimate armed guerrilla force of the Vietnamese people in the south. I’m no fan of people waving the VietCong flag at demonstrations, but that’s the proper flag for Vietnam’s revolution.”

“That’s a nationalist rag, not a righteous working class banner, numbnuts,” the Mao cap retorted in kind. “I’m surprised, truly shocked in fact Bill, that you can renege on your professed proletarian internationalist principles so easily and surrender to bourgeois nationalism.”

Roger followed the Progressive Labor Party line on Vietnam, and Bill the Socialist Workers Party line. They had been good friends in 1965 when they’d both been affiliated with the US-Soviet Friendship Committee. Roger had been married to Susan, a social democrat, and Susan had an affair with Bill before coming out as lesbian. A fistfight followed, and acrimony persisted. Roger drifted into Maoism, Bill into Trotskyism. They were now bitter enemies, always attacking each other at meetings, denouncing each other to acquaintances, each fantasizing how to get even with the other. As I eased out the kitchen door before the shouting match came to blows, I realized I was learning a valuable political lesson:

THE PERSONAL IS ALWAYS POLITICAL

The first outstanding example of personal enmity becoming political antagonism, indeed the archetype for this aphorism, was Trotsky versus Stalin. Both members of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, they had an abiding personal dislike for each other, apparently due to personality differences. Trotsky considered Stalin lugubrious, provincial, crude, and plodding, while Stalin thought Trotsky arrogant, Westernized, bohemian, and elitist. With the death of Lenin, a power struggle erupted between the two within the party which took on ideological overtones. Trotsky opposed the bureaucratization of the Soviet state, promoted permanent revolution, and insisted on the rapid, forced industrialization of the country while Stalin was a master of bureaucratic manipulation, defended socialism in one country, and stood behind Lenin’s mixed economic NEP program. Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky for control of the party, expelled him from Russia, and eventually had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.

On rarer occasions, honest political differences breed personal hostilities. We come to profound political conflicts often assuming that our opponents are detestable human beings when they’re not much different from ourselves.

I threaded through the boisterous crowd in the combined dining and living rooms as Pete Seeger boomed over the stereo system. No bowler hat in sight, but I did notice a couple of sexagenarians I knew sharing beers on a couch nearby. Frank, an Industrial Workers of the World member from the 1920s, wore a blue striped railroad engineer’s cap, and Farley, in the Socialist Labor Party since the 1930s, had on a modest tan cowboy hat. I heard snippets of their conversation—the Palmer Raids, the split between the IWW and the WIIU, the death of Haywood and De Leon—but I didn’t stop to chat. Both organizations had been moribund by 1960, but were experiencing a revitalization thanks to the 60s youthful counterculture/New Left. I even had a little red IWW membership book at the time, more out of nostalgia then anything else. The IWW continued to experience membership and organizing ups and downs, whereas for the SLP the spike in activity was only temporary before it finally became a shell of its former self, bringing me to my second political metaphor of the evening:

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

The Left is littered with zombie organizations which refuse to die. Occasionally, groups merge, and even more rarely, cease to exist altogether. But defunct political organizations, like the defunct political ideas that spawned them, tend to persist. Just as De Leonism and syndicalism can still be found somewhere, if only on life support, so can the various iterations of Trotskyism and Schactmanism, the numerous Maoist strains of the New Communist Movement, classical anarchism and left communism, ad nauseam. Well, many of them anyway. I mean, there are still beatniks, hippies, and goths around for fucks sake. It seems that once something arises, it keeps on trucking along until a wooden stake is forcefully driven through its heart to kill it off, and then not even.

As for Frank and Farley, while I subscribed to the New Age platitude that the elderly needed to be valued and their wisdom cherished, to be honest I had little time for historical sentimentality. I was part of the New Left, with an emphasis on the new. The future of politics belonged to us, the youth of 1970, and I certainly didn’t anticipate getting old before we made The Revolution. So I averted my gaze and skirted their conversation, looking for my man.

I looked out over the backyard as people awkwardly tried to dance to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Jake and Connie had arranged lit tiki torches around the yard’s perimeter, so the grotesque shadows of partygoers contorted across the unkempt lawn. A gibbous moon silvered the night air. I returned to searching for my dealer, just not in the hosts’ bedroom which had been commandeered by three couples intent on an impromptu free love orgy. The other bedroom had been converted into a combination trips/meditation/sewing room/office, which is where I finally found the man with the bowler hat holding court. With his English accent, coal-black eye shadow, and silver nobbed cane, Nigel anticipated the droogies of “Clockwork Orange” by a scant year.

“Spectacle, spectacle, all is spectacle,” he patronizingly addressed my friend Thomas, a fellow anarchist who wore a dark gray whoopee cap like the cartoon character Jughead.

“Is smashing the state mere spectacle?” Thomas asked. “Is a spontaneous peoples revolution against the government so easily dismissed?

“Your sad sub-anarchism suffers from the mystics of nonorganization,” Nigel said with a condescending smirk. “It’s spontaneism denies the power of the revolutionary proletariat and plays into capitalism’s rigged game. What is needed are moments of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events. What is needed is the revolution of everyday life.”

Nigel talked a good Situationist game. With two slim, styling Carnaby Street girls fawning over him, I admitted he impressed me. Associated with King Mob and the Angry Brigade in England, he was an ambassador’s son with diplomatic immunity, which was how he kept himself and his drug dealing business from getting busted. The raw noise of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” blasted through the party as I shopped in Nigel’s briefcase drugstore emporium, sampled some seed-heavy Columbian Gold, purchased an ounce, and rolled a couple of joints to share around. As I and everybody in the room got high, or higher, I still hadn’t learned the lesson of:

LOOKING FOR THE NEXT BIG THING

The Situationists were revolutionary raconteurs and carny hustlers, a theater troupe that held one successful Paris performance in May-June of 1968 but hadn’t been active since. To me however, they were the next big thing. They certainly wowed impressionable young Leftists, anarchists in particular, with their panache and pizzazz. Situationist and post-Situ wannabes continue to proliferate to this day, but the real legacy of the Situationist International was a virulent sectarianism. Split after split reduced the SI to two remaining members by 1972, when the organization dissolved itself. I was impressed by the Situ-inspired Dutch Provos, but my real inspirations back in the day were the more wide-ranging, broadbased San Francisco Diggers and Dutch Kabouters. The search for the next big thing on the Left continues to the present, with insurrectionary anarchists and communizing ultraleftists still playing that game.

I was tripping when my Ventura friends collected me for the ride home. An owl swooped down silently to snag a mouse in the front yard as we climbed into a brightly painted VW minibus, it’s owner and driver none to sober herself. Me, I wore a soft gray British flat workers cloth cap, a newsboy cap with a snap button brim. As we meandered along Highway 33—soon to be immortalized in the godawful song “Ventura Highway” by the schlocky soft rock band America—I dreamed about becoming a political columnist for a famous future rocknroll magazine in an as yet unborn youth counterculture. Naw, that can’t happen I thought, and fell asleep.

DISCLAIMER:
This is a piece of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Fashion Statement or Counterculture: “What’s Left?” July 2016, MRR #398

FashionStatement
I attended a “Faces of Death” party in San Diego between 1980 and 1982. I don’t remember the exact date as I was drinking heavily at the time, and some details are pretty much a blur from those days. “Faces of Death” was a film compilation of various explicit on-camera death scenes—half of them fake—which led to a movie series, and then a horror genre. I’d heard that Boyd Rice organized the party, not around a video showing but in honor of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The living room had a shrine set up, with black and red altar cloths and lit tapered black candles featuring a framed picture of Ian alongside one of Adolf Hitler. Boyd hadn’t yet transitioned into full-on racist fascism, so this was him being transgressive and oh-so-naughty. The soundtrack for the evening, besides Joy Division, included Throbbing Gristle, Boyd’s band Non, Cabaret Voltaire, and others.

I found the whole party morose and boring, and left soon after arriving, no doubt in search of more alcohol. But all the future dark tribes, from Industrial to Goth, were present in embryo. I’ve told this story many times before. What’s brought it to mind now was Genesis P-Orridge posting on his FB page a slick conspiracy video-remastering of the hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” using the Rothschild family. I’m FB friends with several anti-fascists, and the reaction was intense. One individual in particular, someone whom I’d been corresponding with back and forth since before FB when he was commenting on my political blog, stated that he was distressed over what Genesis had done because he really liked both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In the FB exchange, I realized I harbored prejudices born of that experience some 35 years prior, that a “certain kind of music” invariably leads to fascism.

I should have known better. In my Hit List review of Craig O’Hara’s book “The Philosophy of Punk” I’d argued against his idea that punk is inherently anarchist by contending that no type of politics is innate to punk as a genre of music. Aside from a visceral rebellion often characteristic of youth, it’s really all just about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I also didn’t learn from my about-face on country western music, when I came to appreciate Hank William’s Sr. and not to categorize the entire musical genre as “redneck.” And yet, country western music is consistently associated with conservative politics, punk rock with anarchism, and industrial/goth music with fascism. How can we account for these persistent connections without labeling them innate or inherent?

Which brings us to the relationship between music and politics. I’m sick and tired of writing about the elections anyway and besides, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are playing out even as this issue is being sold on newsstands.

“If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot,” Frank Zappa once said, provocatively. “[W]hat kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Zappa was ardently anti-censorship, so this bit of hyperbole was meant to highlight the complex relationship between music and other forms of human behavior, not to nail it down. However, I will attempt to do just that by mediating the links between music and politics through the lens of counterculture. Let’s begin with the mother of all countercultures, the hippie counterculture. Forgive me if what follows is painted in broad strokes. The making of that counterculture, to paraphrase Theodore Roszak, involved the merging of a genre of music influenced by folk, blues and rock with various unconventional lifestyles from the Romantics, Bohemians and the Beats, all in opposition to the prevailing Establishment culture of the day. Rock music and bohemian hipster lifestyles overlapped, and the counterculture was born from their interaction on this common ground.

Characterizing the hippie counterculture as all about “peace and love” is simplistic but fair, even as it misses the communalism underlying that social movement. Plenty of hippies like Stewart Brand had a philosophical hankering for capitalist libertarianism, and many others went on to become successful entrepreneurs. But the 60s were all about communalism—about crash pads, coops and communes—and as such the counterculture countered competitive American individualism. Hippie communalism was central to a naïve back-to-the-land movement, which laid the basis for today’s concerns with vegetarianism and organic agriculture. This conscious collectivism accounts for the incipient anarcho-leftism of much of the hippie counterculture, and it also explains the New Age fascism evident in other aspects. And to call the politics of the hippies collectivist is vague at best.

The 60s counterculture encompassed millions of young people around the world and by the Death of Hippie (dated 1967, 1968 or 1969, depending) there were already inklings of a smaller counter-counterculture in the making. Proto-punk music was emerging, and there was a growing disdain for the hippie “peace and love” mentality as too idealistic and impractical. Anger and aggression replaced those hippie sentiments—expressed in sayings like “search and destroy” and “fuck shit up”—and hippie communalism mutated into punk collectivism (squats, punk houses, venue collectives, etc.). DIY became the byword of punk action and the whole package, while not explicitly anarchist, tended toward the politically anarchic.

Also in reaction to the hippie counterculture, but somewhat later in time and still smaller in numbers, the industrial/goth/dark counter-counterculture took shape. There were distinct types of music and kinds of collectivism (Throbbing Gristle came out of the COUM Transmissions art collective and Laibach is part of the NSK art collective), but the doom and gloom of this scene was augmented by an intense obsession with all that is transgressive. And my argument paralleling punk rock is that while there was nothing in the industrial/goth/dark music scene that was inherently fascist, the fascination with being “oh so naughty” and transgressive also accounts for the tendency toward fascist imagery and even politics in the music.

This oversimplified history is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I’m trying to explain political trends without arguing that certain politics are innate to certain musical genres. Hippie peace and love was far different from punk anger and aggression or industrial/goth doom and gloom. But, apart from youthful rebellion and a desire to épater la bourgeoisie, these countercultures and counter-countercultures had at least three things in common: communal structures, DIY motivations, and transgressive impulses. Hippie communalism was intensely DIY, with the Whole Earth Catalog epitomizing the era. But hippie transgression was unashamedly hedonistic. I would contend that this counterculture went the furthest toward parrying the prevailing culture and creating a viable, wholistic alternative society that escaped simple left-or-right politics. In reacting against bourgeois society and the hippie counterculture, punk and industrial/goth further narrowed their respective cultural arenas, and further fragmented the wider society into numerous contending, jostling subcultures. Punk was violently transgressive, but its DIY emphasis was central, implying anarchistic politics. And industrial/goth was as DIY as punk, but it was the fascination with transgressive naughtiness that accounts for that counter-counterculture’s infatuation with fascist symbolism, which often spilled over into actual fascism.

Of course, it can be argued that whether it’s culture, counterculture, or counter-counterculture, the Western context for all of this is bourgeois individualism. From the libertinism and “do your own thing” of the 60s, the emphasis has been on the individual through punk and industrial/goth, various forms of communalism notwithstanding. Even to say that “it’s only rock and roll” is to acknowledge the primacy of this socio-political context for the cultural rebellions from the 60s onward.

I published an anarcho-punk zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse from 1985 through 1989, which I distributed free at shows and to record stores. As part of that zine, I and a small group of friends put on an Anarchy Picnic in May, 1985. Several hundred people gathered to share food and beverage, acoustic music, and activities like frisbee and hacky-sack around literature tables, chalk, and sheets of butcher paper sprinkled with crayons and paint in Balboa Park. It was clear at the Anarchy Picnic that divisions like hippie, punk and goth were ephemeral, that tastes in music and fashion were not rigid, and that people mixed-and-matched scenes and countercultures as they desired. In the midst of this sunny picnic, with all the fun and frivolity, a couple strolled into the park wearing full Nazi Sturmabteilung uniforms, complete with prominent swastika armbands. The man was an SA-Gruppenführer, the woman his she-wolf of the SA, and together they walked a pair of Dobermans. They feigned being haughty and aloof, but it was clear that they pranced and preened over being so naughty and transgressive in their Nazi regalia.

No surprise, the Anarchy Picnickers ignored them.

Analog radio politics: “What’s Left?” January 2015, MRR #380

I started listening to the radio to fall asleep at night when my parents moved back to southern California. I was a teenager in the ‘60s, living in Ventura, California. At first I listened to commercial AM radio; Top 40 and pop crooners. My parents’ radio stations. Then I discovered the Mighty 1090, XERB, out of Tijuana with Wolfman Jack, a growling, gravely-voiced disc jockey who specialized in “race music” that was quickly transforming into rock music. He played both black rhythm and blues and the white pop versions, Elvis-inspired rockabilly, doo wop, and the beginnings of rock’n’roll way past midnight. XERB was Mexican border blaster radio powerful enough to be heard well into Canada.

Those were the days of analog radio, when you could fine tune the dial with the slightest touch to catch radio stations that were too distant, interstitial, or so weak you could only find them late at night. FM radio was in its infancy, and often so low-powered that its line-of-sight signal meant that LA stations and their broadcasts were largely confined to that smog-choked metropolis. Early FM radio in LA was news-based or education-oriented or ghettoized into specific musical niches, like classical or jazz.

KMET started transmitting in 1968 at 94.7 as one of the first “underground” FM rock music stations, freeform, and relatively commercial free. Known as The Mighty Met, I only got its signal after 10 or so in the evening, when atmospheric conditions allowed it to bounce off the ionosphere and reach beyond the LA basin. Rock’n’roll was the soundtrack to my involvement with the New Left and hippie counterculture, and KMET allowed me to discover music that never got any airplay, commercial or otherwise. I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck when I first heard the intro storm-and-bells to Black Sabbath’s first album in 1970, which was then played over the air in full. And then there was the utter wackiness of the Dr. Demento show.

The wide open free-wheeling nature of FM radio rapidly evaporated during the ‘70s. Commercial advertising was less prominent on the FM airwaves, corporate sponsorship of FM stations and networks was more low key, and the listener/community supported model of Pacifica and NPR was going strong. But true underground radio was essentially dead by 1975. Eventually, FM radio became more popular and commercial than AM radio, marginalizing the AM band to talk radio, news and sports broadcasting, and religious and ethnic programming. So let’s turn to one of the metaphors generated by the FM radio experience. When Pacifica-affiliated KPFA (94.1) in Berkeley or NPR-associated KQED (88.5) in San Francisco conduct pledge drives, they often allude to the fact that their call numbers are on the left-hand side of the radio dial, implying that they are politically to the left as well. This coincidence also holds for music, with both KMET and the original KSAN (94.9) in San Francisco, not to mention the many Bay Area college radio stations, residing to the left of the dial. I’m told that this is a happenstance of FCC allocation, nothing more. And I’m not interested in making the left-right nature of the radio dial into an analogy for some overly simplistic left-right political spectrum in this country. Instead, consider that the 88-108 MHz portion of the FM radio spectrum represents the full range of political discussion and debate in the United States. My subject this column is how different forces in our society fight over dialing politics either more to the right or further to the left.

FDR’s New Deal was at the center of the dial at the end of the second World War, but working people in this country had dialed politics significantly to the left by 1945, after over fifteen years of grueling class struggle waged in the midst of economic depression and then world war. Fascism had been soundly defeated and the Soviet Union was widely praised, some 35% of the American working class was unionized and more were organizing, industrial actions and nation-wide strikes were regular occurrences, and talk of socialism and calls for revolution were commonplace. The capitalist ruling class was in fear for its power and position, so a concerted effort was launched by the bourgeoisie to dial things back to the right. The Truman administration initiated a concerted anti-Soviet, anti-communist campaign that climaxed with McCarthyism’s purges during the Eisenhower era. The results were a 1950s marked by conformity and conservatism, Cold War and capitalist consumerism, as political discussion and debate shifted markedly to the right.

The decade from 1965 to 1975, known as the 60s, witnessed a political and cultural explosion that reset the dial to the left once again. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left, and the counterculture led, while JFK’s liberalism and LBJ’s Great Society followed. However, with the demise of Nixon, America’s last liberal president, the capitalist ruling class regained the ascendency. For the past forty-odd years it’s been dialing things back to the right, dismantling the welfare state, exploiting the collapse of Soviet communism, and deconstructing liberalism into neo-liberalism. The so-called Reagan revolution went so far as to threaten to demolish the New Deal altogether. When it comes to the Democrats, Carter dialed it to the right of JFK/LBJ, Clinton dialed it to the right of Carter, and Obama dialed it to the right of Clinton. That’s where we’re at today, the 2014 election hiccup notwithstanding.

Now, personally, I think that American politics lurched a little too far to the right in 2014, and that moderation will prevail once more in 2016. But it’s important to realize that this supposed moderation is actually solidly right wing when compared to the ‘60s, let alone the ‘40s. The political discussion and debate in this country has shifted, and continues to shift, to the right, thanks to the power and influence of the bourgeoisie. Returning to the radio analogy, where we once listened to Hank Williams Sr and country western music, we’re now tuned into Brad Paisley and fatuous country rock. Where we once grooved to John Coltrane and bebop, we now enjoy Winton Marsalis and vapid cool jazz. Where we once got high on Jimi Hendrix and rock’n’roll, we’re now buzzed by Yngwie Malmsteen and heavy metal noodling. And where we once thrashed to Black Flag and hardcore punk, we now politely consume Green Day and vacuous pop punk musicals. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

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