Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Rocking the cultures of the aftermath

Muse is a rock band with a difference. That was true of Queen as well, and it is no accident that Muse counts this redoubtable exponent of highly original rock music among its progenitors. But they seem to take originality to a new level – their new album, The 2nd Law, pays homage to nothing less than the second law of thermodynamics, according to which energy is subject to entropy in a closed system unless new energy is released into it. According to Mark Sutherland (Time, November 26 2012, p 50), Matt Bellamy – guitarist and singer of the band – sees in this law of physics an explanation of the global energy and economic crises that formed the backdrop to the band’s work on the album in question. Sutherland quotes him as saying: “The earth is open to the sun, but essentially we’re living well beyond the means of the sun by exploiting natural resources.”

Needless to say, it is refreshing to encounter a rock band that addresses important issues such as the possibility of economic and environmental disintegration in its music – contrary to the bulk of popular kitsch music today, which wallows in sentimentalism and nihilistic pursuits of what the moment dictates as being “cool” or “hip”. No such irrelevancies for Muse. A glance at the titles on this album already gives a good indication of their seriousness about questions of global importance: Unsustainable, Madness, Explorers (about looking for alternative energy sources), Survival (the official song of the 2012 Olympics), and Animals (targeting the reckless traders who triggered the financial crisis, with the lyrics exhorting them to “Kill yourselves; Do us all a favour”).

It seems to me that these British rockers belong to one of the “cultures of the aftermath” that I referred to in my last post. In one of the chapters – “Surfing the crisis: Cultures of belonging and networked social change” – of the book Aftermath, discussed in that post, Gustavo Cardoso and Pedro Jacobetty distinguish between two countervailing categories of cultures. These are cultures of “networked self-interest” and those of “networked belonging”. Muse resides under the latter, in so far as the band positions itself, at least partly, as a conduit for all the frustrations of the working, as well as (to some extent) the middle class in facing the undeserved economic consequences of irresponsible decisions emanating from Wall Street.

It is impossible to capture the complex argument and supporting evidence of Cardoso and Jacobetty’s chapter in a mere blog post – at best I can try to summarise the salient points they make. Instead of focussing on what Naomi Klein recently called the return of “class” in the guise of “Wall Street” and “Main Street”, they dig a bit deeper, claiming that the basic opposition highlighted by the crisis is not so much between classes, as that between different values underpinning different cultural practices. It is this difference in values that is expressed in the cultures of “networked self-interest” and those of “networked belonging”.

They stress that, to be able to understand the latter group, comprising attempts to promote social change, one has to grasp the former (centred on self-interest), which gave rise to the financial crisis. Condensing brutally, they argue that it was not the “network society” (Castells) as such – the social system comprising an increasing, technologically mediated global interdependence of individuals, groups, countries and companies at a multiplicity of levels (cultural, financial, communicational, political, economic) – that was in crisis, but that it arose from a set of specific values that gained dominance at a certain time.

In the network society, they point out, power is gained through mediated communication at all levels but it only lasts as long as the values informing such communication are perceived as contributing to making sense of everyday experience. When this changes fundamentally, the power established on the basis of such values is eroded in the eyes of the people involved in the networked communication processes, and the space opens up for the emergence of alternative views of the best interests of society.

Essentially this is what happened, and turned out to be an ever-widening financial crisis. Cardoso and Jacobetty refer to the set of values informing practices that led to the crisis as “the cultures of the crisis”, which were characterised by “network individualism” – a practice that grew from a specific management school ethos and was appropriated by a small, self-centred elite of professional managers. Ironically, they point out, research has shown that the early twentieth century saw exactly the opposite, such as business schools intent on fostering a sense of professionalism fused with exemplary moral standards. This changed in the course of a growing belief that managers were no more than agents for shareholders’ interest in maximising profits at all costs, in contrast to an earlier dispensation where managers had considerable scope in the management of capital.

Deregulation, which followed in the wake of the crisis of the 1970s, was aimed at increasing profitability and productivity, in the first place, and also at changing the role of managers in order to serve these interests. With the rise of the network society, concomitant with communication networks which made a genuine world market possible, the changed function of managers was endowed with more financial power than ever before, given the emergence of a novel kind of corporate model, namely investor capitalism. To cut a long story short, the authors point out that “power comes from legitimacy”, and the latter depends on the perception that a certain kind of domination is justifiable – the domination in question being that which is enjoyed by the financial managerial elites because of their position at the crossroads of networks connecting different realms of economic activity. The resulting freedom for innovation enjoyed by this breed of managers – together with the virtually unlimited, technologically mediated investment mechanisms available to them – enabled them to engage, via an array of sophisticated investment instruments, in increasingly risky operations which, hot on the heels of the subprime crisis, eventually triggered a full-blown financial meltdown.

Understandably, the concrete social and economic consequences of this meltdown – such as unemployment, loss of homes and cuts in social services as well as pensions – have led to a loss of trust in the values that underpinned this culture of “networked individualism”. In its place a host of alternative cultures – under the aegis of “networked belonging” – have emerged, and are still appearing, which are “learning to surf the crisis and experiment with social change”. All of them have in common the appropriation of networked culture to achieve their aims.

First, there is the small group of young managers and MBA students across the globe who are at pains to re-establish the erstwhile ethics of the profession which was set aside in favour of profit maximisation by the “me first” generation of managers. This has taken the form of a number of organisations working towards a “global business oath”.

Second, these authors mention the Swedish (political) “Pirate Party”, which started with “file-sharing”, but has today spread to several other countries and represents the “technological emancipation of the individual” regarding scarcity of information, participatory democracy and making patented drugs generically available, to mention only a few of its goals.

Third, WikiLeaks is discussed as possibly the most familiar instance of a networked culture working for change and openness of information. Other instances discussed by them include the “non-organisation”, Anonymous, the role of social media (like Twitter and Facebook) for change in the Arab Spring, the use of music for social change, specifically the “á rasca” (well-qualified, but unemployed) generation launched in Portugal and disseminated through social media, from where it spread to demonstrations in other cities.

Space prevents me from dealing with these, and other, manifestations of “networked belonging” addressed by Cardoso and Jacobetty. That will have to wait for another time. But their research has shown that there are many growth points across the world in which one can detect experimental attempts to construct a space of belonging for all people, in the face of the breakdown of trust represented by the creeping financial crisis. Muse – the rock band with which I started this post, also belongs among these: through its music, it is communicating the longing, if not demand, for a better, more inclusive and habitable world.

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