Musings on 2020

I apologise in advance if this entry comes across as “off piste”. Nevertheless, it comes in the wake of the United Kingdom’s recent election of Boris Johnson, and despite the view that music and politics inhabit parallel, albeit separate universes, I hope to explain further down how this is not the case, and why Britain’s recent elections elicit musings on what’s to come in 2020 and beyond.

With Britain’s newly elected Conservative Prime Minister, the ultra-English nationalist Boris Johnson, it’s worth considering the cyclical nature of history, in which last-century winners become losers and last-century losers become winners. The English (NB not British) nationalism of Johnson’s Brexit has led to the British children and grandchildren of former Jewish refugees who fled Hitler, applying for German and Austrian citizenship.

The anti-Semitism of the UK’s Labour Party, though massively exaggerated by the country’s partisan media, is nonetheless impossible to dismiss. The last election left enlightened Britons at a loss, just as the election of Donald Trump flummoxed enlightened, secular Americans. The power of “big money” to manipulate conventional and social media, thereby influencing the outcome of voting, had never been understood as a danger in societies that viewed “freedom” as primarily “freedom for capital”. The tub-thumping, flag waving English nationalism of the Tory Party was seen as preferable to the equally nationalist, social levelling policies of Corbyn and the Labour Party. Corbyn, it must be remembered, was happy to see Britain’s departure from the EU. All of the values the British assumed had led to their victory over Hitler had been chucked overboard. Johnson’s government promised to neuter the BBC, politicise the judiciary and take away power from parliament in order to consolidate authority with the government. I personally doubt that a Corbyn government, given the same majority, would have carried out different policies. The media, judiciary and parliament would all have created problems for policies of nationalisation without, or with inadequate compensation.

Like Mussolini, Johnson has promised to build, spend, and make Britain a paradise on earth. As the country’s system of governance remains virtually unreformed since the 19th century, his natural instinct will be to return to models rejected by modern democracies nearly seventy-five years ago. It could lead to corporatists with judges, politicians and other top executives coming from a single “ruling elite”. The rest of society will be broken down into neo-feudal components, allowed to rise but only so far. Poor state education will guarantee the hegemony of the elite. Forelock tugging is the dirtiest of Britain’s “dirty little secrets”.

It’s a hundred years since the world started on a path to regain its sense of balance following the devastation of the First World War. Yet 1919 and 1920 were still years of revolution, hyperinflation, civil war and a sense the world order had fallen apart with nothing viable to replace it. Democracy? A Republic? Only a hundred years before, a Europe shaped by the Congress of Vienna had reinvented itself after the devastation of the Napoleonic wars. As we grow older and live longer, a century is no longer an interminable stretch, but a little over a lifetime. The Europe post 1815 was hardly stable with revolutions following in 1830 and 1848. Perhaps a sense of stability existed between 1848 and 1866 when Prussia ejected Habsburg Austria from the German Federation.  Five years later, Germany and Italy had completed their unification processes. The Habsburgs had re-invented themselves as the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, a compromise that created more problems than solutions and ultimately led to the First World War. If a century is the lifetime of the ever-increasing number of centenarians, then the amount of change that took place over two centenarian lifetimes is dizzying. Nevertheless, with only a decade or so apart, the 18th and 19th centuries all seem to mirror events in the 20th century: a hundred years ago, the systems established by the upheavals and compromises of the Congress of Vienna and the subsequent revolutions from the century before had come to an end. Was the fall of Europe’s imperial houses a solution to all that had gone before or the harbinger of future problems?

It would be easy to point out that between 1871 and 1914, there were 43 years of relative European stability, whereas in the 20th century, there was, with the exception of the Balkans, apparent stability from 1945 until today. And yet, the new world power that emerged as the crowned heads of Europe fell by the wayside was the United States, a country that was viewed in much the way we look at post-Soviet Russia today: a place of chancers, billionaires, gangsters and endless opportunities for the endlessly opportunistic. The transformation of the United States from land of cowboys and gangsters to respectable world leader has not been without enormous costs. To maintain its newly-established hegemony post-1945, America embarked on a sequence of wars starting with Korea, followed by Laos, Cambodia, Lebanon, Cuba, Vietnam, Thailand, conflicts in Latin and South America and the Middle East. As the self-proclaimed “world’s policeman”, it has enjoyed less peace than the Europe that emerged from the mutual destruction of two “World Wars”. In its attempts to halt what it viewed as “Communist world domination”, the United States created its own programme of imperial domination. Hardly any observation resonates more in this respect than Roosevelt’s apocryphal observation about the president of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza García: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”  Empires take many forms: American imperial expansion was arguably more cultural with media, music and fashion, than the physical annexation of other countries; the dominance of American technology means its “empire” no longer needs to regard the physical borders of other nation-states.

And yet, the general trend since 1776 was something else. It was a move away from the rigidity of feudalism and monarchy towards republican, parliamentary democracy. Even the countries that maintained monarchies held kings and queens as figureheads with the aristocracy left with little more than former titles. Only Great Britain emerged largely unchanged and un-reconstituted. It may have lost Ireland and its Empire, but it kept the trappings of world power. Ermine, gold braid and gilded carriages were in essence nothing more than the maintenance of “von” and “de” titles on the continent: largely meaningless to most, but significant to the impressionable. It offered a charade of power to a country in decline. Patriotic fervour doesn’t cost the treasury very much and becomes a useful means of distraction when standards fall below those of neighbouring countries.  

With two centenarian cycles to look back on, can we notice anything cyclical? If we look at the world from 1776 to 1914, we see the natural order of governance by “the grace” of royal houses questioned. From 1914 to 1939, new nation states emerged, consolidated, failed and fell to various forms of totalitarianism. From 1945 to 1989, two competing systems dominated: in the capitalist West, freedom was accorded greater weight than equality while in the Marxist East greater weight was accorded to equality than freedom. Imposed equality and unconscionable freedom both proved inadequate in providing the “greatest happiness to the greatest number”.  Most post-war European democracies decided the solution was a hybrid between the two models. Social democracies today are the forms of government in those countries ranked as having the highest “quality of life”. Policies such as the “Social Contract” remain fundamental to Social Democracy’s ability to provide a sense of wellbeing to its citizens.

Despite this, and largely in those states that emerged victorious out of the 20th century, ideologues still threaten to undermine the post-war Social Democratic balance. Together with new technology, they pose the danger of moving society towards strong, ideologically driven leaders. From strong leaders, the step to authoritarian is too close for comfort. Just consider Russia with Putin, or Hungary and Poland where the concept of “illiberal democracy” has taken hold in the name of national identity. As the world has become a global community, we see people instinctively separating into different tribes. “Identity” is the new identity. In a “global village”, identity defines the individual. In this infancy of our technological age, politicians who ruthlessly exploit identity have been chalking up success after success.

Just as the step from strong leader to dictator is small, so is the step from patriotism to nationalism. The former offers the inter-active loyalty of a community of common stakeholders, while the latter sees divine exceptionalism and the unthinking view, “my country right or wrong”. The Achilles heel of identity-politics, nationalism or even extreme patriotism is paranoia and its resultant need to exclude, isolate or purge those who “don’t belong” or comply with the dominant ideology. To ideological free-market Libertarians, it’s something called “the State”, which needs to be reduced to only its fundamentals, facilitating the unregulated movement of capital and markets. To Marxists, it’s the 1% against the 99%. Both ideologies can only potentially work if everyone adheres to them, but in the multi-lateral world we inhabit, this can never be the case. This leads to closing down access to the outside so that ideologies are imposed on individual countries such as Venezuela or North Korea. This is what was meant when Britain’s Labour Party began quoting Lenin’s “Socialism in one Country”. The mirror image of this is the increasing isolation of the United States, which has the resources (in theory), to exclude imports and offer American produced goods to American consumers.

The UK does not have these advantages. When the present nationalist government of Boris Johnson realises that ideologically pure, “free” trade agreements will not fall into his lap, expect “buy British” slogans to start re-appearing – not seen since the 1970s. Both ideologies know they can only be imposed within closed states, and states can only be closed if strong leaders are in charge with little or no opposition. Ideologues always believe that when the world sees how wonderfully their theories work, the rest of the world will fall into line. It hasn’t happened, and even with the fall of Communism, unregulated free-market economics have not been able win the ideological argument. Jobs suddenly shifted to cheaper regions, or under-regulated City and Wallstreet trading became too dominant to fail. If history teaches anything, it’s strong leaders keep their position by creating paranoia and distrust of everything or everyone outside of their immediate control.

So the cyclical nature of history appears to suggest a return to a pre-1776 status quo in those countries who emerged as the winners of the 20th century’s conflicts. Having won all the physical and ideological conflicts, there was never a need for constitutional reform. Without constant reform, all democracies, but especially the earliest, are vulnerable to undermining. Leaders may not call themselves “kings” or “queens”, but essentially, they will have consolidated wealth and power, and continue to consolidate it by selling power to wealth. If they cannot control new means of communication, they can at least “play the game”. They establish vulnerabilities within societies and tailor messages to play on multi-directional paranoia. It’s the only means of assuring the most vulnerable vote against their own interests. Autocracy may only be in the interest of a miniscule group, but if an electorate can be convinced that strong leadership is preferable to outside dangers, then perhaps the price is not too high. 

In general, this effects music and the arts, as politics provide the parameters and often the perimeters in which they can operate. The extraordinary creativity that came after the First World War was in the context of freedom from the old order. As the 20th century progressed, we saw the marriage of politics and the arts continue. If there was Socialist Realism in the Soviet Bloc, during the 30s, 40s and 50s, it was hardly different from the Americana produced by Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, William Schumann or even Samuel Barber. Copland’s Lincoln’s Portrait or Appalachian Spring were written when Shostakovich was writing his Leningrad Symphonies 7 and 8. This was a time in both East and West when music was meant to make “the common man” feel good about who he was. Is the music “bad” for that reason? I feel there can be little doubt that Copland and Shostakovich composed masterpieces in their respective genre and, if one adds Knoxville Summer of 1915, composed in 1947, so did Samuel Barber. One could add his Second Symphony and Violin Concerto also written in the late 30s, early 40s. Could Shostakovich have written his Leningrad Symphonies without the Siege of Leningrad? Could Copland have written his populist works without the war against Fascism?

Even if music is not co-opted for propaganda purposes, politics also sets perimeters as well as parameters. Jewish composers born in Austria in the first decade of the 20th century were unable to get a hearing in Hitler’s Germany just as they reached artistic maturity. It meant new works by talented composers were heard in less important places, such as Switzerland or Czechoslovakia. A premiere in Zurich or Prague was not to be sniffed at, but success in Germany for a young Austrian resulted in an entirely different scale of recognition. Erich Korngold, Ernst Toch, Hanns Eisler and Karol Rathaus would have suffered the same fate as Erich Zeisl, Herbert Zipper, Georg Tintner or Julius Chajes had they been born a decade later. Who could say if Zeisl, Chajes and the others would have become more significant figures had they been born a decade earlier? Creativity inevitably fills the space it’s allotted and whether we wish to admit it or not, politics allots that space.

Uneasy listening

This is not meant to imply that the arts are reactive rather than pro-active. Yet, when they try to be pro-active, it often misfires. Simply consider the public’s reaction to the music composed in the wake of Darmstadt. This was music meant ostensibly to change the culture of civilisation in the hope of changing civilisation itself. Yet the difficulty in finding an emotional response to the music of Darmstadt is at least offset when placed in the context of Germany’s post-war trauma and the response by a younger generation of musicians who saw themselves as collateral damage. Debates around the Darmstadt School being a CIA Cold War propaganda ploy are probably less significant in regards to its creative output than the anger felt by musicians born in the late 1920s, early ‘30s, too young to have been complicit in the evils of Nazism, but feeling compromised nonetheless. The arts are not reactive but rather, reflective of their political biotope – whether they intend to be or not. Even so-called “radical” art is merely reflective of its habitat. The Sex Pistols’ rendition of God Save the Queen would only have truly been radical, had the Sex Pistols been a Saudi pop group offering their take on the ruling family’s anthem. Franz Schreker’s parody rendition of the Habsburg Hymn in his Festwalzer, written for the Emperor’s Jubilee in 1908 was in essence an anticipation of Sex Pistol mischief. He wouldn’t have dared had he been living in Russia under the Romanovs. Boundaries may be pushed by the arts, but they’re set by politics.

Make no mistake, 2020 presents us with democratically elected leadership ready to consolidate as much authority as possible. It’s prepared to try and weaken the judiciary and limit parliamentary oversight. It makes no secret of these policies and announces them in the plans for government. Leaving the EU means the UK removing itself from the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights – again, something Johnson’s government actually boasts about. We see the same high-handed disregard for basic freedoms in Eastern Europe’s so-called Visegrád states, (though their bluster must be taken in the context of their continued EU membership); in  Brazil, the US under Trump and now, with the most nationalist, populist government in living memory, in the UK as well. We can’t know what this means, but I remain sceptical that it will be beneficial for the arts, unless one supports the eccentric, yet legitimate view that the arts thrive best in isolation, under the threat of censorship. Simply consider the argument that there were more masterpieces composed during the second half of the 20th century in the former Soviet Bloc than in the free West. It’s a chilling realisation.