Principia Musica: The art of politics

I have some claims I would like to defend. These are claims I cannot possibly defend in one blog post. But here are some, which I will elaborate at a future date, subject to revision.

Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, writing at the birth of commercial society in the musical eighteenth century.

I. Class conflict is fundamental to all political struggle. Centrism is Nietzschean because it worships the master (capital) while leftism is Kantian because it worships the slave (labour). And the right is Burkean insofar as it worships the old master (aristocracy). Then the old left worshipped the old slaves (serfs). Every political faction worships a class, and every political position supervenes on the class structure in one way or another. There is no escape from class struggle without first confronting it, and taking a side. To escape the class war, you must first join it. Because, guess what? You’re already in it. We all are. Let’s fight. Let’s be free. Peace.

III. Trade is the basis for all conflict in the modern world, in peacetime and in violent war. Trade creates the foundation for market competition among musicians, but also more broadly among political states and social classes. Trade divides states and classes from one another, punishing the hegemony of the ruling state and elevating the hegemony of the ruling class. War does the opposite, reconcentrating power in one hegemonic state and distributing power among multiple competing classes. War makes states, and trade makes classes. The hegemony of a musical genre or artist hinges on both these pressures, political and economic. In the aftermath of war, several musical hegemonies form, consecutively dominating the sonic landscape. Over time, trade weakens each hegemony and reduces its duration.

II. Pop is the musical core of liberal capitalism. The real reason why liberals like Rosalía and Ariana is that pop, at its core, is capitalistic to a fault. To choose any other genre without also choosing pop is to choose a losing side. To reprogram pop with the essence of an alternative genre, à la Billie Eilish or Kanye West, is to subvert the conventional hegemony with a new one. But liberalism just wants the status quo. That’s why political liberals, to coin a phrase from Taylor Swift, can’t have nice things.

Today, music is so disparate that no new hegemons emerge from core economies, leaving the task of reshaping music to peripheral economies which have to compete with stringent market incentives. Music is therefore dead as an artform in popular culture, while the professionalisation of music in the scholarly and academic world has degraded its artistic content further. Music thrives off a balance between trade and war. Today, trade has obliterated music into a thousand pieces — just as music was an embarrassing blob of vain patriotism in the world wars. Music thrived in the 1970s to 1990s when it was torn between both pressures, finding a distinctive voice as the Cold War came to a close.

In this century, there was a brief moment when this was again the case, as trade stumbled after the 2008 financial crisis. However, the 2020 coronavirus crisis confirmed that market society is more resilient than some predicted. Trade is now accelerating again, although the return of the shadow of war raises the prospect of a new kind of music. But today, trade and war are collapsing into each other, as they did in the Renaissance. Balance eludes contemporary artists. We are entering a dark period in politics, and therefore a dark period in music, which reflects the society in which it is embedded. The frail tapestry of the modern world needs a voice to express its unspeakable suffering, shared by all people.

Voiceless against the void, it seems that there is no way out, whether by material or musical means. Far from Kant’s kingdom of ends, or Hobbes’s kingdom of light, we are entering a new kingdom of darkness — where many gods and demons rule the roost, but none can put a stop to the Hell that unfolds, day by day. We have even ceased to recognise this Hell as Hell. We have lost our way, as a species, as a society, as a system of states and classes. Even the milieu of musicians has ceased to fight the power, preferring to join it instead. Where next for a world lost to itself? When we all fall asleep, where do we go? Perhaps we’ll only know when we awaken from our sceptical slumber. Then we’ll learn how to say no — or even, if the question is just and the questioner’s motive pure, yes.

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