Comments on 23 Rough Notes 23 years later - David Wise

One of the authors of "Like A Summer With A Thousand Julys" comments on their 23 comments made previously.

From Revolt Against Plenty site.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 17, 2022

The central concern of a long gone BM Blob was the series of largely urban riots which gripped and even engulfed the UK throughout the 1980s. On one level, Blob's efforts revolved around a number of pointed descriptions alongside various analyses of places and events. On another level they were also theoretical cum empirical documents regarding similarities and differences as these riots spontaneously unfolded. In hindsight they've also unfortunately become something of a history of accelerating decomposition in the quality of rioting from the magnificent lucidity and mass urban insurrection of July 1981, to be followed four years later by the not quite on the ball autumn of 1985 through to the Hot Times, Summer on the Estates epoch, circa 1991-2 (see RAP web) which, at times revelled in incidents that were downright appalling. After that, around the turn of the millennium, the road was open for the rise of fuckhead / chav with its trademark generalised internal attack on the local population. This unforeseen outcome wasn't documented by Blob, having in the meantime given up in despair, though our experiences of this dreadful trajectory we've well commented upon elsewhere, (see, A Freewheeling Latin America and other snippets here and there on the RAP web).

Behind such a dramatic deterioration lay the big economic picture: the rise and rise of neoliberalism and the way its cut throat mores invaded the living essence of youthful responses and within this context, how especially neoliberalism affected youth in urban areas as their acts spiralled on downwards from early moments of exemplary destruction to lifestyles of bullying intimidation directed against those they live with in cheek by jowl proximity. From an attitude of assault against the imposition of media intrusiveness they morphed into the maimed and manic children of the image, an attitude and response which in itself became a general violent foil to neoliberalisms' penetration of the hearts and minds of those at the sharp end. For it was the latter which is / was the real object of that stand on your own two feet neoliberal ideology. The rest was nothing but ultimate propaganda and no more clearly shown than in recent events when global corporations and the ultra rich scream for economic protectionism and get it seeing the bubble of fictitious capital is again bursting.

Now that neoliberalism is catastrophically crashing around us as its end game project of "suicide capitalism" globally eliminating all ecological well-being starts to unravel everywhere, how might future youth and those not yet born respond on streets more and more denuded of life? Most likely there won't be a clear cut break from an immediate bleak past which has entrenched itself since the millennium. After all the colonisation of predatory, aggressive, brutalised patterns of consumption whether as junk food, SUVs, Hummers, ever larger TVs, computers and/or rap marketing, etc. with its plethora of images constantly thrown back into our faces isn't going to cease by the wave of a hoped for, magic, post consumer wand. For as long as capitalism prevails, anti-life images are going to be incessantly purveyed no matter what. The situation on our streets could even go from bad to worse to the utterly catastrophic with a wildcard capitalisation getting even more brutish with psycho youth mafias lurking on corners everywhere hanging on to the last vestiges of predatory consumption patterns they still hope they can cash in on somehow or another. Moreover a wall slogan from Italy in the 1980s, though in need of a more accurate facelift, may still be apposite: "Mass unemployment = cheap heroin". On the other hand – to give credence to hope – and the last thing that escaped, or remained in Pandora's Box, there could be a quickening transformation of maimed youth as riot again acquires its potentially liberating vista giving atmosphere and confidence to those at the sharp end who at this very late hour must again fight for a new world, though this time with little or no choice left. The redefinition of riot though cannot be separated from the redefinition of community in an epoch when the latter is in utter ruins. This is easier said than done because how do you even begin recreating human community when such simple reality seems more like some far-off, even impossible utopian dream best forgotten. Indeed it's almost like a hopeless lost cause yet somehow we must attempt to find our way back otherwise all will be lost.

It's easy to see the failings in the German postscript to "A Summers with a Thousand Julys". 23 Rough Notes tried to deal with a great deal of information in too condensed a space and more particularly went along far too much with what was becoming unsavoury in the riots. There's a certain triumph of hope over experience, which in retrospect can make you cringe and the seriousness of growing drug capitalisation and the concomitant use of guns were played down which, eight years later in Hot Times: Summer on the Estates (see elsewhere on the RAP web) counteracted in a more decisive way. However, much of what was becoming plain obnoxious in the on-going riot context was clearly pointed out and condemned as indeed the "Summers" pamphlet previously had done, though in 1981 these were only miniscule incidents. Moreover you cannot doubt the prophetic lucidity contained in the final sentence of Note 14.... "a working class armed the better to shoot each other".

On the other hand the postscript also contains a lot of concise, lucid and clear insights into what was going on generally in the UK during the mid 1980s. It comes as quite a surprise in the distorting lenses of the intervening years that you'd quite forgotten just how explosive the general situation was and how a lot of promising tendencies were developing into efforts armed with greater clarity. To take one example among many, the text does mention how a minority of miners after the great strike of 1984-5 began to recognise the need to throw off trade union shackles and even critique musical recuperation claiming to represent insurgent acts. Alas it was all to be post-festum as the raw impulse of elemental revolt was on the wane and that impulse was the utterly necessary but missing ingredient which could have brought these new tendencies to the fore.Pertinent and still very valid questions were raised about the viability of a set-in-aspic concept of workers' councils and sharp end direct democracy: Why should everything be delegated and calmly voted on at the expense of simple, headstrong, spontaneous initiative which at times can really change the whole gamut of everything up for grabs? Genuine subversive life forces can never be reduced to cut and dried formulae no matter how well intentioned and essential frameworks often are.

23 Rough Notes also gives off an "if only" resonance, which was in fact accurate for the times or rather, for the times immediately following these events especially now there is nothing left but memory. We forget just how close Britain was to a Rubicon of insurgency that finally could have broken capitalism wide apart here – though more would obviously have been needed to totally demolish such dense exploitation but maybe that too would have been conjured up concealed within the core of general ferment. In some ways the atmosphere almost amounted to a touch and go situation. In this sense 23 Rough Notes is worth looking at again because it gives an insight into a fracturing of the power structure suggesting that the repressive state apparatus didn't really know what it was doing or where it was going. It was in unremitting turmoil, even pitted against itself and if push had come to shove would the state have had the capacity to launch a coup against an insurgent population which despite all its lamentable separations which the pamphlet goes into, have been able to successfully carry out the dirty deed?

23 Rough Notes emphasises a kid of British version of the Uncontrollables – to borrow a Spanish description from the 1936 revolution - and despite all the massive increase in technological surveillance since these days, does it mean the situation is any better for the powers that be come any renewed insurgency? Never forgetting the state's formidable character, how weak or strong is this power structure once renewed conflict is again out in the open and no more so than that maybe generated from among the mass ranks of its lowly personnel who staff its banal grandiose halls and steel and glass curving post modernist, intimidating headquarters? However, in the interim, society has also become much more totalitarian though perhaps its weakness of purpose and lack of direction is the greatest unknown we will have to deal with.

23 Rough Notes wasn't really distributed as such and only about a hundred or so copies printed. Nonetheless, there was a fair amount of criticism though equally and surprisingly, considering it was only photocopied in such a tiny edition, it was widely quoted too. There was criticism of flowery phrasing: What did "AIDS infected alligators" really mean. (I still haven't a clue). It was even condemned as Maoist though I couldn't fathom that one out even after considerable reflection. More substantially, criticism was beginning to break regarding the example of the Spanish Dockers Coordinadora, which indeed we'd had some reasonable amount of contact with. Was it a viable organisational example to follow? No matter how exemplary the Coordinadora had once been by the mid 1980s it had become jaded and the judgement that it had become a "parallel union" couldn't be avoided, so we were at fault there.

Though right about the latter, in respect of other matters certain things never seem to change and as per usual, then as now, the ultra left – constrained by their post Russian revolution paradigms inherited from the German and Italian ultra leftists - simply couldn't grasp an essential contemporary critique of culture. Some were annoyed about a sentence (see Note 6) which implied that a youth rebellion in the UK expressing itself in terms of cultural images had had its day. First, in one respect they were right about this too as over ten years later fuckhead was to raise its ugly mug aping bling bling at the heart of rap promotion. However, this latter, vast phenomenon was also to lose all the liberatory tendencies of previous post war sub cultures which playing with fashion and style – redefining it as it were in the everyday life of the streets – pointed to facets inherent in a hoped for transcendence of art though only as a promising tendency. In the same vein, ultra leftists though eloquently capable of assessing the fatal limitations of the Spanish Dockers Coordinadora were all out of port and at sea incapable of commenting upon the greater capacity at the time of a minority of workers in the UK able to grasp the recuperative role of the hip music machine as mentioned previously (see Note 7).

More generally, what criticism should have been made simply wasn't given a voice or made plain for all to read. Surely the whole tone of 23 Rough Notes was simply too euphoric. The real reaction up front was hardly intimated yet when writing it I felt reaction in my bones all right. The lie of such omission! But then there is the eternal problem with an on-going unhappiness and despair – do you go into it or do you keep it under wraps deep within a brooding Coleridge-like soul trying to peer beyond a darkening horizon? And then somehow you know you cannot live with such viper thoughts coiling around the mind and again you must lighten up to find the strength not to give in, knowing despair too (like Coleridge) is so often an overture to submission and attempted conformity. Knowing too such submission can never cure the pain within and moreover, knowing that the more you conform the unhappier you are going to be. So why dwell on misery when there's nothing worse than the arriviste of despair the perpetual moaner? Why not experience so much unhappiness in order to simply reach the profound state where you refuse to complain any more, or rather to make something more useful out of such an odyssey of suffering? Recently a guy from a housing estate in Pudsey between Leeds and Bradford climbed up a pylon in protest. Police were called and a crowd gathered. Asked what he was protesting about; he replied: "Nothing especially – just everything". Well, just so you know.