27 May 2011

Records on Ribs: A Machine of Loving Grace?

Posted by Dave at 9:52 pm

A while back I wrote a lengthy post at nomadic utopianism about hypnaogic pop, cyberpunk and utopia (I noted in the ‘get out clauses’ at the bottom that I’d rather shamefully failed to work Records on Ribs into my discussion, and reading it back now it seems strangely pessimistic- coloured by a more paternal Marxist bent than I would generally subscribe to, powerful though such arguments are). Anyway, I’m reminded of this because Rick Poynor’s post on Adam Curtis’ latest BBC documentary, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ (which is named after the poem below- image from Poynor- and which I’ve shamefully not yet seen)  joined up the dots for me between cyberpunk and the prefigurative utopianism of Records on Ribs which I discussed in today’s earlier blog post.

Of particular note in Poynor’s dissemination of Curtis’ documentary is the idea that the cybernetic dream of utopia- of a ‘cybernetic ecology’ is over. This seems to run contrary to the claims I made in yesterday’s post about seeing Records on Ribs as a prefigurative utopian space, but I think we have to acknowledge that the web- whilst it might provide the model- does not provide all the means. Building a society beyond capitalism will mean far more than sharing stuff online: the basic substances of existence- food, shelter, clothing-  cannot be downloaded, no matter how fast your modem. We cannot pretend that Records on Ribs constitutes an adequate offering to the struggle. It is relatively easy to create communist spaces online; far less so in the physical world.

But we do not believe that we should abandon decentralised, nonhierarchical, self-organising modes of being. Whilst there is a similarity with much neoliberal thought (Hayek’s concept of catallaxy, for example, or even ‘The Big Society’), and whilst neoliberalism has co-opted this rhetoric, the world we live in fails to deliver on the promise of anarchistic cyberneticism because it is a system which is founded upon- and which perpetuates- inequality. Where there is inequality there is also hierarchy and where there is hierarchy there cannot be immanent self-organisation. Money buys access and control, and forms which threaten neoliberalism’s total domination are destroyed or co-opted. Where there is hegemony and police brutality there is not genuine, immanent, self-organisation. The system does everything it can to head off change. It might be internally dynamic (though even this is questionable), but it refuses to go beyond itself.

It’s time to wrestle back nonhierarchy and self-organisation from capitalism and to liberate it in the name of communism; in the name of commonly owned property. It’s not time to retreat from the utopian dream that networks and nonhierarchical organisation promise us.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
by Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pins and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


26 May 2011

To Free or not to Free?

Posted by Dave at 6:17 pm

The issue of distributing music for free rarely goes away, and it’s all kicked off in Wire magazine following UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith’s Epiphany in last month’s issue in which he stated that as a result of filesharing  ‘just like you I stopped buying music’. This month’s edition contains a strongly worded response by ReR boss Chris Cutler, which argues that the ‘all music should be free’ movement is an ‘idiot wave’. As a record label that gives away its music for free these are issues we’re naturally interested in. We’d like to think we’re not part of an idiot wave, but are aware of the complex ethical position we’re in. Hopefully this post will clarify our position a little more.

A New World in the Shell of the Old

Despite our manifesto claim that we are ‘not against anything’, Records on Ribs exists at least partly to protest capitalist modes of production and the monetary theories of value and the system of copyright that accompany  and support capitalism. But negative critique  contains- at least implicitly- a positive vision of how the world should be otherwise, and for us that positive vision is writ large in everything we do. We see Records on Ribs as a prefigurative utopia: a space of commonly owned property which points to how the world might otherwise be. It is ‘a new world in the shell of the old‘, as Aaron Peters puts it. It is communism, decentralised: here and now.

Pop Will Eat Itself

Kenneth Goldsmith’s file-sharing inspired Epiphany is something quite different. I don’t know much about what his politics are, but the views he expresses are not in any sense anti-capitalist. Rather, they embody the eternally disatisfied greed of capitalism’s dream consumer. ‘The minute I get something’, he writes ‘I just crave more’. This is what capitalism demands of us: each purchase promising something it can’t possibly deliver and setting in chain a feeling of dispondancy and failure, which drives us on to consume more and more, even as we boast about what we do have (‘It’s all about quantity…I’m drowning in my riches. I’ve got more music on my drives than I’ll ever be able to listen to in the next ten lifetimes’). Goldsmith argues that this ‘is an inversion of consumption…in which we’ve come to prefer the acts of acquisition over that which we are acquiring’, but there’s not really much inverting going on-for many decades capitalism has been about the thrill of the chase rather than the catch itself. After all, if we’re satisfied with the objects of our consumption we’ll cease to consume. Goldsmith sitting in his study feverishly downloading rarities from across the globe is experiencing the same thrill as Carrie, Samantha and co as they trawl the malls of Dubai for dresses they’ll probably forget they own. t’s an alienating existence marked by addiction to the chase rather than any enjoyment.

What’s interesting about Goldsmith’s column (and I should make it clear that I have no interest in passing judgement on him) is that his views represent the point at which the logics of capitalism overtake themselves. Promised the world, consumers suddenly realise that through the internet they can take it for free, and help themselves to whatever they can. Having for so long been told that greed is good, the subject of consumerism seizes that greed and uses it to bring down the system that helped to create them.

Where’s the free plumbers?

Except it doesn’t really threaten to bring down the system. The immediate result of thousands of people downloading music, films and television is that the people who make it suffer. We couldn’t give a flying fuck about Lily Allen or Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox, but we do care about our many friends who make brilliant music and struggle to make ends meet from day to day because hardly anyone pays them for their music, whilst capitalism carries on as usual in other spheres.

There are two answers to this. The first is to encourage people to pay for the music they listen to-  by calmly stating the damage that downloading music can do (as Cutler does) and by making the physical object worth spending money on, restoring the fetish for the object which Goldsmith says he has lost. The second is more long-term (although as a prefigurative movement it is also immediatist) and calls for a system of exchange beyond capitalism: gift economies, common ownership and mutual aid (and to be fair to Goldsmith, he touches on these issues here). Free music here works as a prefigurative movement heralding a complete shift in our relations. As Cutler notes, plumbers do not work for free. But capitalism is not the end of history and perhaps one day plumbers will work for free. Perhaps, perhaps by giving away our music for free we can play our part (a tiny part) in showing what can be done when we abandon capitalism’s modes of exchange.

A Cautious Revolution

It’s clear that these two strategies are almost mutually exclusive- and this clash between short term survival and long term radical change is a problem that those trying to go beyond capitalism often encounter. Discussing the plight of workers at car manufacturing plants in Oxford in the 90s, David Harvey noted that the short term aims of securing their jobs hampered many longer-term goals- better working conditions, higher pay and a cleaner local environment. And many sympathetic to the plight of workers would probably also crave a world without so many cars and their destructive impact on our health and our environment, which clearly wouldn’t do their job prospects much good.

There is, then, clearly a tricky balance to strike and in my own musical consumption I try and navigate both paths. On one hand I offer music for free through Records on Ribs, recognising that doing so is not just a way of ‘getting the music out there, man’, but a political act; a utopian act. And I download music for free too. On the other hand I spend as much as I can on music released by labels who care about their artists and support a whole microindustry of professionals and creatives- designers, lathe cutters, etc. These are all skills/trades we’d want to survive beyond the revolution so we must be cautious not to trample them in our greedy haste for a new world. And hey, Records On Ribs isn’t above accepting donations too.

It’s a tricky debate, and I think we should welcome both the honesty of Goldsmith and the clairty of Cutler. But as we think through what it means to acquire music, we should also think how we might be able to live beyond this shitty system that causes so much suffering and unhappiness.

All music should be free, but so should all plumbing.

I write from my own standpoint here, and not necessarily from those of our artists, who may have a diversity of opinions on this project and the need for free. I think I’m right in saying that ROR co-founder Alex agrees with me on much of this, so I’ll take the liberty of using the collective noun. If anything, Alex is perhaps a little more pro-free than I am, but I’ll let him speak for himself in future – Dave.