We just returned from visits to New York City, Boston and Dublin, Ireland. In New York we performed at the Brooklyn Folk Festival and a salon hosted by Deep Dish TV. In Boston we performed at a benefit for Rick Wolff and his Democracy at Work project, at radical social center, Encuentro Cinco and at the Boston Community Church. In addition, I gave talks at Berklee College of Music and two classes at the University of Massachusetts, one a literature class, another a course on Popular Culture. In Dublin, we opened the first annual James Connolly Festival which continued for the rest of the week, concluding only yesterday (May 10th, as I write this). Overall, the events and classes were inspiring in two different ways. First, the interest of a broad range of people–young, old, diverse ethnicities, etc.–in our Songs of Freedom project, provided more evidence of the continued relevance of Connolly’s ideas. This lends further encouragement to our efforts to revive these ideas under present circumstances. Second, in every situation we performed or spoke, there was a powerful sense of renewed engagement. Almost everyone attending, raising questions in discussion or approaching us afterward with further comment, was involved in one or another campaign. From Black Lives Matter to the Right to Water movement sweeping Ireland, attendance at our performances was an extension of political involvement in new mass movements.
At every turn, however, there were pressing questions regarding the state of the world, of music and art, and of particular issues around which people are mobilizing. These questions did not always arise from enthusiasm or optimism. On the contrary, many people expressed a growing frustration with both the lack of organized leadership and the tendency to repeat the same old mistakes over and over again. Repetition often takes the form of reformist demands and appeals to established organizations such as trade unions or governing political parties. The tendency to compromise ideals of social justice using the excuse of Realpolitik can appear overwhelming and is, predictably, utterly demoralizing. Being myself a product of the Sixties, I recognize many of the dilemmas facing young people as very similar to those I faced in my youth. More often than not, they concentrate the contradictions we failed to resolve in the revolutions of 1968. While this could be interpreted simply as living proof that capitalism has to be overthrown for any substantive change to have a chance of happening, the urgency of the moment reveals something else as well. A growing and unmistakable interest in envisioning a future beyond capitalism is now linked with an awareness that fresh ideas concerning society’s renewal are a necessary component for waging successful struggles in the present.
Ten years ago we joined protests against the invasion of Iraq. There is a notable difference between those protests and the movements which are presently gathering force. Perhaps the most enduring effect of the Occupy upsurge is that people are very clear on the 1%–99% divide. That the crash of 2008 did not end in a return to “normalcy”, is self-evident. The exponential growth of oppositional activity is one expression of this fact. But so is the increasing demand for a fundamental change in the system. Not only is socialism back on the agenda, but a serious effort is underway to consider what actual social relations would prevail if capitalism were in fact replaced. Not surprisingly, argument is heated and positions diverse, yet the urgency with which the task is being undertaken, especially by young people, is compelling evidence that Thatcher’s old mantra, “There Is No Alternative”, has passed its sell-by date. More and more often, we are approached by audiences, often comprised entirely of young people, with questions about precisely those alternatives and how they could be practically developed. This is grounds for genuine optimism-as opposed to blind faith-that the struggles being waged will bear fruit, not in some piecemeal and temporary reform, but in setting our sights on the liberation of humanity.
I’ll be attending the Left Forum in New York City May 29th–31st. I’ll be chairing two panels called Art Against Capitalism: Past Experience, Present Practices and Alternative Futures (panels I and II). > Left Forum
I will also present a talk based on my chapter in the book Imagine Living In a Socialist USA. > www.goodreads.com