At The World Transformed, a festival held by members of Momentum at the same time as the Labour Party conference, one session in particular attracted attention – a panel discussion on “Acid Corbynism”.
The title was an explicit allusion to “Acid Communism”. This was a phrase used by the cultural theorist Mark Fisher shortly before his untimely death earlier this year. It was the title of his putative next book and the name for the general political sensibility it would celebrate.
That sensibility was one shared by various exponents of countercultural politics – especially, but not exclusively, in the 1960s and 1970s. It would reject both authoritarianism and individualism in the name of a utopian ideal of collective liberation and raised political consciousness. Fisher derived the phrase directly from a quote he came across describing radical anti-psychiatrist R D Laing as an “acid Marxist”.
Fisher himself was never much interested in psychedelics. But as Keir Milburn pointed out during the panel discussion in Brighton, he was fascinated by the apparent relationship between psychedelic culture and various forms of utopian “popular modernism” (such as the sonic experimentalism of the Beatles between 1965 and 1968).
The jokey, deliberately provocative title “Acid Corbynism” was thought up by Labour activist Matt Phull. It was an invitation to explore a range of political, cultural and philosophical themes which Mark and I had explored in our work separately and together – in my case, particularly in my 2014 book Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism. We wanted to think about how those themes might inform a mainstream progressive politics for the 21st century.
But why “Corbynism” rather than “Communism”? Precisely because the question is how countercultural utopianism might come to inform an actual concrete programme for government.
And why “Acid”? Because the persistence of psychedelic culture since the 1950s stands out as a particularly striking example of a deliberate attempt to change the world for the better through radically new ways of perceiving and experiencing.
Personally, I might be more interested in using cultural theory to alter my students’ view of their place in the world (it’s safer, cheaper and legal). But the reference to “acid” in the title of the conference session was, if nothing else, an interestingly provocative metaphor. It hinted at just how radical the transformation of perceptions we need might be. If we really want to overcome the ideological effects of neoliberalism in contemporary culture, bold thinking is called for.
A range of philosophical and political issues are raised by a radical rejection of individualist thought. “Individualism” doesn’t simply designate casual selfishness, but a world-view which denies or overlooks the inherent complexity of all phenomena. Any kind of truly democratic politics or culture must enable people to find ways to express that inherent complexity. That might mean promoting deliberative and participatory democracy in local government, or valorising cultural forms that create opportunities for unpredictable forms of connection and expression to materialise.
Dance music cultures since the 1970s, such as disco and rave, have often been hailed as examples of such cultural forms. This is something scholars such as myself, Tim Lawrence, Hillegonda Rietveld, Alice Echols and others have written about.
This is not to say that any of us would endorse a naive view of the social function or political valency of the dance music tradition. But all of us have observed in different ways that, since the early days of disco in the 1970s, these cultures have tried to create a different kind of social space. In these spaces, intense interaction between members of various social groups becomes possible in ways that might not ordinarily be the case in the modern urban context.
The aims of the entire “relational art” movement (arguably one of the dominant tendencies in the global art scene of recent years) could be understood in precisely these terms. Yet it would be highly debatable whether any art show has ever realised those objectives as successfully as a good club night.
21st century thinking
On the other hand, it’s also undeniable that the utopian implications of dance culture have more often than not been entirely neutralised by the force of commercialism, sexism and elitism. They have been defeated by the same social and political forces which have made it so difficult for left politics or radical culture to win any new ground since the 1970s. The issue here is therefore not to idealise it but to ask what it might mean to articulate a politics informed by the same desire for collective participation and creative experimentation which has drawn so many people to it since the 1970s.
“Acid Corbynism” is not just a provocation to reconsider the legacy of counterculture. It’s also an invitation to think about what a radically democratic politics might mean in the 21st century. It’s a suggestion that we question what kind of culture, and ultimately what kind of people, we want to produce.
In the field of education, for example, if we are to move beyond the neoliberal assumption that the only real aim of education is to produce competitive entrepreneurial individuals for the labour market, then we will have to ask ourselves what kind of people and culture we’re trying to be. Surely in part the answer must be that we want a culture in which people are able to get to grips with the deep interrelation between their interests and those of other people and all other living things. It’s hard to imagine any resolution to the current environmental crisis without that.
Ultimately, then, “Acid Corbynism” isn’t a clearly-defined political philosophy. But it is also more than just a joke intended to generate publicity and column inches. It is an invitation to reflect on what it might mean for mainstream left politics to accept that the radicals of the counterculture were asking all the right questions about what it might mean to live together in a sustainable way. It’s asking whether some of their proposed solutions (from cooperative housing to renewable energy) are ones that we cannot afford to ignore.
After the clear failures of both conventional social democracy and the neoliberal policies of recent decades, there can be little question that we need new forms of democratic politics which take a self-consciously creative and innovative attitude to the resolution of social and political problems. If Acid Corbynism calls for anything, it is for what Maurizio Lazzarato, thinking along similar lines, calls “experimental politics”. As the ecological catastrophe deepens, and the destructive effects of neoliberalism on our social fabric become intolerable, this seems like an eminently reasonable position to take.