If The Beatles had read Heller

This reflection is a part of a series of online essays celebrating 40 years of Thesis Eleven: The Top 40

by Mark Davis

Pepperland (detail), Ron Cambell

It’s an evocative theme, a ‘Top 40’. A little alarmingly for some listening no doubt, Thesis Eleven was first conceived the year I was born, 1978. Growing up here in the UK during the 1980s, encountering the ‘Top 40’ meant listening to the radio (later watching TV) to learn which songs had climbed or fallen a few places in the charts depending on the music-buying public’s affections. I used to wait, enduring the songs that didn’t excite me in order to sing the songs that did.

As did many kids in the 80s, I would mischievously record my favourite songs from the radio on to cassette to learn the words, listening time and again whenever I wished, shutting out the things I didn’t like to hear – like an early analogue version of the now familiar digital echo chamber. Of course, then as now, my strategy was flawed as I would miss the chance to encounter unfamiliar sounds and beats that my formative tastes initially rejected, late to discover a rich variety of musical forms and genres. I listen far more now because I play the music that I love, albeit to please myself rather than anybody else.

I nearly repeated my youthful error when presented with Thesis Eleven’s own ‘Top 40’. Straight to the song I liked, Zygmunt Bauman’s paper on strangers. Bauman (and also Rudolf Stichweh, two years later) reflected on the sociology of strangers through modernity’s will to order and classify. This, after all, is how modern societies establish their own version of musical genres, forcing the rich variety of human existence and creativity into neatly labelled little boxes.

Here’s a box marked ‘like us’ – those people who are part of our gang, who look and sound the same, share our tastes, styles of language, hold to our worldview and our values, and so are those we choose to embrace within our sphere of moral obligation. Here’s a box marked ‘like them’ – moving through their life to unfamiliar offbeats, jarring our sense of form and comfortable compositions of life, and so deliberately forsaken for having spoiled the harmony, discarded to the scribbled margins of our moral indifference.

As with my favourite music growing up – a clash of lo-fi indie music and Blair’s ‘new labour’ politics that was always badly mislabelled as ‘Britpop’ in the 1990s – all this talk of strangers sounded familiar, even a little exciting, like rediscovering one of Bauman’s long-lost B sides. Yet had Bauman’s work not struck a chord with me precisely because it warned that familiarity bred contempt? Should I not be labouring instead to defamiliarise the familiar?

I decided to explore what else was waiting to be heard in this particular ‘Top 40’. I’ve just written a book with Bruce Davis – Crowdfunding and the Democratization of Finance, published earlier this month – in which we seek to combine theory and politics in the spirit of the journal’s founding mission to listen closely to Gramsci. In the book, we identify three models of democracy:

First, Representative/Aggregative, those formal structures of voting for party politicians;

Second, Participatory/Deliberative, favoured by transnational structures like the European Union and by local citizen’s juries, striving to make the voiceless heard by degrees of inclusivity; and

Third, Radical/Agonistic, that Mouffean end of the spectrum, the right of citizens to resist, to pursue conflict in civil society to try better circumstances for all.

So, I decided to explore four pieces on democracy, learning from co-founder Julian Triado of Hegel’s corporatist challenge to democracy, which anyway is “essentially normative and cannot be fully functionalized in accordance with empirical (systemic) constraints”. Further, that socialism, following Agnes Heller, ought best to be understood as ‘radicalized democracy’ – hinting at a conceptual and empirical messiness rather beautifully captured in Stuart Macintyre’s gloomy view of the short history of social democracy in Australia.

Three major conceptions of democracy inhere there too, through which Macintyre concludes that democracy is not a method that can be flexibly adapted to changing circumstances but exists rather as a rational and normative principle that carries with it implications for the organization of society and that we must heed. If not, Marcel Gauchet tells us five years later in reflecting on the French Republic, the wholesale desertion of civil society could spell the end of democracy at the exact moment of its supposed triumph – a warning also reflected in Volker Heins’ paper on transnational and post-national democracies in the context of Habermas’s writings on the possibilities and tensions of the European Union.

Are we now post-democratic? A rising populism driven by a return of fundamentalist thinking augmented by new technologies – the theme of my last paper in Thesis Eleven in 2020. I learned much from resisting the urge to listen to the familiar beats and rhythms of my ‘go to’ music, showing the value of listening to everything the journal has to offer throughout its back catalogue. Avoiding a kind of eternal return that would see the journal throw out its biggest chart hits in the manner embodied by the longevity of Mick and Keef, 40 years of Thesis Eleven has instead been “strikingly eclectic” – in the words of Markus and Markus. Perhaps this owes more to the loose forms of jazz than to rock n roll, or better still as maybe the purest form of soulfulness, to borrow the words of David Freeman.

So, what does Thesis Eleven mean to me – this journal that has been present throughout my entire life, before and after sociology decided to animate it? Three things occur, as they so often do to Marxists schooled in the Hegelian spirit of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. First, I agree with whoever said that Thesis Eleven is “a slow journal”. The Academy today is hurtling forward at incremental speed, with scholars forced to live increasingly hurried lives in institutions North, South, East, and West. These institutions of learning are accelerating dangerously beyond their capacity and seem reluctant to stop in order to understand what all feverish activity is for, beyond the obvious quest for market advantage in a battle for evermore fee-paying students.

The experience of academic life in liquid modernity thus appears to follow the formula set down in the Red Queen’s advice to Alice in Wonderland, in that we know it takes all the running we can do just to keep in the same place, and that if we want to get somewhere else, well, we must run at least twice as fast as that. And so, towards an ever-receding finishing line in a race nobody seems to remember a starting gun for, on we run.

In such a context – in those turbulent, swirling seas of liquid modernity – Thesis Eleven continues to provide an island of calm certainty. Like the best of friends, it’s always there doing what truly matters. Thesis Eleven has always focused on everyday life politics, Benjamin’s Jetztzeit, but with an acutely historical sensibility, each issue of the journal intended to keep a decades-long conversation going —a conversation that has long-outlived whatever counts as today’s most pressing political commentaries pumped out and confined to life as a chip-wrapper. History, Marxism, critical theory – and yes, from its founding statements, as moderated by and combined with new forms of struggle epitomized in feminism and later alternative modernities and the postcolonial turn – for indoor types hiding from the weather, really, what else is there?

Second, to admit defeat and finally quote Bauman directly: “Real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you”. Though the enduring commitment to Marxisms has remained, the journal – forever at the crossroads of socialism and scholarship – has always remained happy to carry the views of various others, not least those expected to generate disagreement. As with music, it does you good to hear something different once in a while…

Third, and bringing my remarks to a close, for me Thesis Eleven also means something more personal, an intimacy in liquid modern times, as a friendship extended from Melbourne to Leeds and back. In 2009, Liquid Cities; 2010 and 2011, the Bauman Institute arrives in Leeds and the State Library of Victoria; in 2014, we built sustainable societies. Each time we brought our academic families together to share ideas, argument, humour, to watch Hawthorn at the MCG and The Beatles in Manila, our wheels oiled with the odd glass of Malbec and poorly pronounced dash of Auchentoshan. As Peter rightly says, it’s just easier to order the Macallan.

Face to face or, as global circumstances dictate, screen to screen, we reaffirm a truth reflected of lives laboured in the Academy: that what matters for my generation is that Thesis Eleven really means Peter, Trevor, Sian, Christine, Tim and Andrew; that the Bauman Institute means Mark, Tom, Chris, Jack, Katy, Austin and more recently Adrian, the centre’s new director. People labouring in circumstances they didn’t choose not only to interpret the world, but to change it.

Thesis Eleven stands as inspiration for our work and for life in the Academy: to slow down in order to think (one of Keith Tester’s fondest lessons), to be open to real dialogue, to extend friendship around the world and back, and above all else, to keep the conversation going.

To the next 40 years and to climbing another place in our hearts, may this particular band play on…

Top 40 articles mentioned above are accessible via the Sage website as a part of the Thesis Eleven ‘Top 40’ special.

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