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Elite frequencies

Sheffield has produced some of the most consistently brilliant pop music of the last 30 years. But a

Warp 20

Various locations, Sheffield

At the centre of Steel City is something called the Cultural Industries Quarter. This contains the former National Centre for Popular Music, two steel blobs designed by Nigel Coates, a somewhat faded "Millennium Project" which closed within a couple of years, now used by Sheffield Hallam University for offices. There's the long-standing Leadmill Club, the Site Gallery and for some reason a branch of Spearmint Rhino. More to the point, it contains a 1930s building housing the Showroom cinema and Workstation, home of Warp Films, the only part of Warp Records' media empire that is still based in the city.

The very name "Cultural Industries Quarter" (one of ten "quarters" in the zoned city) is bright, Blairite nu-language that seems a bad joke amidst the recession's foreboding harshness. The notion that an economy can run itself through the "creative industries", financial services and tourism has taken an extremely heavy knock. It's particularly ironic that it sits next to the rail station of a once-proud heavy industrial metropolis, which has never quite worked out what to do with itself since the steel industry's "restructuring" in the 1980s (unlike South Yorkshire's coal mining, steel never ceased production, and the city makes as much of it as it ever did - only with a fraction of the workforce). What Sheffield has had since the late 1970s is perhaps the most consistently brilliant popular music of any city outside of London.

The city's electronic music, from The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire to early Warp artists Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist, took palpable inspiration from the cyclopean factories of the Don Valley and the fearless, grandly scaled 1960s architecture built for their workers. It's no surprise, then, that Warp Records' 20th anniversary celebrations in the city the label left in 2000 take place in the disputed remnants of a council estate and a steelworks, with film screenings in the former and a rave in the latter. The proceedings are assisted by the local regeneration quango, which bears the instructive name "Creative Sheffield".

That this is not entirely benign is obvious as soon as you get to the first of the two events, a Warp Films showcase in the magnificent, mostly disused Park Hill Flats. Once a gigantic declaration of Sheffield's pride in itself as a centre of municipal socialism, only one wing of this snaking, complex building is inhabited, while on the other side the Mancunian property developers Urban Splash are stripping the block to its frame in preparation for transforming it into barely recognisable upmarket apartments - with the assistance of state money. In between is dereliction. It's this boarded-up part which was used by Warp for this showcase of their film production arm, and given the sheer quantity of public space that defines Park Hill, you might assume the pedestrian could just walk in. Instead, metal fencing marks off the film event from the inhabited parts of the estate, with police watching from the walkways. Even the playground is fenced off. As a preview of the "mixed class" estate promised by Urban Splash and its public sponsors, it is not encouraging.

Nonetheless, once inside the films (mostly) fit the space well. A film on the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival is about as interesting as someone else's home movies, but Warp's music videos, remain playful, ambitious and intriguing. Warp's videos, from Jarvis Cocker and Martin Wallace's early efforts for Sweet Exorcist and Tricky Disco, to more extravagant works like Alex Rutterford's "Gantz Graf" for Autechre, or Chris Cunningham's bling absurdist film for Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker", are mini-masterpieces of the form. Certainly the futurist melancholia of the latter record feels appropriate for this tragic, sublime building.

The main event takes place in - again, note the already dated nomenclature - the Magna Science Adventure Centre, a Stirling Prize-winning building in 2001. Again we have a perfect meeting of place and sound, and again an overwhelming reminder of the area's class conflicts and disputed transformations. Magna was once the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks, part of the industrial zone that stretches between Sheffield and Rotherham. Next to business parks, retail parks and still functioning (if recession-threatened) steel plants, Magna offers up steel as a spectacle - and it's an awe-inspiring one, a superhuman process whose eventual lack of use for human workers seems entirely unsurprising. Inside a hangar-like space, reached through views of the overwhelming machinery, are the hilariously tiny DJs.

Warp is now a decidedly international operation, lacking the regional sentimentality of, say, the late Tony Wilson's Factory Records, which has spared Sheffield the tedious myth-making of the Mancunian music scene. The label seldom signs local acts. Nonetheless, it was Yorkshire producers who created Warp's most enduring, powerful music in the early '90s: the precise, compulsive techno of Sweet Exorcist's "Testone", LFO's Frequencies, Nightmares on Wax's "Aftermath", or Forgemasters, named after a Sheffield steelworks. Nightmares on Wax feature at Magna, billed as a reformation of their original lineup - after several singles in a Yorkshire techno vein, they split in 1991, leaving one member to pursue a rather less interesting trip-hop direction. At Magna their DJ set starts worryingly with a couple of tracks from later albums, but after interspersing Nitro Deluxe's "Let's Get Brutal" it becomes a techno set, concentrating on the cavernous, concussively physical, spacious sound they pioneered 20 years ago. It's awe-inspiring to hear it in a space like this, although the irony that it would have once occurred in disused warehouses and factories illegally, but is now doing so with local government assistance is doubtless not lost on some of the older participants. Alongside this controlled ferocity, the juxtaposition with the whimsical, wistful electro-jazz of Chris Clark or Squarepusher is not kind to later Warp, with their prettiness woefully inappropriate to the context. Nonetheless, Hudson Mohawke's set of mutated, maximalist hip hop shows they can still make some adroit signings.

Sheffield does not lack new electronic music. Yet it's a very different kind, the sort I heard teenagers play off their phones that night on the Rotherham-Sheffield train - bassline house, Yorkshire's brutalist version of 2-step garage, which owes much to the tinny bleeps and enveloping bass pulses of early Warp, splicing it with a far from minimal commercial crassness. Yet rather than being quango-funded, Niche, the club where it started was closed by South Yorkshire Police in 2005, in the tactfully named "Operation Repatriation". There wasn't a hint of bassline at Magna. "Creative Sheffield" remains a divided place.

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" (Zero Books) is out now. He blogs at Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy For more information about Warp's 20th birthday celebrations, click here.

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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