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Mark E Smith: A sudden end to forty years of prole art threat

The circumstances of productive boredom and limited horizons that gave him his vocation have gone, and will not return.

“The great thing about rock and roll is, any idiot can play it. The bad thing about rock and roll is, any idiot can play it.” Many personal recollections of Mark E Smith bubbled up on social media when the death of this singular figure – tyrannical owner-operator and sole permanent component of The Fall, most curmudgeonly man in pop, and possibly the last member of the punk generation still engaged in intellectual jihad against sonic acceptability – was announced on January 24. But these lines, half-remembered by ex-WYNU DJ Hugh Foley from his interview with Smith in the 1980s, said it best, I thought. Though The Fall grew out of punk’s DIY anti-elitism they repudiated its anti-intellectualism with venom. The group (never “band”, Smith always insisted) could sound simple, basic, dumb even, but they emphatically weren’t. They – Smith – contained multitudes.

A working class autodidact from Prestwich in Bury with a mind wired differently both by nature and a prodigious consumption of alcohol and speed, Smith would employ the lumpen brutality of pre-Beatles rock and roll plus Krautrock’s mind-dissolving repetition to deliver a dense cross-cultural payload. In this endeavour, the group made successive generations of supposedly alternative rock appear craven and illiterate. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, European football and Doris Stokes, CB radio, Jabberwocky, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, DC comics and of course Albert Camus: it was all there if you could find it, accompanied by ever-shifting musicians who might sound like Link Wray one year or a malfunctioning ZX Spectrum the next.

This was not easy-access stuff. Like any music which changes you, The Fall are on first listen unlistenable. You must conquer your terror and take a couple of runs at it. Once you’ve broken through the membrane, little else will do. This is what their great advocate John Peel meant when he said that The Fall are the group against which all others must measure themselves. Not that they should all sound like The Fall, though many have tried, but that they should try to do what The Fall did. They should try to become something entirely of themselves.

The wonderful and frightening world that Smith built over four decades can therefore be enjoyed in several different dimensions. His inimitable song titles alone were entertainments, offering elliptical social commentary (from “Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul” and “Mere Pseud Mag Ed” up to “Quit iPhone”) and bewildering urban surrealism (“Das Vulture Ans Ein Nutter-Wain”? “Noel’s Chemical Effluence”? ‘Mollusc In Tyrol”?) and in one significant case (“Prole Art Threat”) the group’s own three-word mission statement.

As a lyricist, Smith could veer from the Lovecraftian cosmic horror of “Impression Of J Temperance” (“The new born thing hard to describe/Like a rat that's been trapped inside/A warehouse space near a city tide”) to the absurdist comedy of reciting a weekend colour supplement interview with Pete Tong in which the DJ lists all the things he can’t leave home without (“Sunglasses… Palm Pilot… Amex card… I was in the realm of the essence of Tong”). Undercutting his visions of modern purgatory with demotic humour – he always insisted against all visible evidence that Fall fans were miners and postmen not students and Guardian readers – Smith wrote like a vorticist Les Dawson, gazing through the hole in the outside lavvy roof at the abyssal horrors beyond, simultaneously funny and terrifying. Yet in lovely songs such as “Bill Is Dead” or “Edinburgh Man” he could exhibit a scarcely comprehensible tenderness.

And then there was the marginalia, the compressed idea bombs and nanofestos scribbled on Smith’s handmade record sleeves and adverts: “ANTI-THE GROUP ‘QUEEN’ TYPE SOUND” or “IS THIS LP SUFFICIENTLY COFFEE TABLE?” or, demonstrating precognitive powers re. Brexit on the cover of 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour, “CUSHY E.E.C. EURO STATE GOALS”. In a pre-digital age these were there to be pored over, like a Morrissey one-liner or a Kierkegaard quote on a Frankie Goes To Hollywood sleeve. An inveterate bullshitter, Smith frequently claimed to have invented everything from rap to the Internet. If so, he invented the tweet as well.

The caricature of Smith as a brutal martinet, however, held more than a grain of truth. Famously over 60 musicians including wives and girlfriends were hired and fired in the course of The Fall’s existence, one by being abandoned beside a freeway during a snowstorm. Another entire line-up, including loyal long-sufferers Karl Burns and Steve Hanley, was fired onstage during a shambolic show in New York in 1998. This incident shone a light on Smith’s least attractive qualities; he was later charged with assault and ordered to undergo alcohol treatment for attacking his girlfriend, keyboard player Julia Nagle.

Neither was his decline over the past decade a cheering sight. Fall shows became increasingly unpredictable and dispiriting in the 21st century, notably their 2015 Glastonbury appearance in which a disoriented Smith appeared to have pissed himself onstage. By 2017 he was visibly ill, bloated and performing from a wheelchair. Throat and respiratory problems meant the cancellation of a US tour. And yet somehow a new Fall album would come out every other year and there would always be a gem on it. “Fol De Rol” from last year’s “New Facts Emerge” was as basic, euphoric and brilliant as ever.

It is a commonplace to say of the departed that there will never be another. But there can never be another Mark E. Smith. The circumstances of productive boredom and limited horizons that gave him his vocation have gone and will not return. You can however hear Smith in everything from Franz Ferdinand to LCD Soundsystem to 2018’s Cabbage and Shame. “Life should be full of strangeness, like a rich painting,” Smith sang in “How I Wrote “Elastic Man”. Now it is less rich and less strange.

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist