Claiming back Frank Turner

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Frank Turner is a singer-songwriter whose success was rapid and well earned. When I watched him 5 years ago, playing small venues, it was hard to imagine how huge he would become. As such, being popular with people who make a point of not following the mainstream, the cries of “sell-out” at playing Wembley Arena or the Olympics Ceremony did not occur and would have been unfair were they to. His success was built upon the hard work he has put in, playing in small venues to dedicated fans.

Turner is also popular among other people who decry the mainstream, namely ‘the Left’. Hence, there was outcry when an old interview surfaced on the internet in which he castigated socialism as “authoritarian” and “evil“, identifying himself as a libertarian (a word many took to mean a thinly veiled code for ‘Tory’). A backlash inevitably ensued. Acoustic guitar wielding singer-songwriters are meant to be of the people, slaying fascists with their lyrics like Woody Guthrie, not demanding the roll back of the welfare state like a provincial rotary club bore. Yet Turner’s politics, or more appropriately anti-politics, are very interesting and require deeper analysis. They reflect a broad trend of disillusionment in our generation. And yet, some of what they represent – the claims of liberty and individuality as essential to artistic endeavour – are ideas which socialists need to claim as their own. Turner’s statements on politics present an opportunity for socialists, as lovers of art and culture, to present an alternative concept of what art and music are, what they represent and what they could ultimately be under a condition of socialism.

One can trace Turner’s political development through his music. A while back on the FAQ section of his website Turner was asked why he never plays one of his early numbers from the ‘Campfire Punkrock EP’ anymore. A jaunty number made great by the simplicity of its message and title: ‘Thatcher Fucked the Kids’. He stopped playing it around four or five years ago, and when asked why, Turner stated that he did not want to be known as a ‘political songwriter’ in the vein of Billy Bragg. He argued that his scope is much wider than mere politics – fair enough really, I always found Bragg’s love songs more interesting than the overtly political. Yet, perhaps Turner could continue to be a small ‘p’ political songwriter? This was nailed in the same FAQ when Turner made a point of stating “I am not a socialist”, self-identifying as a libertarian, a development from his days as a teenage punk-inspired anarchist. Thus, it could be that his politics have been an ‘open secret’ for a long time. His disillusionment with politics was manifestly clear in the title track of his second album ‘Love, Ire and Song’- wherein he traces the death of his youthful earnestness and optimism, crushed by the realisation that our “parents had let the world all go to shit” leaving us with “idiot fucking hippies in fifty different factions, locked in some kind of 1960s battle re-enactment”. The “values and ideas that many had fought and died for, had been killed off in the committees and left to die by the wayside.” The refrain “lets by 1905 but not 1917” is a cut and dry statement that he never was nor ever would be a darling of the socialist Left.

Yet the basis for his politics – anti-authoritarian, rooted in the high ideals of individuality and liberty, manifest in a dislike and distrust of socialism as he interprets it – provide the basis for rebuke. It offers the very discourse from which socialists can argue an alternative interpretation of politics, art and the world. By his third album he developed an increasing preoccupation with the concept of “Britishness” and “Englishness” represented by the song ‘Sons of Liberty’ – “Stand up sons of liberty and fight for what you own/stand up sons of liberty and fight, fight for your homes”. Harking back to a golden age of Britishness is commonly linked with conservatism, but is also a strong current within British socialism. As such the song and his love of a ‘golden age’ can be read from broadly a right wing and left wing perspective, much in the way people across the political spectrum can find a reflection of their own worldview and conception of Britishness in Blake’s ‘Jerusalem.’

The song invokes historical memories of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt and the great radicalism unleashed in the 1640s and 50s by the English Civil War/Revolution. The English as a proud and freedom-loving people, oppressed since the time of William the Bastard, and labouring under an oppressive ‘Norman Yoke.’ Historical events and discourses which again are open to left and ‘non-left’ interpretations. Are Wat Tyler and the Levellers prototypic socialists or defenders of the great ‘English’ concept of liberty, outside of any meaningful socialist content? These historical archetypes of ‘English radicalism’ undoubtedly stood for a love of freedom, liberty and individuality against an oppressive state. Yet, they were historically defeated, precisely because they did not (and could not in their day) fully appreciate or discern the logical adjunct to their demands regarding liberty. The Diggers, or True Levellers, a group subsequent socialist historians have celebrated, perhaps understood more that these high ideals were rooted in issues of ownership and wealth. That liberty was not achievable without common ownership of property and land. The further development of the Diggers’ ideals and practices is the lesson that any attempt to implement common ownership and the commonwealth will be met with brutal and crushing state violence.

The great Victorian socialist William Morris, described by some as a ‘libertarian socialist’, understood fully his role as an artist and a revolutionary socialist. That all art under a capitalist mode of production could not be true art, that as long as inequality persisted art would be the “preserve of a few”. The libertarians’ great claims for liberty and individuality will only ever be truly realised under a condition of social and economic equality: that is under socialism. The logical outcome of libertarianism is that people essentially get what they deserve, that hard work is rewarded. Undeniably Turner got where he is through talent and hard-work – the number of gigs he has played in his career is testament to his drive and passion, and rightly makes him popular. Yet this is essentially art for the few. For every successful artist there a countless millions of others throughout history whose opportunities and potential have been stunted and strangled at birth through grand historical processes of inequality and oppression. In his utopian tract ‘News From Nowhere’, Morris envisages a world where everyone is to an extent an artist, regardless of their innate talent or ability, all have the opportunity, free time and freedom to pursue any passion or interest they have. The outcome is not important, what matters is that they possess the liberty to do so.

Morris’s analysis is how socialists need to refute the cries of ‘authoritarian’ Left from libertarians such as Turner. Socialism and equality of condition are the means through which the libertarian ideals of individuality and freedom, to create and enjoy, arise, and without which it is merely art for a few and toil and misery for the unnamed and unknown millions who never had a chance. True individuality – the right to freely have the room to breathe, to reflect and decide who and what you want to be – needs to be claimed as an inherent socialist idea, totally opposite and totally incompatible with individuality-as-individualism, a rapacious and competitive race to the bottom, rooted in gross inequality. Capitalism has deformed and claimed the concepts of individuality and liberty, socialists need to claim them back.

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