Rebellious Aesthetics and Indie Capitalism

Boots Riley is not only one of my favourite contemporary musicians, he’s also an artist whose politics are radical in a way that seems to be relatively rare in the United States. A while ago he wrote something (in reference to outrage about Urban Outfitters selling a “Vintage Men’s Punk Leather Jacket“) that I thought was really worth sharing and discussing.

Punk and “Underground” Hip-Hop is simply indie capitalism. Indie capitalism is not an answer to our problems, even if it didn’t develop into this.

A rebellious aesthetic is not an actual revolutionary movement.

An aesthetic is always absorbed and used by the class which is in power.

This is why we must have a radical movement that builds its numbers for revolution by using mass direct action to make material changes in the lives of those involved, while making it clear that we are out to create a new system- showing the class structure of the current system, while teaching through example that there is power in numbers and that we can win.

Next up for urban outfitters: whatever revolutionary uniform we’re wearing right now.

This is quite possibly the most succinct phrasing of the problem I have with so much recent “radical” art, whether it’s punk music or indie games: the belief that doing something aesthetically or socially unusual is itself a revolutionary act. And I see why it’s easy to make that mistake: after all, there is definite resistance from the established order! Whether your art is pushing a previously-excluded social identity or a new/rediscovered style or technique, the fact that you have to fight people who quite clearly identify with the system makes you feel like you’re fighting the system itself. But you’re not, and that’s the whole point of calling it a system – its current representatives are part of the machine as much as any worker is, and are just as easily replaced. Their position in society may be a manifestation of the inequality of the system, but they’re not the cause of the inequality – only its face.

Capitalism consists of a set of social relations, not of a group of capitalists. And the social relations of capitalism are all about conflict; capitalism thrives on conflict, and in its eternal quest for compound growth, capitalism loves nothing more than a new market. In fact, capitalism desperately needs new markets, because the existing markets simply cannot provide enough growth to avoid crisis. But when the big, sluggish, corporate world can’t innovate or indoctrinate quickly enough to produce new markets, who can help? Why, it’s the young, flexible, passionate indie capitalist, who has always felt excluded from the mainstream, who wants a new space, a new way of making or selling art… a new market.

And the history of social oppression? Well, that’s doubly fantastic. It means that the new target audience is hungry for art directed exclusively at it, experiencing a kind of nationalistic pride at being able to support artists that belong to the same identity group. And it also means that the pent-up anger of this group can be safely dissipated into “radical” art, the purchase and consumption of which gives the emotionally and politically engaged audience the feeling that they’re doing something for the greater good, that progress towards equality is being made. But all that’s happening is that a new market is being created, and indie capitalists are making money off of it. These new capitalists may be different in some ways (skin colour, clothing, sexuality, gender, aesthetic preferences, religious beliefs, nationality, etc.) but the system itself hasn’t changed in any way, except that representatives of the old order can pat themselves on the back for how “inclusive” and “forward-thinking” they are.

Then, given enough time, the glamour of recently accomplished “change” wears off, and it’s time for another rebellious aesthetic to fight for the right of a small group of people to make a living, never even noticing that “the Man” used to be a rebellious artist himself.

So what’s a politically radical artist supposed to do? Starve?

Many radical artists seem to struggle with that question. They dislike capitalism, so they feel bad about selling things – but they also need to pay the rent. Are they selling out? Are they hypocrites? Often the only way out of this dilemma is to embrace the myth that indie capitalism is somehow morally better than the regular kind, because the money is going to an oppressed person. In this way, they often end up perpetuating the narrative of the exceptional minority: look, this person made it, they’re one of us, they’ve struck a blow for our cause, everything is getting better. This is even less productive than worrying about your own hypocrisy.

The cause of this political and philosophical confusion in radical artists is a very simple error in framing their own situation. If you follow the logic of “the personal is the political” and understand capitalism as a matter of lifestyle, a matter of identity, then the only way to be morally pure is to “drop out” – and given that pretty much the entire world is capitalist at this point, that would mean abandoning civilization itself. The moral anticapitalist will always see a sinner in the mirror, and in every battle to destroy “the capitalists” will manage only to, in the words of Todd Gitlin, “change the color of inequality.”

But understanding capitalism as a system, not a sin, easily solves this problem. Everyone participates in capitalism, not just “the privileged” – capitalism defines and affects the totality of social relations, and no-one is free from it. But no-one is morally responsible for it, either. Rupert Murdoch may be a terrible human being and a blight upon the face of the Earth, but he’s far more a function of the system than he is its owner. Obviously most sane people wouldn’t be particularly sad if a dragon swooped out of the sky and ate him, but nothing much would be changed by this admittedly pleasant turn of events. If we stop fetishizing the personal, we suddenly remember how to see the political.

Letting go of the egocentric moralistic perspective means treating one’s art in a healthier, humbler way. It means not overestimating resistance to one’s aesthetics or identity as a sign that one’s work is inherently revolutionary; it’s also a reminder that genuine revolution has to go beyond art. It’s too easy to believe in one’s own myth and neglect to actually participate in the struggle.

Make your art. Sell your art. Don’t be ashamed. But if you want a revolution, don’t stop there.