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Revolution in British: Billy Bragg

Happy MLK Day! There is good in every person. Our ideas about strength and security must change to reflect reality and not jingoistic imperialistic distortions. Normalizing war and militarizing foreign policy are perversions bringing only cynicism and mistrust.

For over three decades, Billy Bragg has been singing and is still furious. A conversation about life in turbo-capitalism

By Jon Henley

[This article published in: Freitag, 1/4/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, www.freitag.de.]

"Look out the window, Jon," Billy Bragg says and leaps from his low chair in his noble hotel room. He is still excited. Last night he played before 3000 at the East London Commercial Road near the hallowed anti-fascist ground of Cable Street where a 3000-man march of British fascists was smashed by over 300,000 counter-demonstrators and not far from the birth house of his brother. This was the last concert of a triumphal tour through the United Kingdom in which his characteristic tender and fervent call to arms seemed more important than ever.

With love songs, folk hymns and unshakeable devotion to democratic socialism, Bragg and his guitar have preached for more than three decades on stages up and down the country, a moderate and very English form of revolution. He never had more hope that this could lead to something.

What does it look like from the window on the fifth floor over the frost-covered roofs of the London downtown? "Is it cold outside?" he asks. "Very cold? Are there clouds, heavy clouds? It seems to me it could snow. Naturally one can never say with certainty. But things happen that I never saw before. Life is in movement."


It is hard not to be moved by the power of his conviction. He is now 53 years old, a successful singer-songwriter who lives in a beautiful, large house with a view of the ocean in the English village of Dorset - and is still furious. Let us go back to the signs that Bragg sees.

The first sign was in May when the forces of justice won the battle over Barking. All 12 town councils of the rightwing British National Party elected in 2006 were sent home. Bragg was born in Barking and counted the victorious Labor politician Margaret Hodge as one of the forces of justice. New Labor was "unequivocally complicit" that the battle had to be waged. The Barkingers recognized the BNP for what it was and chased them from their city.

"That infused great energy in the battle around the city," the "bard of Barking" says. Naming a city after him gives him courage. "We can trust our fellow-citizens."

Bragg was always an optimist - after he left the army in 1981, experienced his politization through the anti-racist Festival Rock against Racism and a formative concert by The Clash, released his first album and convinced the radio DJ-legend John Peel to play his album in 1983.

"I must be an optimist," he explains. "I am a socialist. I am a glass-is-half-full person. If we want to create something, we must believe this is possible. Nothing unnerves me more than a cynic. I don't m3ean skeptics but people who have abandoned hope and want you to give up. The BNP are cynics. The greatest enemy of those of us who want to create a better society is cynicism, not capitalism or conservatism. We must arm ourselves against our own cynicism. Look at me: I once voted for Tony Blair.


There is good reason to be optimistic for the year 2011 of (possible) revolution. This revolution is underway on several fronts. The battle over Barking was only the beginning. Contrary to all expectation, the second decade of the 21st century looks politically exciting. "The capitalism of free markets is in crisis," Bragg declares jubilantly.

Therefore people are beginning to understand we "must find a way to call the markets to responsibility, to bridle their worst excesses and ensure that those banks which attacked life are in the soup and not us. Self-regulation is a contradiction in itself. Turbo-capitalism drowns. The people are beginning to understand that unregulated markets are frauds, profit-making frauds."

Sadly even if perhaps inevitably, London City under New Labor climbed to its present heights. "All growth is good" - that was the dogma shared by all parties. A Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasurer) says he could not do anything that wasn't pleasing to the markets... A society governed by the markets is simply not a democracy. The markets are like a fire. Tame it, make it useful to you and it will give you warmth, light and heat for cooking... Give it free rein and it will destroy everything dear to you."

With this theme, he speaks warmly, he the youth who could not endure the tests in elementary school that granted him access to higher education and after which no one expected he would ever do anything but work in the auto factory, he the young punk-rocker whose father died at 52, a dock worker and sales manager for a Barkinger haberdashery. Billy was 18. I am now older than my father ever was," he said later. "That's why this year is so special to me."

People have had enough not only of the markets. "Many things come together: student fees, banker bonuses, tax evasion, dismantling the public sector and the resistance against globalization... What joins all this, Jon? A wishy-washy word named justice."

This justice, he continues, has nothing to do with the big society depicted by David Cameron. Justice is a society for the well-being of everyone, where the markets serve people and not the other way around, a compassionate society. Society in 1968 was very different than today. In these days, we should "live in a post-ideological society."

Those who protest today, Bragg says, are the first generation that could ever speak about socialism without having Karl Marx' long shadows. "What is socialism other than organized compassion?"


The young protestors of today "do not need the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) to tell them why they fight or the TUC (Trade Union Congress, the umbrella federation of British unions) to tell them where to march. They make the connections themselves. An absolute sense of justice underlies all their actions. That sense of justice politicizes them, not any kind of abstract interest in dialectical materialism."

He does not agree with violence. One of the lessons of the failed anti-globalization protests is that the world is not changed by demolishing McDonalds' franchises."

Where is the music? Wasn't there music at the time of the miners' strike and the Falkland war? Where is it now? He admits meditating about this for a long time. In the 1960s young people thought they could change the world with music because their own lives had changed for ever through rock' n' roll. "But that wasn't so simple. One can't change the world by selling records. But selling records helped me and others in the 1980s. We tried to politicize young people with the Red Wedge, persons who were teenagers in 1968. That gave us a platform. Today, in contrast, it is not accepted when young bands are political. They need trust and must feel they have a base. This is not yet the case now but could change. No one wrote about Vietnam until they began to recruit college-age kids for the war."

The musicians of his generation could help, he believes, "by showing the younger they aren't the first to fight this battle. That is the real challenge of the musician. Look at me. I would not be sitting here if I had missed the Clash concert at that time. The Clash did not change my world but their public. In the office where I worked, there was much everyday racism, snide remarks and jokes. I didn't like that but didn't have the size to say anything. Then I knew I was not alone when I went to work the next day after I saw 100,000 kids in Victoria Park in Hackney who experienced life as I did. The world in which I lived had not changed but rather the way I saw it and thought about it. That is the challenge of the musician."


Whether or not he changed his perception, Billy Bragg never had more to do. Besides the tour and the battle over Barking, he announced in 2010 he would not pay taxes as long as the government did not cancel the bonuses at the nationalized Royal Bank of Scotland, visited a dozen prisons in his Jail Guitar Doors-campaign to promote music-making in the penal system and cooperated with the Featured Artists Coalition that supported the interests of artists in the digital age. At the Glastenbury festival, he moderated the Leftfiled tent for pop and politics, appeared in the Speaker's Corner, joined in the Theater-Music-Art-Project Pressure Drop, visited students at sit-ins to support them and travelled to the US midterm elections in the United States.

Since he voted for the liberal-democrats for tactical reasons since 2001, he now feels he committed a terrible betrayal or sell-out. "They had a few positive things in their manifesto. But now it seems they have thrown everything over board." Nevertheless he still believes in the advantages of political pluralism and is active in the Take Back Parliament - campaign for a reform of the British voting system. While he hears some criticism, "if you hang your ass out the window, you never know whether people will kiss it, step on it or stick a flag in it."

Last year was "stirring." This will be true even more in 2011. "I am really excited. We should never underrate the energy of youth and their ability to renew the world. We must learn much from them - their capacity for connecting things, taking the initiative and not hanging around and repeating what Marx said. You know: seniors can sit around and shake their heads. Or they can follow the students to the barricades. I know where I will be."

VIDEO: "Austerity America," Al Campbell
Free Internet Book: "Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity," Lawrence Lessig

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