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Eleven Theses on Music

Paul Burkett

Paul Burkett, "In memory of Paul Burkett, Marxist scholar and jazz musician, 1956-2024," Climate & Capitalism, January 8, 2024.

Paul Burkett (1956–2024) was a professor of economics at Indiana State University, and the author of Marx and Nature (Haymarket, second edition 2014). He was also a jazz musician.

This article is from a previously unpublished manuscript written as part of an extended conversation with Victor Walls, professor of liberal arts at the Berklee College of Music, himself a frequent contributor to Monthly Review and author of Red-Green Revolution (Political Animal Press, second edition 2022). For Wallis’s view of the social relations of music, see his “On Music and Politics,” And Then, no. 16 (2011): 79–80.

(1) From the standpoint of human development, music (much like poetry) is a crucial way for people individually and collectively to express their personal and political sentiments, including those among us who are marginalized, suppressed, or ignored by the dominant structures of power. In terms of the struggle against capitalism, the creation and performance of music is an absolutely essential way for people to develop and validate their creative expressive capacities in and against the dominant corporate capitalist culture. Popularly (grassroots) created music can enable people to express and communicate both personal and social sentiments in innovative ways other than those available from the capitalist culture industry. This includes the cooperative production of music and the use of musical production and performance to break down class, gender, racial, and other barriers to human development.

The free development of human beings requires, at a very basic level, the ability of people to individually and collectively articulate, express, and communicate their personal and social sentiments in response to the social and interpersonal relationships within which they live, work, and evolve as human beings. Developing the ability to express and communicate sentiments may even be a central aspect of what defines human development compared to the development of other species. Musical expression is an important part of this ability, not least because it is not limited to sentiments that can be articulated in words. Music can even express sentiments that are either inherently beyond words or at early, preverbal stages of emergence and articulation.

(2) Capitalist culture is dominated by the imperatives of exchange value (competitive, profit-driven production, exchange, and distribution). This includes the division of musical and other creative activities into separate realms of production and consumption (music becoming something people individually buy, not something they create both individually and socially); the segmentation of creative activities and products into discrete mass-marketing categories; the plunder of musical and other cultural expressions from their popular origins and their conversion into mass-marketed commodities; and, of course, the imposition of a hierarchical, profit-shaped, and profit-driven division of labor onto musical production itself. All of this can be traced to the domination of economic and social life by capital accumulation and the conversion of use values (that is, wealth in the sense of the rich variety of human development) into mere forms of exchange value, of wealth in the abstract moving through the circuits of capital. (The ecological critique of the value form in my book Marx and Nature can be extended to the production, exchange, and distribution of music.)

(3) When people’s musical experiences are limited to the consumption and/or production of corporate capitalist music, their abilities to individually and collectively use music as a way of autonomously expressing and communicating their sentiments (various feelings of happiness, despair, solidarity, isolation, and so on) are stunted, atrophied, alienated, and generally underdeveloped. This alienation of creative capacities happens even to musicians themselves if their musical production is limited to the performance of “cover” versions of corporately accepted musical works, or to “new” works that mimic commercially accepted forms. In this way, the corporate capitalist music industry can be seen as a modality by which the system constrains and distorts human development, channeling it into forms and outlets that not only do not threaten the system, but actually reinforce the power of capital over human life and its material-social framework.

(4) It is not just that music becomes a commodity available for purchase. Corporate programmed music becomes a soundtrack for alienated human existence at work, in transit, while shopping, in bars and restaurants, at the doctor’s and other offices and waiting areas where people spend their time, on the phone, on the Internet, and so on. This programmed, predetermined musical environment seems to offer many musical choices, but these are choices within alternatives constrained and categorized by corporate capital, whose production is itself constrained and shaped by capitalist competition and profit priorities—not by the requirements of individual and collective human development. In addition, the number of choices available depends on circumstances including the ability to pay, mainstream corporate fashions and fads, and the prior socialization of households and business managers into mainstream musical preferences.

(5) True, the expression of personal and political sentiments is not the only valid function of music. Pure pleasure (including relaxation), celebration and reinforcement of traditions, and the development and honing of technical and performance skills are others. But the expressive function of music is the most important for the development of those creative and expressive capacities that mark humanity as a (potentially) uniquely self-conscious and socially empathic species. Thus, the confinement and channeling of musical expression into forms and sentiments that are amenable to competitive commodification and capital accumulation is an important mode by which capitalism stunts and distorts human development. Conversely, struggles by musicians and music lovers for autonomy in musical expression (in, against, and outside the market) can be seen as part of the broader struggle for human development, that is, as prefiguratively (and at times quite explicitly) socialist struggles.

(6) In converting music into a commodity that people (and businesses) buy, the creation of music itself becomes limited by corporate priorities. Musicians are encouraged to “look for a market” in the very process of determining the forms in which they want to express themselves, as well as in choosing what kinds of sentiments they wish to express. Musical capabilities and expressions are often confined to commercially safe and predictable channels, except for the few privileged producers of avant-garde culture who, financed by foundation grants, university positions, and the like, are able to undertake some new forms of creativity, but in a way that is alienated from the vast majority of working people and communities while catering to the cultural needs of the (white and nonwhite) corporate bourgeoisie (Jazz at Lincoln Center and similar organizations, for example).

(7) Given these tendencies, people’s autonomous efforts to express their personal and political sentiments through music inherently involve struggle in a quite holistic sense: struggles to carve out new forms of expression in and against the dominant tendencies of corporate capitalist music. Part of this involves fighting against the tendency of capital to embrace and commercialize (and convert into alienating forms) extant musical works whose origins lie in the creative, free efforts of individuals and collectives to express themselves. Whole traditions of music have been commercialized and alienated in this way, including those that grew out of popular struggles against capitalism, for democracy, and for gender, ethnic, and racial liberation. At the same time, an important dimension of musical struggle is the use and reshaping of extant forms—even those bearing the marks of corporate capitalist alienation—in new, autonomously creative and potentially anticapitalist ways. Even within the citadels of corporate culture, some artists have succeeded in carving out progressive positions (Rage Against the Machine is one recent example).

(8) In my opinion, “free form” modes of musical expression, especially free improvisational music (often called “free jazz”), offer the greatest potential for grassroots liberation from corporate-capitalist music and culture. Organically improvisational forms of music may even spontaneously prefigure (and provide simple, coordinative forms of) de-alienated production in the broader socioeconomic sphere. But their main potential lies in their creative autonomy, in the fact that they carve out individually and collectively self-produced spaces, in both consciousness and interpersonal material-social interactions, for the expression of personal and political sentiments—especially those that are, either by their nature or for the moment, not possible to articulate verbally. (There are many useful allusions to these connections in the literature on improvisational music; but see especially Ben Watson’s biography of Derek Bailey, David Such’s book on avant-garde jazz musicians, and various contributions to Signal to Noise and The Wire.) It should be emphasized, however, that the struggle for free expression of sentiments and the development of expressive capabilities is ongoing in virtually all spheres of music, even those under the control of corporate capital. It is a matter of the differential constraints operative on human actors in various spheres of musical activity. My point, to put it differently, is that the most clearly radical and liberating forms of expression lie largely outside the widely accepted boundaries of the “music industry,” especially in the more free-form areas of musical production.

(9) Another basis for ongoing creative efforts at de-alienation in and against the capitalist music industry is the changing technology of music itself. Computers, digitalized instruments, micro-audio and video recording technologies, and the Internet make it possible for young musicians to express and communicate their personal and political sentiments in new, creative ways that conflict with corporate-capitalist culture, and even supply useful cultural resources for liberating social movements. Of course, it is not easy to use these technologies, which are developed largely for mass-marketing purposes, without creative efforts being confined within modes structured by the competitive, profit-driven imperatives of corporate capital. Besides, it is difficult enough for anyone to make a living as a musician, but even more so if one’s creative efforts are noncommercial from the get-go, that is, if one lets creative expression and communication be the guide, rather than commercial viability as defined by dominant performance venues and private media companies. This path of struggle leads toward the commandeering and creation of new performance venues (often involving not just music but new combinations of “performance arts,” as well as reclamations of common spaces) and new grassroots media institutions (such as municipal and pirate radio or guerrilla distribution of recordings outside corporate channels) less constrained by private profit and mass-market competition. Still, it is a difficult struggle given the broader conditions of corporatized culture, and most artists have to take on “day jobs” or find other sources of subsistence.

(10) The logic of such popular musical struggles thus leads to demands for a guaranteed income to provide subsistence for musicians and other cultural producers, as well as targeted public subsidies for grassroots cultural production (thus treating culture like the public good it actually is, on which, see my eleventh thesis), and a corresponding massive reorientation of economic surplus toward the truly popular cultural sector, and away from the military and other forms of systemic waste. There is a potential synergy with ecological struggles here insofar as grassroots cultural production is less matter-energy intensive and less polluting than other economic activities. The pro-ecological character of popular musical production is not automatic, however, given the use of digitalized technologies, but it is worth exploring in more detail (for example, the potential use of solar and wind energy to power the instruments of musical production).

In any case, the imperative to treat culture as a public good or social overhead raises the challenge of how to deal with quality evaluation in the distribution of public subsidies to musical producers and their venues. The distributional conflicts involved in musical subsidies are softened in so far as guaranteed subsistence is improved not just through rising money income minima, but through a greater availability of public goods in general, including health care, education, and access to cultural activities, as well as housing (once housing is itself explicitly socialized in various public-sector and cooperative forms). However, the quality issue will remain a challenge for any society interested in promoting musical activity as an instrument and form of human development. It must be resolved openly and democratically and not on the basis of preexisting cultural elite-based and/or corporate-culture hierarchies.

(11) Too much recent discussion of the music industry has focused on the problem of how to compensate individual musicians, especially when their music becomes available on the Internet. One would think from these discussions that the main issue is one of individual property rights. That this whole problem points to the need to treat musical and other forms of cultural production like the public goods they are (that is, as social overheads, to be financed accordingly by public-sector budgets) has been less commented on. The same is true for the implication that the big challenge is how to treat culture as a social overhead while maintaining its autonomy, creativity, and variety, and doing so in a democratic way. But an even more basic point has been missed entirely: can society come to grips with the blatant contradiction between the great human developmental potential of digital technology versus the use of this technology as a competitive, profit-driven instrument by corporate capital in ways that distort, stunt, and suffocate human development?

It is not just a matter of compensating artists (“hit makers”) when the marginal cost of an additional copy of a song is zero. It is that personal and social space and time are being filled by digital junk culture matter, a constant barrage of intellectually and culturally impoverished noise that distorts and constrains human development itself. In this broad setting, most people (that is, apart from the struggling artists) do not think of music as a resource for or a potential form of their own creative expression of their own autonomously generated personal and social sentiments, but rather as simply a matter of choosing background sounds from among the choices offered by corporate capital. Yet many young people especially, as well as noncapitalist Indigenous communities around the world, are valiantly struggling against this tendency in their efforts to develop their own autonomous musical forms and communities. From a human development standpoint, this is a cultural frontline in the struggle to expand the time and space for autonomous human development—one that cannot help but contest the power of money and the market in material and cultural realms.

2024, Volume 75, Number 10 (March 2024)
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