Pushing Back on Austerity, Vampires, Crisis and Capitalism: The Last Symphony and its Critics

John Halle


Anyone observing that capitalism degrades the soul and poisons the mind should expect a reaction from capitalism’s cheerleaders.  So it wasn’t a surprise that ur-neoliberal Matt Yglesias found my “socialist case for classical music unpersuasive.”  (Presumably this is to be juxtaposed to the capitalist case for, say, banking, health care or renewable energy development which he evidently finds persuasive.) Also weighing in was thinking man’s neo-con Josh Barro, who found the 1500 word article “long”.  He also also found it “dumb”, though coming from a champion of the economic policies of Paul Ryan and Mark Sanford, this judgement was not something to lose much sleep over. (1)

What came as a surprise was that stating the obvious brought out a lot of hostility from the left though in retrospect, it should not have.  For a central point of the piece was that capitalism in its late form has led to a coarser, more violent and superficial world, one which has begun to influence how we think and feel and relate to others.   No one likes to be told that they are victims and much of the hostility seemed to be based on the assumption that the left is somehow immune to the social, cultural and political pathologies which we routinely ascribe to the most benighted precincts of the yahoo right.

The left doesn’t want to hear that either. But the evidence for it is right in front of our noses which is to say in the comments themselves.  A large fraction of the roughly 200 which I perused manifested the complement of symptoms which Mark Fisher recently categorized as those of “the vampire left.”(2) Casually dismissing 400 years of artistic masterpieces as “the endless greatest hits of familiar dead composers” and as mere reflections of “old white people’s tastes nobody gives a shit about,”  any appreciation of this repertoire amounted to, according to one well “liked” posting, “petit bourgeois moralism.” Others suggested that enjoyment of “white peoples music” equated to complicity in racial oppression some darkly hinting at my own racist tendencies, with my failure to mention jazz taken as confirmation.

The vampire left, as Fisher points out, remains in constant attack mode ready to pounce on any “left-winger who is actually succeeding in taking the struggle to the centre ground” in so doing blunting the left’s capacity to spread its message and to organize.  At the same time, as a corollary to this, by designating a class of targets unworthy of our support or defense, the vampire left provides ideological cover for the imposition of neoliberal austerity. Thus, to take the main example discussed in the piece, the corporate board of the Minnesota Orchestra is demanding huge wage reductions from and the imposition of degrading working conditions on the orchestra musicians.  But since their job involves performing “white people’s music”, there is no reason why the left should know or care. Another involves the likelihood of the city of Detroit being required to sell off the masterpieces in the Detroit Art Institute.  This need not trouble us as this is merely “white person’s art which nobody gives a shit about”.  Or to take another instance provided by Noam Chomsky in response to my piece, the conversion of “first rate universities into third rate commercial enterprises” shouldn’t elicit any protest  as the university curriculum consists of studies of “white peoples literature” such as Shakespeare, Flaubert or von Kleist, the “white people’s mathematics” of Gauss, or the “white people’s physics” of Newton.


These attitudes are by now familiar to the extent that a younger generation would be justified in assuming that they have a long history within the movement.   That they are, in fact, a relatively recent development is the subject of my article “Nothing’s Too Good for the Working Class” (to appear in the Winter 2014 New Politics) which cites, among many others indications, Stanley Aronowitz’s description of his family’s deep commitment to “’high’ art (as) the only possible cultural legacy for a working class that sought to transcend the degraded conditions of its subordinate existence.” Rather than being hostile to or uncomprehending of artistic masterpieces, for most of the last century at least a radicalized working class regarded classical music, fine arts, and literature as the cultural equivalent of palaces, royal gardens and crown jewels, assets to be returned to their rightful owners in the working class.

Furthermore, for most of its history, the left, rather than joining in with philistine attacks on high culture saw itself as playing a crucial role in maintaining it, recognizing that, as was pithily noted by the late Robert Fitch “the bourgeoisie takes very bad care of its cultural inheritance.” This recognition made possible a de facto alliance between workers and artists, writers and intellectuals under the umbrella of socialist and communist parties and labor unions during the first part of the 20th century. This contrasts dramatically with the present where many on the left are content to see much of humanity’s cultural, artistic and intellectual capital be incinerated at the alter of neoliberalism, and where the gap between workers, intellectuals and the high arts seems unbridgeably distant.

Several explanations for the collapse of the left consensus on the role of the high arts are taken up in the piece of which I will mention one here: after generations of marginalization, the left, or more precisely, its leadership and the institutions which claim to serve it are desperate for victories justifying their positions and the financial and in kind support they receive from the rank and file.

In the absence of substantive achievements, the left establishment takes refuge in symbolism: we have failed to make any difference in addressing the desperate conditions of indigenous peoples, but we have succeeded in changing of names of a couple of sports teams.  We have done essentially nothing to prevent the largest drop in African American wealth in history over the past six years but we gladly take credit for and celebrate as one of our own the phenotypically African American president who presided over the carnage.  A full one quarter of all African Americans rot in prison or on probation, but jazz (“black classical music”) has been granted a central place in music school curricula. And, to return to the subject of the original piece, while we have been able to do nothing about economic elites looting of the treasury, their hoarding of virtually all of the economic gains since over the past five years, we can at least imagine that we can succeed in eliminating from the city of Minneapolis the music which we imagine (largely contrary to fact) them listening to: that associated with the symphony orchestra.

Obviously, given our longstanding fecklessness, undermining even the most insignificant bourgeois institution is not a job we can do alone, which accounts for our enlisting as very junior partners in a coalition led by the most reactionary and regressive wings of capital. That we have done so is troubling enough, but more disconcerting is the recognition of what it says about ourselves.  For in doing so we sacrifice what is perhaps the defining feature of a left identity: solidarity.

Solidarity, to reiterate some elementary principles pertaining to it is, first, based on the understanding that capital’s success in attacking one group of workers will insure that others will soon follow.  With union busting having now been refined by capital to a kind of science, the need for commitment to solidarity-to recognizing the absolute certainty an injury to one will result in injuries to countless others is more crucial than ever. Secondly, solidarity entails that we extend it even when we do not approve of jobs of the workers under attack.  To take one example, our defense of public sector workers in Wisconsin does not require apologizing for the racist practices of the Milwaukee police force, nor will imminent attacks on the military pension system require that we approve of the wars of aggression undertaken by military personnel. Solidarity is unconditional or it is not solidarity.   Thirdly, it doesn’t matter that the workforce under attack is relatively privileged compared to others, as is again the case of public sector workers who, as the right never tires of reminding us, receive “Cadillac” benefit packages and relatively high salaries. Rather than foment the cross class resentment which views the economy as a zero sum game, solidarity recognizes that in a political economy entirely under the control of the rich and their ideological allies, it is their problem, not ours, to figure out how the legitimate demands of all workers to a decent standard of living are to be met.

So contemptuous is the vampire left of the notion of solidarity that all of this is out the window when the workers targeted by capital are those whose job consists of performing “white people’s music”. Rather than taking high salaries and generous benefits enjoyed by orchestral musicians as a benchmark, the vampire left accepts the right’s rhetoric, viewing classical musicians as a “coddled” workforce receiving an unjustified exemption from market discipline.  The only difference is that it communicates its contempt through the multi-cultural buzzwords “white skin privilege” effectively obscuring the reactionary objective reality of what it has signed off on, the racialized qualifier functioning as a lubricant enabling the entry of the multicultural left into a de facto alliance with the corporate right.

In this context, the denigration of classical music and so-called “high” culture takes on a more sinister hue, revealing a deeper pathology infecting the left. As I suggest in the piece, it is likely not a coincidence that the left’s having adopted a debased form of artistic populism overlaps with the near total defeat of the working class in all the realms which matter.  The vampire left is the most recent and conspicuous purveyor of many of the pathologies preventing the left from acquiring an ideological or political foothold.





The above addresses the essential outlines of what were probably the most common objections to the article. I have taken the time to answer them since while ostensibly on a limited topic, namely the status of one relatively minor sector of the music industry, they are directly relevant to what is arguably the only question which should matter to everyone on the left at this stage: what has-for five decades-prevented the left from defending society from the attacks of capital, on workers, on the environment and on our moral fabric. It might seem that the world of classical music, indeed, music and the arts generally, should function as a refuge from this ugly question and in an ideal world this might be the case.  But the main point of the piece is that capitalism has by now, as Doug Henwood remarked, begun to spread its toxins into all aspects of our lives.  And it is therefore sadly predictable that the effects of capitalism are as detectable in our world as they are everywhere else.  It follows that what we see when we look here tells us something more broadly about who we are as a society, why we are failing and what we need to do to succeed.


Along these lines, I’ll mention a couple of subsidiary lines of attack on the piece which while also apparently narrowly focussed on music also turn out to have broader resonance.


One of these construed the piece as an attack on popular music with another, possibly related, taking umbrage at my failure to recognize the status of jazz as “america’s classical music”.  As for the former, given that popular music is by now a virtual synonym for “music,” it follows that no generalizations with respect to its aesthetic “value” (assuming there is such a thing),  its expressive range, its formal structure, its relationship to activism, etc. have any basis.  As for my own preferences, like virtually everyone else, some popular music I have the highest regard for, some of it, not so much.


As for jazz, here I have a dog in the fight having been for more than a decade a professional jazz pianist in San Francisco and New York in the eighties, and having been a student of the legendary Jaki Byard.  For those reasons I would be more inclined to mount a defense of it making a case for its inherent value relative to others.  But that would be a mistake.  For to reiterate basic point of the piece, the principle of solidarity dictates that we reject pitting any group’s claims against another’s regardless of our personal preferences.  Fortunately, as a practical matter that’s easy to do: the best of all forms of music have more or less equal claims to greatness: a failure to appreciate that musical treasures have been produced in virtually every known genre, is mainly an indication of one’s inability to listen or to figure out how.


That said, however, there is one generalization having to do with classical music as distinct from other forms which was discussed in the piece and entirely ignored by every commenter: namely, western classical music is not really a style, but rather a medium in that it is transmitted by musical notation-symbols on a page decipherable only by specially trained performers. Virtually all other forms of music, including what is known as popular music is transmitted to listeners aurally-via recorded medium, or when transmitted to other musicians, by ear rather than by notes on a page. As for jazz, even when aspects of it are committed to the page, it is (at least in recent epochs) defined by open forms dictated by allotting considerable space improvisation.


This basic difference has a practical consequence for classical music which is the maintenance of a substantial infrastructure is necessary to sustain the medium in a minimally functional state:  this includes opportunities for instruction from an early age until adulthood required to develop the skills to perform at a professional level.  It also entails well compensated positions in the profession to justify students taking the risk of investing numerous hours in this specialized skill. It also requires concert halls of requisite size and supporting staff, the purchasing of expensive instruments and their maintenance and much else.  Compared to the subsidies which have been made available to other musical styles and other arts, these are, and will have to be, comparatively large making them a predictable target for the right and vampire left.


Here again a connection between art and politics reasserts itself which is that in a climate where the common sense of neoliberalism is taken for granted, the notion of “subsidy” will have been effectively demonized, equated with its close synonym “entitlement” draining the “productive” economy. But to adopt this perspective is to capitulate to the right’s rhetorical framework which sees “subsidies” as drawing from what is assumed to be a finite pool of available resources. Doing so entails that the focus will be on competition for what is available rather than on the what we all know to be the case: not only has the wealth controlled by the one percent ballooned to utterly grotesque proportions, a mechanism will have to be found to extract it from those hoarding it.  The fratricidal attacks of the vampire left prevent a recognition of either the problem or the solution.





I’ll conclude by responding to two rather annoying critical threads.


One of these resulted from my having cited Adorno, though I should say that this was with some trepidation since doing so inevitably shifts the conversation from whatever is the topic at hand onto Adorno himself, or more precisely, towards Adorno’s often clotted albeit occasionally useful ideas expressed in characteristically tortured prose.  Not surprisingly, the criticism amounted to one accusation that my reading of Adorno was “crude” and another noting correctly that my position was at variance with Adorno. I won’t respond to the former as to do so is to walk into the hermeneutic trap from which, as Adorno acolytes well know, there is no escape. As for the latter no subsequent argument was presented; rather the mere fact of contradicting Adorno was in itself taken to constitute a basis according to which my position should be ignored or ridiculed.  The possibility thatAdorno’s  perspective on the artistic and political climate of late Weimar could be “in retrospect odd or at least premature” was simply dismissed as was the broader suggestion that the tactics through which capital asserts its authority and claims its legitimacy have changed in important ways since then.  I am, of course, far from the first to make note of this, nor am I the first to suggest that the left has shown itself to be singularly ineffective in combatting the post-modern form of capitalist exploitation which has developed since the late Weimar Republic-i.e. neoliberalism. In any case, regardless of its distinguished lineage, blindly asserting the validity of a position based on the presumed authority of its promoter is intellectually bankrupt and in this circumstance actively destructive.


Alongside these was the single comment emerging from the ranks of credentialed musicologists (or at least someone claiming to be one) who registered that while he found the readings of Adorno (and Bourdieu) “serviceable” he found the “crisis” discussed in the piece “ho-hum”. Given that the crisis in question is that induced by the imposition of an austerity agenda on the union workforce of the Minnesota Orchestra, this reaction was unfortunately, not surprising.  By this point, the contempt of tenured faculty towards labor is a matter of record with many of them, by opposing graduate organizing drives, having signed off on the unprecedented casualization of the academic workforce now cutting into the bone of the higher educational system, as mentioned previously.  So it stands to reason that the casualization of the musical workforce now elicits little concern from an academic.  What’s maybe a bit more surprising is the “ho hum” attitude towards the artistic consequences of this, namely the degradation in technical quality which will result from austerity cutting into the bone of the musical workforce, though musiciologists have not always shown themselves to be particularly sensitive to these matters either.


Fortunately, members of the general public and the remaining audiences for classical music, which are relatively small but by no means insignificant are not willing to allow their local symphony orchestras to go down without a fight. In fact, most of the comments which the piece attracted on various websites where it was posted were informed, perceptive and sympathetic to its argument.  Most conspicuously, many of them easily made the transition from the destruction of an orchestra by a select group of plutocrats to an indictment of capitalism as a system. The theme stated by one commenter that “The ‘free market’ has truly become an abomination. Time to rid ourselves of capitalism, this demonic promoter of greed and avarice” (3) was picked up, restated with variations in being directed to different constituencies-some on the left others, hopefully, moving there.


Independent of this discussion (though possibly encouraged by the general sentiments) what came next was perhaps the most hopeful sign of all- the Minnesota Orchestra musicians announcement yesterday of a ten-concert series under the auspices of “a collective that is essentially doing the same thing management would — we have numerous committees and everyone does a job,” according to cellist Tony Ross, quoted by Minnesota Star Tribune (4).


It might seem Polyannish to place much hope in resistance to capitalism deriving from on the one side, an audience deeply steeped in the most rarefied traditions and rituals of the haute bourgeoisie, and on the other, members of the highest rungs of an elite workforce.  But as Marx well understood, revolutions rarely emanate from the most oppressed and desperate social classes.  More likely, they will come from those who have an inherent sense of their own rights as individuals, those who take pride in their professional skill and capacity for discipline and who are capable of acting as independent and collective agents.  Those most invested in and richly rewarded for working within the system are sure to be the most outraged when they realize that the game is fixed.  There is some reason to believe that we have crossed a threshold where they have done just that, and they are willing, ready and able to fight back against the downward spiral into barbarism which is increasingly obvious to anyone with open eyes.




(1) The remarks from Yglesias and Barro, and my responses to them can be found on my twitter feed: https://twitter.com/JGHalle

(2) http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11299

(3) From the comment thread attached to the reposting at Truthdig: http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/runaway_capitalism_murders_another_artist_20131130?ln

(4) http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/music/235641661.html

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Essays on politics, music and culture.