Folk, fascism and “progressive” patriotism

Given the general absence of postings from this blog over the last several months, there are one thousand potential topics to write about – the student movement, the economy, the pension strike, the demonstration of half a million people in London against the government’s so-called “austerity” measures, the war in Libya, the Arab Spring etc. You’d be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that the relationship of folk music to fascism was a weird choice of topic for a new posting. However, I’ve been quite involved in most of the things listed above and have come to the conclusion that saying anything new or valuable about them would require writing something much longer than a usual posting would allow. I simply don’t have the time to be involved in these struggles and write about them in any serious way at the same time.

The explanation for not focussing on something more cutting-edge aside, I’m writing this blog in response to a debate about folk music and “British culture” which was prompted by the British National Party’s attempt to co-opt the genre as a propaganda tool. The debate has itself led to the creation of an anti-fascist group of folkies called Folk Against Fascism (FAF). The group describes itself as ‘neither left-of-centre nor right-of-centre. It is simply a coalition of people who care passionately about British folk culture and don’t want to see it turned into something it’s not: a marketing tool for extremist politics’. Whereas FAF is more concerned with rejecting and condemning the BNP than advancing a coherent political position (which I think is a perfectly legitimate campaigning strategy), other anti-fascist interventions in the debate have gestured towards or explicitly grounded their arguments in an appeal to a so-called “progressive” kind of patriotism.

On the level of folk music, this position has been implied in comments by Eliza Carthy (along with others), who writes: ‘I have been lucky enough to perform all over the world and I have held my head up among the most stunning, proud people because I know who I am and where I come from. My country has its ugliness. But I feel part of the positive side of us [my emphasis]’. More generally, it’s been an approach adopted by the likes of Billy Bragg in his book, ‘The Progressive Patriot’ and it has a contiguous relationship with phenomena on the Left like Blue Labour, who argue for an ideological return in the Labour movement to “faith, flag and family” (although it should be noted Bragg criticises Blue Labour by – erroneously – equating its economic philosophy with New Labour). In short, the “progressive patriotism” intervention in the folk music debate can be more broadly framed in relation to wider debates on the Left over the progressive value of patriotism.

The fact that the outcry against the use of folk music as a fascist propaganda tool is seemingly dominated by this patriotic perspective is frustrating (although I should say that I agree wholeheartedly with other elements of Carthy’s Guardian article). The position is politically wrongheaded because it unwittingly buys into a chauvinistic ideology – that there is something intrinsically valuable in an aesthetics grounded in nationalist sympathies, which there isn’t. This perspective is damaging when the nation state in question has been responsible for the imperialist plunder and enslavement of more than half the world. Moreover, it’s intellectually problematic because – in some versions – it assumes that there is such a thing as a homogenous, hermetically sealed British culture and that the history and values that distinguish that culture from other cultures are in some sense uniquely British.

One might make the case that patriotism needn’t constitute an apology for the crimes of British imperialism – that progressive patriotism should instead constitute a celebration of the struggles of ordinary British working people throughout history (John Mullen comes close to doing so here). However, in sidestepping the one trap it’s easy to fall neatly into the other. The driving force of those struggles was not the fact that the workers involved were British, but that they were oppressed. The Chartists, for example, weren’t driven to political action by their Britishness, but by their desire to see working class people given social and political rights. “Progressive” patriotism arbitrarily cordons off the struggles and achievements of workers in Britain from those of the rest of the world. Although I’m in no doubt that the intentions of those who advocate this position are honourable, ultimately this arbitrary cordoning-off tacitly accepts the chauvinistic framing of the Right.

In the specific sphere of folk music, “progressive” patriotism translates into the view that the music should be valued because it documents a very British experience – as expressing a British identity and corresponding culture. The principle argument between adherents to “progressive” patriotism and the fascists is over what the essence of this British experience is – progressive political struggle or white, protestant pastoral. Either narrative ultimately suggests an essentialised tradition in which outside cultural interference is “Other”.

Of course, in actual fact the folk tradition (as in any tradition) is anything but a homogenous, essential essence. It’s a vulgarised Leftism that sees cultural practices as the mirror image of a specific social movement because the cultural field is itself an arena of political struggle. Whilst certainly more honourable, attaching folk music to a tradition of British working class struggle is as futile as attaching it to a fascist mythology of untainted racial purity. Whilst emphasising the (brilliant!) songs of resistance sung by the likes of Roy Bailey, it ignores, for example, the racist song selection of the influential (petit-bourgeois) folk song collector Cecil Sharp.

My own enthusiasm for folk music doesn’t come from an attempt to reconstruct or “revive” a shared British political history. Instead it comes from viewing folk music as an accessible, living art form which is constantly in a state of flux. Accordingly, influences in contemporary folk music are multicultural, ranging from old English tunes, to the blues and jazz. Its institutions – folk clubs, sing-arounds and song writing circles – are all arenas in which the songs of the canon are incrementally changed, new songs added and different musical forms integrated not by record company executives, but by ordinary people irrespective of national boundaries. It’s DIY pop music.

This is not to say that the contemporary folk music scene is an entirely democratic space free from the ideological constraints of the general social situation. Of course, “folk music” is as much a mainstream phenomenon as it is an alternative music scene. However, its institutions allow for a shared artistic agency in a way that other musical genres and their associated cultures do not. The scope of this agency – what can and cannot be included as a creative influence in the interpretation of a particular song – isn’t arbitrarily delimited by the geographical boundaries of a nation state, nor should it be.

It’s not just that Griffin and the BNP are wrong about the historical character of folk music and the collective experience it supposedly expresses – they undoubtedly are. It’s that their underlying understanding of culture is deeply flawed. There is no essential British culture to which we can return, or revive. Cultural processes are forever shaped and changed by political, social and economic processes. Folk music is valuable not because it expresses a particular national pride, but because in some small degree it allows people to wrest control from traditional power-brokers and play a role in shaping the artistic culture around them. It’s this inclusive, democratic impetus that the British National Party and fascists everywhere stand against.