OWS and the Orwellians

When a government decides to egregiously violate the law of the land and brutally oppress the people it is supposedly responsible for, it usually won’t be long before someone mentions George Orwell’s 1984, the favorite book of every convalescing shrill liberal in high school. I say that with the greatest of affection; I was once that kid, though I was more a fan of Aldous Huxley. 1984 is an excellent book, one I would say everyone needs to read at some point, but namechecking it in such situations seems to have become more than a bit cliche. Or has it?

On November 15th, in the dead of night, the NYPD surrounded the Occupy Wall Street camp at Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan and proceeded to completely destroy it, running the protesters out, arresting around 200 people, and either throwing out or confiscating their belongings, including a 5,000 volume library that included some very rare books. This follows similar actions by police in Oakland, Denver, Portland, Cincinnati, and several other Occupy camps. Perhaps most notable is what happened at University of California-Davis, where Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed protesters at point-blank range just for the hell of it.

Why has the response to Occupy from city governments been so brutal? Because they’ve been treating the protesters like terrorists. Seriously. The NYPD used their counter-terrorism unit at the Liberty Plaza clearout. Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, let slip that eighteen mayors and the Department of Homeland Security were collaborating on responses to the movement. Add in the fact that in each of these cases the press was blocked off from filming or directly witnessing the assaults, you’ve got a heady cocktail of fascism and police state tactics.

So, is the 1984 allusion apt enough? I’m not sure it is; our current circumstance is not based upon one totalitarian state dictating our lives, though it may seem that way sometimes. No, I think if we are to invoke Orwell in all of this, perhaps we take some parts of 1984 and mix them with my personal favorite book of his, Down and Out in Paris and London. That book is Orwell’s firsthand documentation of the lives of people who are forced to live hand to mouth, on the street, working the shittiest jobs imaginable just to survive. Sound familiar to anyone? Because that’s what is happening now. We have a government run by the richest for the richest, who will happily climb over the bodies of the workers they have employed for basic wages and no benefits to do all the work in order to reach the top. Those two aspects, I think, are needed to call something Orwellian.

Moral of the story, we’re up against a massive system that has had its way for a damned long time. But Occupy isn’t giving up, and neither should we.

What Happened to the Voices?

In those golden days of uprising and unrest, the 1960s, there was a brilliant soundtrack along with them. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles all made great songs of resistance and spoke out publicly against the war in Vietnam amongst other political issues. In the 70s, when austerity came along, we had the greatest band of all time (in this writer’s humble opinion), The Clash, leading the wave of punk rock and its angry, subversive sounds. Before then, there were great Irish songwriters making statements against the British occupation, and plenty of other examples. Musicians were rebels, and were taken seriously because, in many cases, they made serious, insightful comments on the world at large.

Then, all of a sudden, the 80s came along and all of that died. Capitalism killed political music as a mainstream thing. Yeah, U2 sang Bloody Sunday, but they were never really underground. Subhumans and Bad Brains were around with hardcore punk, but their message never made it to a wide audience. Live Aid too… wait, there’s no fucking way I’m talking about Live Aid. No. Bob Geldof is evil. End of.

The 90s? Similar story. Brief blips with the arrival of hip hop at the start and Bad Religion getting mainstream success. But honestly, though the latter’s politics are in the right place, the less said about their sound, the better. Only so many “hyuuuuuaaaaaaaaahs” before I lose my mind.

This is not to say that rock music has not had great societal commentators since the 70s: Pulp were and forever will be one of my all-time favorite bands, and Common People is, quite simply, one of the best songs written in the last twenty years. But aside from them, the pickings are thin. No expressly political bands really exist anymore; sure, lots of members in bands talk politics, but their music isn’t political. And even then, those messages are coming from the likes of Bono, Thom Yorke, and those kinds of people. I mean, yeah, I assume a lot of you reading this are big fans of Mr. Yorke and his band of mischievous inventive elves, but they ain’t the 99%. They went to an expensive private school and university and never struggled a day in their lives.

So where has this sentiment gone to, then? Well, the easy answer is the hip hop now holds the torch, more or less alone. It has historically been a politically engaged genre, with Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan in particular making statements about urban life, being black in America, and other social issues. After them, though, like rock ‘n roll, the record industry caught on and coopted the music, spinning out the likes of 50 Cent and other artists who were in it for the money, not the content.

Recently, though, the original underground hip hop ethic has resurfaced. Artists are veering away from corporate labels to a DIY, grassroots business model. For instance Sole, instead of going major, formed his own label, Anticon, that is now home to many up and coming MC’s. Another artist, Ceschi, formed Fake Four, which is an amazing label home to Sole, Astronautalis, and Dark Time Sunshine to name just a few. Then there’s my personal heroes, the Doomtree collective in Minneapolis, who have spent ten years building their entire operation more or less by themselves: they put out their own records, make and send their own merch, set up their own tours, managed only by themselves.

That’s an essential part of protest music, I think; denying major corporations money and status from artists. It’s even more poignant now that these independent artists are getting bigger every year as the mainstream music industry dies. But their messages, too, are just as progressive as their business models. Just listen to Sole & the Skyrider Band’s “A Sad Day for Investors” or Blue Scholars’ “The Ave” or Macklemore’s “Make the Money” for ideas.

This is where the fire of protest music is living now. These groups have got the ethos and the words to soundtrack the revolution, so listen up and give the money you were giving to party rap to these artists. That way, you’re not lining the pocket of the man, but instead helping a movement.