Billy Bragg has been standing on a soap box for more than thirty years, no matter the political climate. A rocker by trade, Bragg could have turned down the volume on his activism long ago and probably had a smoother journey. There’s good reason to believe that there are financial benefits to not pissing off half of your prospective audience by taking sides, but they don’t always outweigh the toll on someone’s conscience that comes from biting their tongue.
That idea of political sides is an unfortunate thing, of course. But no matter if you’ve sworn fealty to Democrats or Republicans, if you care about this country and this world, you’re being tortured by the noise of an ugly political process that often overtakes and undermines our collective will for civility, calm, and betterment. Maybe you feel like you can stand in against it and weather the storm. There are many who do who are empowered by hope and have a resiliency that is worthy of awe, but there are others who have forgotten what real hope feels like in their frustration. But they do know cynicism. They know that really well, and so does Billy Bragg.
In July, we spoke with Bragg as he was promoting a new book (which you can buy here), Roots, Radicals, and Rockers, that takes a look back at skiffle, an oft-forgotten foundational part of rock and roll, but the conversation bounced around to other matters like the American railroad and politics before centering on the need to reject what has become a common default for the hopeless. Unity, another oft-forgotten foundational thing. The conversation with Bragg was so expansive that it seemed like it made sense to break it into two parts, so here’s Billy Bragg reflecting on the evils of cynicism and why we all need to reject it.
What’s it going to take for us to really get it in terms of our need to unite and stop surrendering to our fears and our anger?
The American people have forgotten what their French revolutionary allies knew from the start, that freedom is made up of three fundamental rights. First, liberty: the right to express your views. Secondly, equality: everyone’s right to express their views. And last, but arguably most important, accountability: your right to hold those in power to account. In the US, liberty has been fetishized, while equality is actively suppressed. Only by organizing to hold those who wield both political and economic power to account can we ever hope to restore the balance between these three fundamental rights and so become truly free.
It’s inspiring to still see you giving a sh*t, to be frank. Do you ever feel like just packing it in and not giving a damn anymore? How do you keep that fire lit?
Well, two things. Firstly, the greatest enemy of all of us that want to change the world, it’s not capitalism or conservatism, it’s cynicism. It’s not the cynicism of Donald Trump or the Daily Mail in my country, it’s our own fucking cynicism. It’s our own sense that nothing will ever change, nobody gives a shit. All coefficients are the same. Now, that’s what the Daily Mail wants us to believe in the UK. That we’re on our own. That no one cares about us. I don’t believe that, so I do everything I can to curb my cynicism.
And the corollary of that is, that in order to be a socialist, you have to believe that the glass is half full. Because if you don’t believe… Given the opportunity to speak, the average person will come down in favor of free healthcare. Like, you know, decent affordable housing, proper education. If you don’t believe that, and you think that everybody out there has got it in for each other, then I don’t see how you can be a Leftist, or how you can be a Progressive.
So, I’m not suggesting these are the basis for an ideological argument here, I’m just saying that this is how I tend to look at things. You know, at the moment, there’s a lot of debate about Corbyn’s position on Brexit and all the people I talked to online can only see the worst outcome. They can’t see that there might be other outcomes, so I constantly try to challenge their perception of what’s gonna be the worst outcome. There are other possibilities, here’s some evidence. Like, you know, they laugh at me and they poke and jab me sometimes, but you know, I don’t wanna join in the “it’s all fucked up” brigade, cuz it ain’t all fucked up. You elected a black man president. That’s incredible, man. That’s fucking incredible. You know, there was a woman nominated last time.
Considering our history, yeah.
Trump is just the last gasp of an America that’s dead and dying and gone. This is what happens before we get there. We need Brexit in order to prove to the people in my country that we can’t close ourselves off to the world. That we can’t have an economy that works without having people from other countries come here, and if we don’t allow our young people going to work other places.
In my hometown, in 2006, the white working class people… I come from an industrial suburb of East London that used to have a car factory and now it’s closed. It’s called Barking. In 2006, they elected 12 councilors on a council of 52. 12 councilors from a party called the British National Party. A white’s only party lead by a Holocaust denier. And this had never happened, it was totally unprecedented. And right in the cheekbone jowl with multi-cultural London. And then with the 2010 election, we organized and we went there and, not only did they fail to win the other 12 seats they needed to take control of the council, which is what we were all fearing, but they lost every single seat they had. What happened was the white working class people, having voted these assholes in, saw them for what they were. They looked into the face of racist Fascism and saw it for what it was and they threw them all out.
Say what you like about the white working class, but I trust them to be able to tell the difference between the people that have their best interest at heart and those who are merely exploiting them for their own gain. And that’s what I believe will happen with Trump.
Sadly, it takes some time sometimes to get there. But also, I’ll make the point that you’re laying out: if people had just laid down and been cynical at that result then that would have never happened. They would never have risen up, they would never have retaken those seats. So, I guess that’s the lesson.
Well, it’s just, it’s cynicism empowered. That’s the problem we have. You know, the internet supercharges your cynicism, ’cause you get together with a load of other cynics online and stir it all up, shitstorm it all up, you know? That’s what’s made Trump and Brexit possible in a way that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago without the internet.
In some ways, you know, Trump has been brought to power that way by the internet. He’s a manifestation of the digital age. That doesn’t mean every politician is gonna be like that, but this is a new tool we’ve got. We’ve taken it out and we’re using it and we’re like, “Wow!” We haven’t yet worked out how to use it in a way that’s positive, but for the moment, we’re still using it as a way to divide people. We’ve gotta come up with a way of bringing people together. And I think that the lesson from Trump will be that we’ll have to be a lot more less cynical online. And when I say cynicism, you know, I don’t mean doubt.
You know, never trust anyone who doesn’t have any doubts, Jason. Because a religious fundamentalist will try to sell you a copy of “Socialist Worker” and… I’m not talking about skepticism, you can argue with a skeptic. You might even learn something from a skeptic. A cynic, to me, is someone who’s given in and they want you to give in as well because it makes them feel better about the choices they’ve made. I don’t have time for those people in my life anymore. I don’t have time for them online either. I mean, you can see them online. They stink of cynicism. They stink. They reek of it. I try to find those people willing to engage, who disagree with me, but [are] willing to engage. Not those people who just slash everything up.
Throw their hands up in the air, say f*ck it.
Yeah. Well, we’re doing that at the moment and the weights coming down shaped like Trump and Brexit. It’s not really a good idea. This is what democracy looks like.
That is true.
And that’s why it’s not democracy that we need, really. It’s solidarity that we need. That’s what I want people chanting “This is what solidarity looks like.” We need to move on from “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” We need solidarity now. ‘Cause you have to wait every five years to do democracy, you can do solidarity every bloody day of the week.
Roots, Radicals, And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World is available now, as is Bragg’s latest protest song, The Sleep Of Reason, which was inspired by Goya’s The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters and 2016’s political upheaval.