Cultural commodities that got us through 2020

We asked rs21 members to recommend something they have read, watched or listened to this cursed year that they think rs21’s readers might be interested in. This was the eclectic mix of answers we received…

Colin Revolting recommends Mrs America (2020) (TV series)

Promo picture for Mrs AmericaMrs America is the story of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s-1970s and the rise of right-wing anti-feminists. The nine-part TV series focuses on the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. It’s a brilliant drama with a wealth of well-drawn characters.

The drama excellently captures and comments on the internal dynamics and interactions of groups of people getting together to organise for change. There was much I recognised and felt is rarely commented on. If we are going to make real difference, we need to be more aware of how we interact as activists. What motivates people to become involved? What keeps them active when change is slow or non-existent? How do we ensure all activists have the chance to challenge and to be challenged whilst maintaining healthy group dynamics? I’m not claiming the series answered those questions, but it felt like the writers had been involved in the sort of collective activity portrayed.

The series ends by reminding us that the ERA has still not been ratified. As a placard at the end puts it, ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE WE STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT’. Still, as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements show, real societal change happens outside of government.

Shiraz Hussain recommends Smile or Die (2010), Barbara Ehrenreich (non-fiction)

Smile or Die front cover imageYou might naively think that the solution to most of the ills that beset humankind is social justice and scientific progress, but not so!  An ever-growing body of literature will set you right. You need to pull your socks up and be more positive!

Bullied at work?  Toughen up, work harder and you’ll climb to the top of the pole!

Redundant? It’s the best opportunity Life could have given you! Life gave you lemons so make lemonade!

Poor? You can be rich if you really want to!

Sick? Visualise yourself healthy. Within you is the power!

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die takes a well-aimed sledgehammer to this edifice of codswallop. If you haven’t read it, read it. You will enjoy it. It will inform you. It might even make you laugh. And I am positive about that.

Matthew Cookson recommends Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019) by Marlon James (novel)

Black Leopard Red Wolf book coverBooker Prize winner Marlon James’s latest novel is a mystical tale of a mythical Africa. This, the first part of the Dark Star trilogy, centres on Tracker, who earns his living through the powers of his nose, which enables him to hunt down people. He joins with the shape-shifting Leopard, an Ogo (giant), a Moon Witch, a healer and others to track down a mysterious boy who has gone missing. They travel through a fantastical Africa, among growing tension between the North and South Kingdoms, facing danger at the hands of strange, powerful creatures, including the Omoluzu boonight demons, an Ipundulu lightning vampire and the White Scientists. James’s hypnotic prose style, the shifts in narrative time and the power of imagination and plot, delivers a unique narrative. Black Leopard, Red Wolf transcends the boundaries and stereotypes of the fantasy genre, and leaves us longing for the next instalment, which will focus on the character of Sogolon, the Moon Witch. 

Taisie Tsikas recommends I May Destroy You (2020) (TV series)

Michaela Cole promo shot for I May Destroy You[Spoiler warning for second paragraph!] Michaela Coel’s 12-part series is one of the most talked-about TV series of the year. Drawing on Coel’s own experiences, the story centres around sexual violence, exploring friendship, Black British identity, trust and trauma. You can watch it on iPlayer and the soundtrack is on Spotify.

The show interrogates what justice or healing might look like for survivors of sexual violence and finds no easy answers. The police at first appear as supportive and authoritative but eventually drop Arabella’s case. The final episode shows us a series of imagined and increasingly surreal alternative endings in which Arabella encounters her rapist – the scenes are part horror and part fantasy. Through the fraught relationships between characters, I May Destroy You can also help us think about an everyday solidarity with survivors that could bridge different experiences of sexual violence shaped not only by gender, but by queerness, race and class. 

Neil Rogall recommends I Will Not Stand Alone (2012) by Kayhan Kalhor (album)

Kayhan Kalhor album coverAn album that has enriched my life this year is Kayhan Kalhor’s 2011 I Will Not Stand Alone. This is an album that makes my hair stand on edge and sends shivers down my spine. Created in response to the government crackdown on protestors in Iran in 2011, it is a deeply personal and moving album in which Kayhan plays a new instrument designed for him, the ‘shah kaman’.

I first came across Kayhan Kalhor on the Ghazal album The Rain, which brings together Hindustani and Iranian classical music in an astonishing fusion. Since then I have followed him closely. I once saw him do a solo performance on the Kamancheh, the Iranian stick fiddle, where he improvised without break for 75 minutes after Britain’s scummy government refused visas for his fellow musicians. He is a wonder, but his music has led me to a love of Iranian music which is still relatively unknown in Britain but carries a phenomenal punch to the heart and the head.

Kate Bradley recommends Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber (non-fiction book)

Debt David Graeber book coverWhen I learned of David Graeber’s death this year, I took it hard – not least because I was in the middle of his pièce de resistance, Debt: the First 5,000 Years (2011), an unbelievably wide-ranging study in the history of economies around the world over the past five millennia. If that sounds like a vast undertaking, it is – and yet Graeber somehow manages to keep the book chatty and readable for its entirety.

As well as discussing the social dynamics of ancient and modern civilisations through an anthropologist’s eyes, Debt analyses real-world examples of the myriad ways humans have traded, bought, sold and rebelled against economic systems over the centuries. Through his examples, Graeber undermines the received notion that capitalism arises as an inevitability of human nature, highlighting the particular horrors of our modern world economic system without shying away from the brutality of other moments in history too.

Though I don’t always agree with Graeber’s arguments, he makes no claim to an omnipotent voice, remaining partisan but undogmatic and engaging from cover to cover of this long book. I feel immensely better equipped to think and talk about economics, history and capitalism having read Debt

Úna O’Sullivan recommends Post-Growth Living: For An Alternative Hedonism (2020) by Kate Soper (non-fiction)

Kate Soper post growth living coverIn this book, Kate Soper seeks to shift our conception of ‘prosperity’ away from its unsustainable associations with economic expansion. She dismisses the technological utopian vision of a future where smart-energy robots take care of all our drudgery, not only because that would require more resources than we can expect to have, but also because it still inhabits a consumerist paradigm that associates easy luxuries with wealth. 

Instead, Soper proposes an alternative hedonism, arguing that we can have more fun, more sensual pleasures, better physical and mental health, if we step out of the trappings of our consumerist dens of stuff. She explores the various ways society has constructed our idea of individual as consumer, and advocates reducing personal acquisition, instead turning to more collaborative forms of consumption. 

The focus is on consumerism rather than production because, Soper argues, without electorates of affluent consumers promoting a change in consumer habits, national governments will lack the pressure to promote this change themselves. However, this cannot be presented as the environmentally-led need to ‘go without’ our comforts (although it is also that). Soper instead emphasises that ‘the joyless economy of effortless comfort deprives us of sensual intensity’, and that if we step outside our cluttered living rooms and cushy automotive spaces, our lives could actually be more enjoyable.

John Nicholson recommends Bleak House (1852) by Charles Dickens (novel)

Bleak House cover Charles DickensBleak House is incredibly long. In the age of Covid, that’s a plus. But, in my opinion, it’s essential reading for anyone with any illusion in the law as a solution.  

Without spoiling the outcome (don’t mention ‘costs’), the core is the long-running case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce. Who will inherit? The aristocracy – Lord and Lady Dedlock, endless Boodles, Coodles, Doodles – are threatened by emerging industrial capitalists. As almost always with Dickens, there is mysterious parentage. Class and blood are thicker than water. Odious lawyer Tulkinghorn’s murder is investigated by obsequious Mr Bucket (a Victorian Colombo). Meanwhile, philanthropic charlatans raise funds to convert ‘natives’ of Borrioboola Gha rather than support the needy of the streets of London. (Dickens was, however, hardly progressive, personally or politically: highlighting the hypocrisy of missionaries didn’t mean liberation of the colonised.)

The strength of the book is in Dickens’ personal fury at the legal profession, arising from his own early training experience. There was no Legal Sector Workers United for him. And anyone who recently watched Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (part of the Small Axe series) can see how the Victorian trappings of the courts remain with us.

British Justice? No Justice. 

Ida Picard recommends Star Trek: Picard (2020) (TV series)

Star Trek Picard posterIt feels like I’ve waited a lifetime for new Star Trek which is neither another canon-bending prequel series, nor set in an ‘alternate universe’. This year, it finally happened when the (admittedly uninspiringly named) Star Trek: Picard was released. Picard begins with its title character – former starship captain Jean-Luc Picard – in retirement at his family’s vineyard. Or ‘waiting to die’, as he puts it. Earlier Trek presented an optimistic vision of a United Federation of Planets built on open-minded inclusion, where both hunger and money had been eliminated. In Picard, the Federation has moved far from these ideals. A terror attack mysteriously carried out by cybernetic labourers (androids) has prompted a complete ban on synthetic life. Over 10 episodes, 94-year-old Picard goes on a quest to unravel a complex mystery involving cybernetic twins, a reclaimed Borg cube and alien mythology. Ultimately, however, it feels like a show more about the damage wrought by time, about the past catching up, about regret… and the importance of letting go.

While not perfect (and somehow the Federation now uses money?!), it’s a respectable first season with some excellent performances (particularly Patrick Stewart) and interesting exploration of contemporary political themes, including the ‘refugee crisis’, groups of people becoming ‘illegals’ and draconian state responses to perceived ‘terrorist’ threat. Bring on Season 2!

Joe Latimer recommends Poison Ruïn by Poison Ruïn (2020) (album)

poison ruin coverIn a manner fitting for the escapee warrior rebel depicted on the front cover of Poison Ruïn, Mac Kennedy did not respond to my interview questions; he just shouted his lyrics whilst running backwards into the forest, swinging his mace. ‘Are we idle fuckers?! Are they tyrants?! If they carry on, we are carrion!’ 

It may not be much of a surprise to readers of rs21, but anarcho-dungeon-punk medievalism really scratches an itch left by the latest iteration of capitalist world development. Perhaps it has something to do with the feudal-like bondage keeping us well watched, precarious and in our place, while a fraternity of surveillance capitalists stay safe in castles afloat oceans of cash and data. Or perhaps ‘dungeon punk’ is just blatantly called for during a global lockdown. 

In describing their work to Decibel magazine earlier this year, Poison Ruïn’s Mac Kennedy spoke of looming forces ‘conjured by greed and negligence’. Their response is an EP of six ‘gloomy peace punk’ belters, chained together by atmospheric instrumentals portraying dank forests, ravaged villages and gritty resistance; unsurprisingly, there are plenty of hooks.

Colin Wilson The Crown (2020) (TV series)

The Crown pictureThe latest season of Netflix’s wonderfully acted royal soap opera is a guilty pleasure for many lefties, it seems. The show’s basic claim is that the Crown, like the One Ring, corrupts everyone it touches. Elizabeth comes to the throne terribly posh but an actual human being, determined to make changes here and there. Thirty years later, defeated by tradition and hollowed out by duty, she’s a royal nazgûl incapable of expressing emotion. All of her children, she realises, are twisted and miserable. Then, into the vampire castle that is Balmoral, stumbles the wide-eyed Diana Spencer – and soon everyone is revealed at their ratings-busting worst. Even if it omits some of the vilest royal behaviour, such as Prince Philip’s racism, you can see why right-wingers are unhappy – and have come up with the hilarious idea that episodes should be preceded by a warning, presumably to the effect that ‘the royal family and the government don’t think you should believe all of this’. Meanwhile The Crown is the perfect pandemic slumpathon, cheerfully displaying the grotesque inadequacies of the monarchy – and, as a final bonus, repeatedly taking the piss out of Thatcher.

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