Reading the lyrics of the rock band, Rage against the Machine, was probably my first real exposure to radical ideas. My 13 year old self would doubtless have viewed the victory of the band’s ‘Killing in the Name’ in a chart race for Christmas number one against manufactured karaoke drivel like the X Factor as a triumphant prelude to the imminent revolutionary destruction of capitalism. Assuming there still are some 13 year olds somewhere in Britain who feel the same today, I am happy for them.
I don’t, however, feel the same sense of euphoria that it seems many friends of my generation do. The smug, muddleheaded consumerism that sees this as some kind of wonderful symbolic bloody nose for Simon Cowell and co is problematic for a number of reasons.
A lot has been said about the song representing rebellion. In a very, very vague sense this may be true, but in fact ‘Killing in the Name’ is politically one of the band’s weakest tracks. Influenced by the Black Panthers, Rage are anti-capitalist, anti-police and Third Worldist in outlook. ‘Killing…’ is about racist police, true. But it is most notorious for containing a stream of obscenities at the end of the song, and any honest appraisal must admit this is the main reason why it has been chosen for this campaign.
Swearing in our lower classes was the result of despair, embitterment, and above all, of slavery without hope of escape…The struggle against ‘foul language’ is an essential condition of mental hygiene just as the fight against filth and vermin is an essential condition of physical hygiene.
Leon Trotsky (Pravda, 16th May 1923)
The desire to tell Simon Cowell, the police or even capitalism to fuck off isn’t especially progressive, it is more an expression of blank apathetic hatred. A small minority of consumers who buy ‘Killing…’ this Christmas may go on to explore Rage’s more political work and be radicalised. But it will be a tiny minority. The main reason to be happy about the song being number one is that it is musically so much better than the usual Christmas pap.
Empty your pockets son they got you thinkin’ that/What you need is what they sellin’/ Make you think that buyin’ is rebellin’
Rage against the Machine, No Shelter, 1998
The next obvious problem with the campaign from a socialist viewpoint is the consumerist aspect of it. Rage have never pretended to be purer than pure and indeed, no socialist with musical talent could be under current circumstances without refusing the platform offered by signing a major record deal. Had Rage never signed for Sony it is unlikely I would ever have heard of them, for example. Even the song quoted above, No Shelter, appeared on the soundtrack of a major Hollywood film, Godzilla. But Rage included the lyrics ‘Godzilla pure motherfuckin’ filler/To get your eyes off the real killer [capitalism]’. Contrast that with their attitude to this campaign in 2009.
The band claim, and I believe them, that they had nothing to do with this ‘spontaneous’ Facebook campaign to get their song to number one. However, their record company, Sony- also the company behind Simon Cowell and the X Factor- have clearly jumped on the campaign (I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they actually started it themselves) and will be loving the fact that their artists now hold the top two positions in the charts. I feel sad that many very angry people are buying several copies of the Rage song with the feeling that this is some sort of protest against corporate power when it transparently isn’t. The band have failed to make this clear and seem to have uncritically supported the campaign.
This includes their explicit support for the main charity which will benefit from sales of the Rage single- Shelter. Yes- a charity with a proven record of treating its workers with total contempt. This is the problem with taking the view that, when it comes to anti-capitalist activism ‘I would never want to put any parameters on who's invited to the party [pun intended, I’m sure]’, as Tom Morello of Rage is quoted (uncritically, naturally) as saying in Socialist Worker this week. Socialists must be focused on the working-class as the class which will emancipate humanity. Please give generously to your socialist group this Christmas. And no swearing at the dinner table.