When Music Teaches Us to Care, We Hear Our Own Radicalism

By Doctor Comrade

As we move closer to the general election, it seems inevitable that the Democratic Party--the party that supposedly represents progress and labor--will nominate center-right candidate Hillary Clinton, who will probably defeat whichever far-right candidate the Republican Party nominates. While the defeat of any Republican is a good thing, we should reject Clinton's repeated assertions that she represents most Americans. She does not: she's a pro-capitalist, anti-labor, neoconservative, establishment Democrat. Even her record on women's rights is checkered. But Hillary Clinton is being touted as a progressive, which she can only be called in light of the extreme regressive tendencies of the American right wing.

As I argued last week, mainstream liberals have asked everyone on the left to endorse Clinton because the alternative--a Trump/Cruz presidency--would be disastrous for the US, and I argued that this view is indicative of a restrictive two-party system in which real change can never occur. Clinton is the quintessential example of a status-quo politician, someone who not only resists change but strengthens the stranglehold of capitalism on our democracy. But as is evident from Sanders's popularity with large segments of the voting public, many left-leaning Americans are absolutely sick of this accommodationist position. We demand change--some of us want reform, some of us want revolution. In either case, a putative progressive like Clinton cannot--and will not--represent us, and thus, we demand something radical.

Our demands are often embodied by the music we listen to, the lyrical and sonic messages that speak to us on numerous intellectual, emotional, and visceral levels. Music has a long history of radical politics, which I've partially documented in my series on gangsta rap and black nationalism and my article on environmentalist metalcore. When we hear these messages, or when we are exposed to them for the first time, they may resonate deeply with our desires. And because we have such a close connection with music--because it touches us in indescribable ways--music is instructive, motivational, and aspirational.

Music also criticizes, deconstructs, parodies, and satirizes society's most cherished values. The British band Architects uses their music to excoriate war, violence, poverty, mistreatment of animals, and environmental destruction. I turn now to lyrics from their song "Naysayer" from the album Lost Forever // Lost Together as a call for us to demand radical change and cease accommodating the moderates who sell us out whenever they are given the opportunity.

With every concession, another piece of us dies

We must recognize that moderation or appeals to the middle do worse than accomplish nothing: they actively cause regression. When radicals concede--or are forced to concede--to moderates, we lose a part of ourselves and we undermine our own politics. I'm reminded of something Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

  Architects singer Sam Carter. Vainstream Rockfest 2014.

Architects singer Sam Carter. Vainstream Rockfest 2014.

These are the exact sympathies we see in liberal Americans today. Those who are too comfortable with the status quo to risk losing their position, yet who pay lip service to the impoverished and oppressed peoples. They prefer the order of predictability; they prefer the order of the establishment. These are the people the Democratic Party relies on: they want change that is so incremental, so slow, so delayed, that it will never upset the established order. Bringing down capitalism, imperialism, and the global division of labor will substantially change the comfort of the so-called First World, and so moderates are unwilling to face temporary discomfort in order to end the systemic and worldwide oppression caused by capitalism.

It is our concessions to these kinds of moderates in which our message--of radical change, of radical demands--becomes diluted beyond recognition. It becomes co-opted by the politics of the middle. Look only to the liberal reaction against Black Lives Matter protesters who disrupt freeway traffic or political rallies, and you'll see the rhetoric which so frustrated Dr. King. Ostensibly, we all believe in racial justice, but liberals are too inconvenienced by protests to carry out the process of ending racism. King understood then, as radicals understand now, that we can't trust the moderates to implement our demands. When we do trust them, we end up with bourgeois politics.

Apathy is our new messiah

As long as we don't care--as long as we repress the cognitive dissonance that allows us to tolerate suffering--then we can continue to live in paradise. Nothing is more privileged than apathy.

I say this as a working person because we can't afford to continue not caring. In the short term, we'll get gouged on healthcare and wages. In the long term, we'll miss our opportunities to forge a class consciousness which will help destroy the structures of power that oppress us.

  Architects performing at Reload Festival 2013.

Architects performing at Reload Festival 2013.

Sometimes a flood starts with a leak in the dam

All radical movements start small and grow outward. Over time, they may encompass millions of people, like drops of water that form a river. And if we know anything about the power of water, it is that--given enough time--it will literally move mountains. But that river must originate somewhere.

The history of social movements is littered with great leaders, groundswells of support, and catastrophic and catalytic events. The nexuses of these movements are all based in historical circumstance, due largely to the material disparity between different classes. To extend the metaphor of the dam farther, dams are the product of workers who erect structures while being exploited by construction bosses and corporations. To address the conditions of exploitation, it may take the same class of workers to tear down what they helped build.

This is largely a matter of historical consciousness, where an idea for revolution is borne by revolutionaries and then infects the working class through transmission of art, literature, agitation, propaganda, social gatherings, or other means. We live in an era of unprecedented access to information. We must use this era to understand not only the power of the river, but also the weakness of the dam.


The title of the song, and its often-repeated refrain, wonderfully illustrates the frustration felt by those who agitate for a better world. We are told that our demands are too radical, impossible, or violate human nature. And in this argument, I'm not even referring to conservatives and reactionaries who believe change is evil; I'm referring to liberals who believe that progress is a worthy goal, yet who stonewall radical change. Consider some of America's more radical institutions: abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, voting rights for people of color, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage. In the decades before these institutions became reality, well-meaning and paternalistic opponents to change made dubious claims about the feasibility of such drastic and radical action. Yet today, we see these radical changes to society as normal and necessary, and we look with scorn at the people who stood in the way of their implementation.

Is it any better that the Women's Suffrage Movement became organized in 1848, but women had to wait until 1920 for the Nineteenth Amendment? Did the US benefit when abolitionists began agitating as early as 1652 but slavery wasn't officially abolished until 1865? And, despite the Fourteenth Amendment's ratification in 1868, why are people of color are still subject to segregation?

In light of the scope of historical consciousness, these seemingly radical changes seem less radical. We look back with hindsight and acknowledge how opponents to these measures are on "the wrong side of history." I only anticipate our great-great-grandchildren looking at us the same way, and how comfortable we were with capitalism and oppression, saying the same thing.

Related Posts