The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Wreath Lectures

2012: The Year The Establishment Didn't Crumble
Alex Niven , December 12th, 2012 07:17

In the second of our Wreath Lectures, Alex Niven looks back over the strange year that was 2012, and asks why there hasn't been more of a kick against the "pink-faced farce" of our leaders... and hopes for better in 2013

Add your comment »

As the cultural theorist Mark Fisher pointed out earlier this year, the whole of British culture has now started to resemble an especially nasty David Peace novel. In Peace works like GB84 and the Red Riding Quartet, violent crime and insurrection unfold against a backdrop of corruption and conspiracy theory. Peace takes the whodunit premise of crime fiction and nudges it into social critique: the perpetrator of violence in his novels is usually a sinister cabal of policemen, property developers, MPs, football club chairmen, local businessmen, minor celebrities, and paedophiles. For a long time, people assumed Peace was exaggerating for dramatic effect, that his darkly surrealist narratives about late-twentieth century Britain were poetically, rather than strictly realistically, true. But in 2012 Peace began to look like the most prosaic realist out there. In this low dishonest year, conspiracy theories about the rottenness of the British establishment mutated from poetic fiction into hard fact.

The dawning realisation this autumn that erstwhile national treasure Jimmy Savile was not just a paedophile but a sort of Ivan the Terrible for the pop generation was merely the astonishing nadir of a year in which authority figures right across the board were outed as bone fide pantomime villains. Ethically challenged England football captain John Terry was stripped of his armband and found guilty of racially abusing another player by an FA disciplinary hearing in September. In August, George Osborne, surely the most popularly loathed politician since Norman Tebbit, had his hate-figure status confirmed once and for all when he was roundly and symbolically booed at the London Paralympics. In fact, the Tory government as a whole looked risible. After a two-year "honeymoon" with the British electorate characterised less by real affection than by grudging acceptance that no-one else seemed to be available, David Cameron's premiership descended into a pink-faced farce. Revelations of text messages sent to Rebekah Brooks concerning her lovely horse painted a beyond-satire picture of Chipping Norton set nepotism.

At moments it seemed like these personal burlesques might be joined by wider and deeper exposés of structural decay. In November the Beeb was (half unfairly) vilified for the Savile debacle and the ensuing Newsnight farrago. Meanwhile, the Leveson Inquiry carried over some of the anti-Murdoch mood of last year. Even more remarkably, the belated publication of the independent report on the Hillsborough disaster finally confirmed suspicions of criminal incompetence leading to the deaths of dozens of football supporters, and of a subsequent cover-up and smear campaign by the police, the local authorities, the Sun newspaper and the Tory government of the late 1980s. Again, "conspiracy theorists" who had been pointing to cover-up and corruption for the last two decades looked like pie-in-the-sky fantasists no longer.

To boil this all down to a simple summary: over the last twelve months the various power structures that control British culture and society have been undermined to an almost implausible extent. Bankers, politicians, policemen, journalists, TV presenters, racist footballers, faux-folk musicians, businessmen, media moguls: all are now seen as pitiful idiots by the general public when they are not regarded as outright racketeers, shysters, clowns, or worse. With an apparently unstoppable momentum that shows no signs of abating, the establishment is committing suicide in the most spectacular, most public way imaginable. It should be crumbling into the bowels of the earth.

So why in the name of Jim'll Fix It isn't it? This is a pretty big question, to which there are no likely easy answers. But we should at least try to figure out why, when the radical energy of 2011 has been joined in 2012 by so many conspicuous failures of the malodorous rich and powerful, the result has so far been a slight shrinking rather than a snowballing of popular anti-establishment movements such as Occupy – at least in visible, mainstream terms. Fifty years ago, an MP having sex with an unfortunately well-connected prostitute was enough to bring down an entire government and help lay the ground for the insurrectionary atmosphere of late 60s. Why, when the moral bankruptcy of the current establishment is far more endemic and insidious, is there not a similar tide of popular outrage?

Maybe people in the twenty-first century are simply wiser and more cynical about authority figures. Or perhaps, more hopefully, 2012 was just a lull in the storm; maybe an incipient new counterculture will be kicked back to life in 2013. But a big problem right now seems to be that the sorts of people actually suffering at the hands of the power villains remain out of the pale of even supposedly sympathetic tendencies, so that the anger people do feel about injustice never rises above an inarticulate sigh. When a Tory peer or a Hollywood celebrity or a Premier League footballer is on the wrong end of corruption or injustice, there might be an appropriately voluble media scandal. In contrast, when the victims are football fans or children in Yorkshire hospitals or sex workers or victims of local authority cuts in Barrow or Bradford or Barking, the response can be meagre, ludicrously slow to arrive, and regularly non-existent. Even in leftist circles, a massive epochal exposé like Hillsborough can pass by with relatively little comment, presumably because it is not the sort of cause people preoccupied with Badiou and book launches are all that bothered about.

Public discourse isn't yet ready to allow for an expansion of Occupy-style dissent into populist terrain. We're still suffering from the inequalities of representation that have deepened like a disease throughout the land since the defeat of battles like the miners' strike and Hillsborough in the Thatcher years (and it's clear that many in authority did indeed view these events as "battles" in a shockingly literal sense, as anyone who saw the Battle of Orgreave section of the ace Jeremy Deller retrospective at the Hayward Gallery this year can attest). Just as money, property, and jobs have increasingly drifted away from the population as a whole and concentrated in the hands of an elite minority over the last few decades, so too have means of cultural expression been monopolised by a small number of institutions that control discourse and pretend not to hear the unrepresented majority groaning on the margins.

Culture is still a worryingly top-down affair. For all that the neoliberal consensus initiated by Thatcher and continued by Blair and Cameron was supposed to "free up" society after the statism of the post-war years, cultural influence is now more centrally administered than ever. To take just one example, observe the rigid structures currently fencing-in British pop music like a monstrous Meccano set. Despite the best efforts of leftfield stalwarts (such as the present publication, natch), for a majority of people the "alternative" music scene is now more or less reducible to Zane Lowe, Nick ‘Friend to the Stars' Grimshaw, the corporate festival circuit, Later… With Jools Holland, and the Barclaycard Mercury Prize. A few well-connected PR companies, A&Rs, record execs, and careerist (often privately educated) musicians treat the pop avant-garde as their birthright, while grassroots and bottom-up elements go largely unsupported in the mainstream. Modern pop music began as the ultimate expression of democratic populism in the post-war years, but it is now some way into its decadent, baronial phase. When things have become so damnably hierarchical, it's no wonder there hasn't been a society-wide countercultural upsurge in years.

Away from the powerful centres of the capitalist entertainment and media industries, most people look on with a mixture of apathy and hopelessness at bunfights that do not seem to concern them. Unorganised and without representation, people in marginal communities are without a platform from which they can kick the establishment even when it's floundering in spectacular messes of its own devising. When the Murdoch phone-tapping scandal blew up, it seemed to have the potential to create a popular outcry against the right-wing press and the powerful private interests that treat elected representatives like blow-up dolls. But this sense of possibility gradually drained away as warring celebrity factions progressively cancelled each other out. At the end of a long, hysterical media storm, little was left at the end of 2012 of the hacking furor but the faint memory of a tug-of-war between the Murdoch empire and an awkward liberal-centrist PR campaign involving the Guardian, Louise Mensch, and the guy who played Alan Partridge.

On the other side of the power spectrum, life in the third year of the coalition is bleak. In Newcastle in November, the council announced 100% cuts to its arts budget. In massively depressed Stoke-on-Trent, houses are being sold for a quid, while abandoned swathes of the city deteriorate into a post-industrial wasteland. If ever there were causes tailor-made to provoke anger and protest in the appropriate circles, basic injustices such as these should have done. But as yet, not all that much has happened. The insurrectionary atmosphere of 2011 was put on hold in 2012, because student protests and theory-driven activism have not yet found a way, in a hierarchical, post-union movement society, of solidly connecting up with the sorts of people all around the country who are being shafted in the old fashioned way by the political and cultural establishment – old socialists, new immigrants, the millions of unemployed, public sector workers, ordinary men and women.

Right now the chasm that separates Occupy hipsters from this populist grassroots is vast. But if the gap can be bridged in 2013, we could be in for a tumultuous year. As Luke Turner pointed out on this website back in August, outside of the Cameronite mainstream there is another Britain waiting for a chance to represent itself, a massive simmering demographic that leaps at the chance to humiliate George Osborne in public, and couldn't really care less about inflated spectacles like the Jubilee, or the change of personnel at Newsnight, or the culture industry's increasingly irrelevant series of self-congratulatory prize ceremonies.

As the coalition continues to hammer away merrily at communities in places like Stoke and Newcastle, a sense of despair is gathering that we are locked in a sort of retro time warp where we are endlessly forced to relive the horrors of the Thatcherite 1980s. But it's highly likely that a tsunami of anger and fightback is beginning to rumble in corners of the country where the politicians and the celebrities and the media barons would never think to look. On a BBC4 documentary in November about the effect of local authority spending cuts in Staffordshire, a regular guy from Stoke commented quite calmly: "there's going to be a revolution in this country". When popular revulsion at the powers-that-be combines with a counterculture that moves from the bottom upwards, this sober prognosis might just be proved right.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.

Dec 12, 2012 12:43pm

thank you.

for writing the kind of intelligent, pleasingly subjective, politically-aware, engaged and engaging kind of cultural journalism i'm finding it increasingly difficult to find anywhere.

about time this kind of stuff was shouted from the rooftops.

Reply to this Admin

bernie rhoades
Dec 12, 2012 1:22pm

at last someone has had the balls to say it - fuck the coalition. i hope cameron is quaking in his boots.

Reply to this Admin

Para 8
Dec 12, 2012 2:00pm


Reply to this Admin

Spannered Books
Dec 12, 2012 2:35pm

Not sure there is a revolution brewing I'm afraid - I agree there is a lot of anger, but I fear it's largely impotent.

Civil disobedience/protest is low-cost when you have nothing to lose or have so much you can afford to lose lots of it (so at the far ends of the economic spectrum) - but for the majority in the middle (those just grimly surviving, but who couldn't afford to lose their job, get a criminal record for public disturbance,get sanctioned on their benefits) civil disobedience could cost you everything.

Most people in the UK live in this economic edgeland (largely through the design of 30-years of neo-liberal capitalism), so the immediate and life-changing potential negatives of being involved in any kind of anti-government struggle far outway any of the theoretical and abstract positives of being involved in a struggle (leaving aside the practicalities of organisation in a post-union workforce and the difficulties in fighting the system after you have done a 50-hour week of shitty, shitty, work).

Add this very real fear of personal degradation to the inbalance of arms between those personally affected by the great austerity experiment and the media, policy, and political right who are benefitting from it, and I see little chance of a major change in UK politics.

Live in hope though!

Reply to this Admin

Spannered Books
Dec 12, 2012 2:38pm

Ah - knew I had read something about this recently:

Reply to this Admin

Dec 12, 2012 7:25pm

Just to add: the realse of the colonial papers revealing all sorts of bad things in April
Doctoring of evidence after the Battle of Orgreave
& today government collusion in the death of Pat Finucane ... maybe what's more important tho is what we stil don't know about deaths in police custody e.g. Smiley Culture and so on.

Reply to this Admin

Dec 12, 2012 7:51pm

great piece of writing.
really summed up that hopelessness thats permeated into modern life today.this whole new cultural elite that control everything,patronage with a trendy New look,the fuckers even managed to wrestle pop into their organic vintage grip,,,,

Reply to this Admin

Dec 12, 2012 7:54pm

'On a BBC4 documentary in November about the effect of local authority spending cuts in Staffordshire, a regular guy from Stoke commented quite calmly: "there's going to be a revolution in this country".'

No there isn't. And besides, if there ever was, it certainly wouldn't be a left-wing revolution.

This article is just telling a tiny subset of the powerless things they already know.

Reply to this Admin

Gerard Charmley
Dec 12, 2012 9:28pm

The true reason why the establishment did not even come close to crumbling is because there is nothing else. Society is miserably atomised, so the very idea of mass community action is ludicrous, and the Labour Party still appear no more clean or competent than the coalition. What protests there are seem to outsiders to be nothing more than the impotent thrashings of those trying to hang onto their share of an ever-dwindling pudding, and when someone does come up with an innovative protest style, such as the occupy demonstrations, they go off half-cock, with no idea of an end game. The establishment did not crumble because there is no longer anything recognisable as a civil society which could hold it to account.

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Dec 12, 2012 9:55pm

This is to Thomas Dowse's comments on the Facebook thread, which my computer is currently refusing to permit me to reply to: Thomas Dowse Having done the old being in a band thing for longer than was probably necessary, my take on it is this: if you're good/ interesting enough, you'll get covered. There's no point in saying that websites like this (well, I actually mean this website specifically) 'should' be doing more than they already do in terms of exposing new music - there's no conspiracy of ignorance towards you. Crack on, focus on making music that sounds *exactly* like what you think music should sound like, stop worrying about whether or not people are giving you enough attention or not. I genuinely think popular music is the one cultural region in which the good always comes out to some degree or other.

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Dec 12, 2012 9:56pm

Also: great stuff, Al.

Reply to this Admin

Dan John
Dec 12, 2012 9:56pm

"Newcastle City Council's Labour leader Nick Forbes claims he has no choice but to axe much of the Council's arts spend; but is he instead trying to execute a dangerous bid for more Government money by holding the city's culture hostage?"


Reply to this Admin

Dan John
Dec 12, 2012 10:55pm

There is no alternative, Fisher's Capitalist Realism is the Real!

There will be no uprising in 2013, the majority will struggle on and put up with it. I blame 2011.

I'm getting tired of the left crowing about how all these things are terrible and need to change without getting anywhere near a coherent plan to deal with the reality of the economic situation. It's like large sections are still fighting the 1979 election. Where is the plan to deal with globalisation, the race to the bottom problem, the deficit, the moral hazard of democracy, global trade imbalances and currency manipulation? The main driver of income and wealth inequality in the last 30 years has been the globalisation of capital vs the non-globalisation of democracy and regulation.

Whoever is in charge will need to make cuts. How's the ex-great-hope Hollande, the 'anti-austerity' candidate, doing? He's cutting. Reality hits.

Maybe the reason there is no mass protest movement against the cuts is that the majority understand cuts need to be made! The vast majority (including the Labour party) don't buy into the comforting Keynesian notion that we can borrow money indefinitely for easy sustainable growth and avoid all cuts.

Also a) people don't care about phone hacking or police corruption enough to protest in numbers and b) Footballers, media types, politicians etc. are generally seen as tossers anyway.

The fact is not enough people will be sufficiently financially hurt or offended by the government or power structures to protest for a 'change' that doesn't exist. Maybe it's a general problem of living in a democratic, rich country - things have to get a LOT worse before enough people are made to care.

Reply to this Admin

Dec 14, 2012 11:47am

In reply to Gerard Charmley:

Good point. The main weapon used by the corrupt is apathy. No one gives a shit anymore because nothing seems to change; the criminals in government have it nicely sown up.

Reply to this Admin

Dec 14, 2012 8:53pm

thanks for this fine article (i thought it was just me thinking the David Peace stuff) & the great writing all year Quietus! Keep up the excellent work.

Reply to this Admin

Dan John
Dec 15, 2012 2:29am

In reply to Mark:

Are you Mark Fisher?

Reply to this Admin

Dec 16, 2012 4:41pm

even worse was the way the whole saville grotesquery, was quickly turned around into a story about a rich old aristocrat being wrongly accused of paedophilia by the BBC even though he wasn't - and the BBC widely falling for it, then as if he wasn't rich enough tried to sue people tweeting, so the establishment quickly won again.

Reply to this Admin

Dec 22, 2012 5:06am

Larger political and commercial forces sometimes stoke "the flames of insurrection" as a means to create police states.
Here in dear United States, I am a fan of regular police helicopter flyovers, for instance. Sometimes you get Noob-Brit
Punty Corporoes who take cues from Shave-n-Cuffs/US Dollar Twits. Marx's letters noting mid-1800's Parlimentary Dis-ease coupled with East India payola. Pens are still the mightiest ally. How to make the WTO answerable to United Nations? Here in US, it's frightful with media as linked-in as it is, how the pen and the chop-chop-chop in our friendly skies seem to conspire and make music together. Call me Bono II; I don't care. Master Luke makes me puke. Strange tapes are no good. Corporate sex is catching up with The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma chapter of Kafka's AMERIKA. I've never been certain whether SCINTILLATING IS THE ANSWER. But, wondering aloud--from where one is--to where we're going...hopefully some new stories get told, new ideas build, better ways of proceeding. Yet, "inevitable" plunges...

Reply to this Admin

Dec 22, 2012 5:41am

I mean Joy Division lyrics are still political,
and I don't think they called themselves such because
they LIKED Nazi sex gangs...cries for help and hints...

Reply to this Admin

"Daily Mailer"
Jan 2, 2013 10:49am

I am of the view that as long as house-prices remain as they are nothing will change. A sudden collapse in the price of housing (>35%) & a raised interest rate could leave a politically significant group of people very exposed & might force some kind of mass engagement (but not really confrontation) with the system.

I think the fact that there really aren't many young people (aged15-25) in the UK as a proportion of the population now & in the next few years to come is significant. There are too many people who are too old to risk "rocking the boat."

Reply to this Admin

Jan 6, 2013 10:52pm

This comment is late.

My rent just went up 10%. My wages didn't. I need £15,000 cash to get a mortgage to buy an ex council house in one of the most deprived places in Britain.

The council house is much better quality than new private houses. But that is academic because I can't afford either.

I have a lower middle class job. I'm 33.

We've been sold a pup.

Reply to this Admin

Jan 11, 2013 9:48am

great piece. but i think we all know no such disturbance is going to happen. people are just too apathetic, or too accepting that this is just the way it is for any real alternative to arise. as for 2012, it was the year of endless media in-fighting. most people just didnt give a shit beyond the point about a bunch of celebs having their phones tapped (what else is going to fill up the red tops they/we want to read?) or the saville case beyond the disgust over a man able to be a peado from such a public position - i.e. they cared that he was a peado, but not about the bbc being taken to task (which again, was blown way out of proportion). still, its odd seeing as we do live in a time of nothing but extremes, where people dont get a chance to try again, they just get fired, and yet, no one seems to be coming from any extreme opposites to the status quo. oh well, heres to 2013.

Reply to this Admin

Joseph Bentley
Jan 15, 2013 11:58am

It took a very long time for the Thatcher Years to come to an end. She had her fair share of uprising - the Poll Tax riots spring to mind - but even then we had to wait untl Blair came on the scene with his energy and dynamism in order to get rid of the Tories from office.
Now we all know that this time around, all that has to happen is for Nick Clegg to decide his party is voting with labour and not the Conservatives in order to effectively throw the Commons into chaos but the Lib Dems won't do that - this is their last stab at government as they know it's entirely likely they'll be voted out completely next time around anyway.
And in the meantime we are left with a bitter "Hobson's" choice - we have to put up with what the establishment throws at us as the alternative is to stand up, fight and campaign - but with what? There is no spare money, there is no spare energy, when all of our cash and all of our time is spent trying to make ends meet. The majority of people are happy in their meak and mild lives, not rocking the boat, because it's just too difficult to do anything else.
Things will continue as they are until the next dynamic young thing (of any particular political persuasion, it doesn't really matter) captures the imagination of the majority of the population and persuades us to let go of the comfortable meakery that we are so fond of.

Reply to this Admin

Jan 19, 2013 2:18pm

In reply to Chris:

It's not apathy, it's the lack of a viable alternative. Voter turnout is so low at the moment because no-one has any idea who on earth they could possibly vote for in order to effect the kind of change they want. All the parties stand for the same neoliberal policies, although granted the tories are worse than labour. Two thirds of the population didn't want the Conservatives in power, and yet they consider themselves to have a mandate for the extreme, irreversible changes they are making.

God knows what it will be like at the next election, now Lib Dem is no longer an option.

Is it wrong that the Quietus is my favourite place on the web for political commentary? Perhaps youse guys should consider starting a newspaper.

Reply to this Admin

Jan 24, 2013 6:29am

the london/england riots of summer 2011 were the closest britain has had to a 'revolution' since the onset of the financial crisis. i am frankly quite surprised how long it took. i wouldn't be surprised if something similar were to happen again this year.

Reply to this Admin

Dan John
Jan 25, 2013 7:51pm

In reply to posthumanist:

No chance.

Reply to this Admin

Jan 27, 2013 10:47am

In reply to Halfrax:

Where in the article does the author condone a left wing revolution?

Reply to this Admin

Dan John
Jan 29, 2013 12:30pm

In reply to EmmaJane:

In 2005 Blair achieved a popular vote of only 35% - in 2001 43%. Your point is irrelevant.

Reply to this Admin

Feb 14, 2013 2:33pm

pleasingly subjective, politically-aware, engaged and engaging kind of cultural journalism i'm finding it incre floor tiles

Reply to this Admin

Feb 20, 2013 8:44pm

a Premier League footballer is on the wrong end of corruption or injustice, there might be an appropriately voluble media scandal. In contrast, when the victims are football fans or children in Yorkshire hospitals or sex workers or victims of local authority cuts in Barrow or Bradford or Barking.Satiereal

Reply to this Admin