Wednesday 2 November 2011

Now Cool really Rules - in Russia!

Back in 1999 when the late David Robins and I were writing Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude we reluctantly accepted that due to both space constraints and our intended popular audience, we wouldn't be offering an adequate definition of what sort of a thing "Cool" is. Instead, as the subtitle confirms, we confined ourselves to calling it an "attitude" - basically a collection of psychological characteristics - and suggested that we (and you) would recognise it when we saw it. We did go so far as to identify the major personality-forming components of this attitude, which we proposed are narcissism, hedonism and ironic detachment. In the last chapter of our book we discussed the geographical distribution and spread of the Cool phenomenon, and in particular we mentioned the prospect of the Cool attitude invading the ex-Soviet Union. After jokingly raising the question "Is Russia perhaps too cold (or too broke) to enjoy being Cool?" we went on to say:

        Cool even flourished as a dissident force under Soviet Communism, where western popular culture was prohibited and could only be seen via the black market; throughout Eastern Europe a Cool pose was recognised as a mark of passive resistance to communism. It is at least arguable that Cool helped eventually to bring down Communism, as it represents precisely those ‘decadent western values’ that the regime sought to exclude - the black market in Beatles albums and Levi jeans is what lost the hearts and minds of the whole post-war generation for Communism. In 1989 East German youths hoisted the MTV flag over the Berlin Wall as it was being pulled down. 

So is Cool destined to rule the world then? To ask that is the same as to ask whether consumer capitalism and parliamentary democracy are destined to rule the world, because if they do then Cool will surely follow."

Now fast forward to 2011. Two recently published articles have set me to thinking further about this question of what sort of thing Cool is, and also to realise that an actual Rule of Cool is coming about before our eyes, and in Russia of all places.

One of the most intelligent and stimulating political blogs around is OpenDemocracy, and one of its great strengths is its Russian section, oD Russia, which often contains articles that are penetrating and strikingly different in tone from the mainstream of UK commentary. (I remember in particular "Switch on, switch off: how law sustains the Russian system" by Kirill Rogov which details how Putin's regime, rather than merely flouting the law, has subverted and commercialised the law to maintain its own legitimacy). On 24th October 2011 oD Russia published a fascinating piece by the Russian artist Maxim Kantor called "Rise of the lumpen elite: is this really what we fought for?" in which he observes that:
          The first result of the policy of globalisation is the creation of an elite which belongs to no particular country and is dependent on no government or regime. It rises above history, culture and tradition. The lumpen proletariat represented danger from below, from the lower strata of society. The lumpen elite is isolated from society and is twice as dangerous. 

The lumpen upper class has come into being during the present crisis, which can be seen as a contemporary version of the classic 'collectivisation.' It bears all the hallmarks of the collectivisation of the 1930s. Both resulted in financial redistribution. Both involved the suppression of the the middle class, the very stratum that is the engine and culture medium of democracy. The rich have grown richer, the poor poorer, and common history and a common goal have ceased to exist. We keep on thinking we live in the same society as before. But we don't: the middle class has lost its rights and the ruling class has been lumpenized. The lumpenized class is the elite.

Around the same time the London Review of Books published a gripping article by Russian TV Producer Peter Pomerantsev called Putin's Rasputin. It's about one of president-to-be-again Vladimir Putin's most important eminences gris, the PR guru Vladislav Surkov, who is described as "the puppetmaster who privatised the Russian political system". Pomerantsev summarises Surkov's achievements so far thus:

         He is the man behind the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’, in which democratic institutions are maintained without any democratic freedoms, the man who has turned television into a kitsch Putin-worshipping propaganda machine and launched pro-Kremlin youth groups happy to compare themselves to the Hitler Youth, to beat up foreigners and opposition journalists, and burn ‘unpatriotic’ books on Red Square.

However Pomerantsev goes on to say:

       But this is only half the story. In his spare time Surkov writes essays on conceptual art and lyrics for rock groups. He’s an aficionado of gangsta rap: there’s a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin. And he is the alleged author of a bestselling novel, Almost Zero. ‘Alleged’ because the novel was published (in 2009) under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky – Surkov’s wife is called Natalya Dubovitskaya. Officially Surkov is the author of the preface, where he denies being the author of the novel, then makes a point of contradicting himself: ‘The author of this novel is an unoriginal Hamlet-obsessed hack’; later, ‘this is the best book I have ever read.’ In interviews he has come close to admitting to being the author while always pulling back from a complete confession. Whether or not he actually wrote every word of it he has gone out of his way to associate himself with it.

and later on:

       In Soviet Russia you would have been forced to give up any notion of artistic freedom if you wanted a slice of the pie. In today’s Russia, if you’re talented and clever, you can have both. This makes for a unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony. A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross you we would quite quickly be dead... This is the world Surkov has created, a world of masks and poses, colourful but empty, with little at its core but power for power’s sake and the accumulation of vast wealth.

This account of Surkov's character and achievements chimes perfectly with our conception of ironic, apolitical Cool, and if I were to write a sequel to Cool Rules today it would have to take off from the present situation in Russia, where it appears that Cool finally has come to rule in the literal political sense. And if one accepts this then other examples - Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties, Sarkozy marrying Mick Jagger's ex - will crop up everywhere you look. What does this imply for defining the sort of a thing Cool is? Clearly a mere "attitude" will no longer do, unless we're also prepared to say that the Protestant Work Ethic "ruled" capitalist societies for the last 200+ years, which doesn't offer insight into anything much.

A more useful concept is that of a "justification". All human societies must continually justify themselves to their members, lest those members secede from the society to merely pursue their own selfish interests. I recently wrote a review for The Political Quarterly of Jim McGuigan's book "Cool Capitalism", which takes off from where we left things in Cool Rules and extends it into the domain of political economy. McGuigan's book offers a useful summary of recent developments in the sociology of labour, including the important work of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello on justification. I don't have space here to fully explain Boltanski and Chiapello's ideas about "The New Spirit of Capitalism", but I will just offer this extract from my PQ review:

       The original spirit of capitalism as described by Max Weber was ascetic, entrepreneurial, politically liberal and organised by family dynasties, until this model fell into crisis during the first half of the 20th century under pressure from world war, economic crisis and socialism. It gradually gave way to what Boltanski and Chiapello call "organised capitalism" based on large corporations, strong trade unions and welfare benefits, a complex easily confused with social democracy (and still branded as such in neoliberal rhetoric). Its justificatory theme became security rather than moral probity, and it was this reformed capitalism that the '60s revolt undermined, the earlier laisser faire form surviving more in conservative fantasies than the real economy.

McGuigan then sketches the history of 'The Great Refusal', those oppositional art movements that rejected bourgeois mores, from the German Romantics through the French Realists, up to 20th-century Modernism, Dada and Surrealism. He traces the rise of the bohemian way of life, clearly distinguishing its romantic alienation from the social alienation described by Marx. Romantic refusal manifested itself in sexual liberty, unconventional personal appearance and a distaste for work, while on the aesthetic plane it created an ever-widening gulf between alienated elite taste and conformist popular taste. The 1960s witnessed the pinnacle of this romantic refusal with the French Marxists Henri Lefebvre and the Situationist International (major influences on the student revolt of May 1968) who called for revolution in everyday life and an end to alienated labour. But the 1960s also witnessed a revitalised advertising industry grasping that such extreme individualism, far from threatening capitalism, could be broken, harnessed and saddled to become its trusty steed – as analysed by Thomas Frank and dramatised in the excellent TV series 'Mad Men'. In place of political revolution arose a new cultural populism that ushered in the third epoch of "cool capitalism".

So in a nutshell, in answer to that question about what sort of a thing Cool is, I would now prefer to say that it's society's latest means of justifying itself to itself, which basically involves looking good, having fun and not getting entangled in uncool party politics (let the nerds deal with stuff like famines or global financial crises). The UK conservative media have not quite come out and accused Ed Milliband of being uncool, though they continually flirt with such an accusation. Let's hope that their jeers are on target, because it appears to me that the future of social democracy lies in combating rather than abetting the Rule of Cool, and that we'll need a non-ironic, Uncool Party with which to do that.


  1. Fascinating piece, Dick. It's made me aware of my schizophrenic attitude to Cool. I'm drawn to it in culture – film and music especially – but find I'm weary of it as an attitude applied to society, or even life in general. That's the trouble with Cool. It's seductive and repellant at the same time.

  2. Martin, that's exactly how we felt (and I still feel) about it. It made it a terribly difficult decision on what note to end the book: almost all the reviewers took it as a book in praise of Cool; we didn't want it to be a book denouncing Cool (as a couple of US Conservatives took it); v tricky indeed. It's so pervasive that all you can do is try to describe it from outside without a moral judgement, as a fish might describe water.


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