Leftists always have great songs. Which is a problem.

Tatyana left a comment on this post, linking to a great old communist war song. You cannot tell me that song does not straighten your back and lift your chin.

If you are in the grip of a crazy revolutionary vision, it can be expressed artistically, even if the practical application will be a disaster.

I can sing every word of Billy Bragg’s version of The World Turned Upside Down, and I get a tear in my eye and chill every time I hear it, even though I know it is utter, destructive nonsense.

Nationalism is the other great source of songs, of course, for similar reasons. You can calmly and sanely tell the Irish that being part of the UK would be better for them. But if you sing The Minstrel Boy and have tears in your eyes, and sing O’Donnell Abu, about making the proud Saxon feel Erin’s avenging steel, such sane arguments turn to dust. You join the IRA.

No one can make a great song about how the world is better if there are secure property rights, and people make mutually advantageous contracts, etc., etc. Even the anti-Corn Law League had to sing about the evil lords stealing the people’s bread. There will always be songs about Joe Hill, but there will never be songs about entrepreneurs who take risks and create jobs.

It cannot be done. Why? I think our emotional natures were formed in the millennia before modernity and we still respond to sentiments of solidarity which served us well on the savannah fighting saber-tooth tigers. We are hardwired for Paleolithic conditions.

Good governance cannot be sung about. But people need things to sing about.

This is a real problem for people who love freedom in a sensible, empirical, small-l libertarian kind of way. It has no songs. It does not grab the heart. Our enemies will always be more powerful in this department as a result. Too bad. But I see this as a condition to be worked with, not a problem which can have a solution.

14 thoughts on “Leftists always have great songs. Which is a problem.”

  1. I don’t agree with you on this.

    Do you discount the entire career of one of my personal heroes, Mojo Nixon? A more consistently libertarian voice cannot be found. What of Twisted Sister’s gloriously tacky glam metal anthem to freedom “We’re not gonna take it”? George Harrison’s “Taxman”? And I’m not even delving into the wild and woolly world of country and western or the true madness of the honky-tonk.

    The music of liberty is not the music you shed tears or invade Poland to. Instead, it’s the music that leads to wild dancing, terrible singing, and lewd drunken behavior when played on the jukebox of your favorite dive bar.

    While no song will ever accurately describe the nuances of Hayek’s work or the need for property rights, no Joe Strummer song every accurately summarized Marx’s law of value either. Songs are all emotional manipulation, with neither room nor care for details.

    I would argue that the rattlesnake flag has as much a hold on popular music as either the Stars and Stripes or any crimson banner. Freedom, independence, honor, and decency, especially in their more militant whiskey-fueled forms, are at the core of much American music, both contemporary and traditional. This rowdy individualism and love of primitive liberty is the emotional basis of libertarian (and I would argue anglospheric) thought, without which ideas of good governance are cold and hallow.

    Are these ideas a minority in the world of music and the arts? Yes. Will views we find sympathetic always be in the minority? Of course, because the music industry is dominated by leather-pants-wearing dudes without shirts and emaciated overly sensitive vegan alterna-folk-rockers. But songs with the right soul are out there.

  2. Songs are all emotional manipulation, with neither room nor care for details.

    Absolutely. Of course to mention this point is to show contempt for the entire music-criticism industry, which deserves it.

    BTW, same point about emotional manipulation can be made for in spades for movies, not to mention a lot of highly-regarded “powerful” documentary photography.

  3. Captain, thanks, I needed that. But. First, there are songs in the “nationalistic” category that just happen to be the kind of nationalistic sentiments I like, i.e. about the good old USA. Even then, I don’t think Lee Greenwood is very stirring stuff, and even Merle doing Fightin’ Side of Me seems to have been kinda kidding. Songs of freedom about gettin’ rowdy and livin’ on the road may be about a certain kind of lifestyle, but are not, in my view, political songs at all. And I was talking about political songs which inspire poliical action.

    Or am I not getting it? Is there something I should know about?

  4. I assume what you are talking about, Lex, are a) songs that are popular in other geographic areas and other age groups than mine and b) that are emotional, let’s all sing along together, in a way that commercial music is not and c) are about economics for God’s sake. Well, yeah, that isn’t going to be easy. “Triumph of the Will” and “Grapes of Wrath” are remarkable pieces of movie-making, moving even to those who (that is most of us) think they are full of crap ideologically.

    Still, I’m going to answer. I’ve got to say that “The Battle Hymn of Republic”, sung at the National Cathedral immediately after 9/11 moved me – and it is a pretty military song (especially in “as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” – sung with those lyrics that day.)

    Sure, both music and movies are more moving when the theme is “we’re all in this together.” And, I had to have my consciousness raised before I was as moved by “On the Waterfront” as “High Noon.” So, yes, the heavy communist input in Hollywood made a difference.

    Still the patriotic movies of the thirties and forties that were shown & reshown on television (at least in rural areas) in the fifties and sixties and now on TMC, etc. often emphasized heroism in an American tradition. As I posted more than a year ago, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about home ownership, small savings and loans, capitalism as liberator and encourager of small business. And what is more popular at Christmas? (Well, maybe White Christmas which is intensely pro-military in a sense of the civilian soldier who meets the country’s needs and returns to the home front & is running a business.) Don’t you see such a theme as central to such movies as “Mrs. Miniver” and “Lord of the Rings”?

    Country music embodies Jacksonian visions (that is, country music that leftists dismiss as “commercial” but is truly the music of the people). It is true that clearly many of the persona are not ones you really want to work with in a commercial enterprise, but they believe in property rights & individual liberty.

    Sure, central to some economic points of view is a certain covetousness that is easily appealed to – as well as a big bad banker tradition. But it seems to me significant that that is much more in the tradition of the phony folkies than the real country types. (Of course, I always liked the folkies and disdained “real” country until a combination of Austin & a Texas husband brought me across that bridge, where I’ve felt much more at home because it really does voice small town America’s values.)

    Hank Williams Jr.’s “country boy can survive” is really an anthem to self-reliance – and it is not unusual. “The Outlaws” were more left of center (if in a generally muddled way), but they certainly championed individualism and property rights.

    A strong Protestant tradition of hymns that deal with personal relationships with God emphasize individualism, sometimes coupled with a militant “Onward Christian Soldiers” kind of active engagement.

    It is almost a cliche that American culture is obsessed with individualism, glorifies it, champions it, etc. Like most cliches this is quite true. Good governance to Americans is usually a matter of transparency, respect for individual rights, respect for property, respect for other’s rights. Sure the songs aren’t about government itself – but the vision of a government Hayek would praise is celebrated in our music and movies.

    Mob think, mob rule, mob emotion – this is the stuff of Bolshevik revolutions and anarchy, not of democracy & the vote. So, yes, songs and movies that inspire people to lose tbemselves in an unthinking and powerful emotion are not likely to encourage the kind of government we admire. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty of emotional songs & movies that are about the values that underlie self reliance.

  5. This is all right and well, but I just wanted to clear up some historical facts.

    First of all, this is not strictly a communist/bolshevik song. What I knew all along was that the song became extremely popular in 1905 on barricades of the First Russian Revolution (or so called Russian Bourgeois, anti-Tzarism revolution, exacerbated by Russo-Japanese War).
    What I didn’t know, that it was a song (they called it Hymn brought to Siberia in 1880 by deported members of Polish Uprising of 1865. The lyrics were written by Polish political exile Wacław Święcicki (arrested with charge “socialist propaganda” in 1877) and refer to the events of the Polish Uprising but, of course, with socialist twist:
    Hurray! Kick the crowns from royal heads,
    Look at people suffering in chains
    We’ll drown in tzar’s blood the thrones
    That have been bloodied before by peoples’

    (Apologies for my very inadequate translation; my Polish is beyond mere “rusty”. The original is here) Music is by Józef Pławiński.

    But then I stumbled on something even more interesting. It turns out that the song was appropriated by anarchists in Spanish War, and was called then “To the Barricades”.

    Manipulation? You bet. In 10th power.

  6. Battle Hymn of the Republic is a patriotic song, a category I agree has emotional songs.

    The Communist songs I am talking about are usually about revolutionary activism or the suffering and resistance of the oppressed. Like the Billy Bragg version of “World Turned Upside Down” I linked to, it talks about the poor being crushed by the rich, and the message is one of share and share alike and equality. The song Tatyana linked to is in Russian I suppose, but is very stirring nonetheless, and it is about the heroic communists. Trade union songs like Joe HIll work in a similar way. I am not talking about songs “about economics”, whatever that might mean. God help us, if ecomics is the dismal science, and it is, Economics: The Musical would have a short run indeed. These songs are all about the rightness and goodness of collectivism, of socialism, of fighting against greed and the rich and the powerful. Joe Hill is a haunting song. He probably was guilty of the murder he was convicted of. It doesn’t matter. The song is what will last and in the song he is a hero and a martyr.

    Of course there are songs about America, a collective enterprise, and they are about unity and a shared identity. There are similarly stirring songs for most large political communities.

    There are also songs for revolutionary and activist causes, usually aimed at destroying institutions we think of as “capitalist”. Radical labor activism was not probably in the long term best interest of anybody. More moderate, pay-and-benefits-focused unionism prevailed in the USA. But the radicals have the better songs.

    There are virtually no songs about the defense or preservation or celebration of these types of institutions. They are important, even essential institutions. But they do not provoke any poetry in people. There are no such songs because there can’t be. No one will ever write an ode to the recorder of deeds office, or the Business Corporations Act or Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code. These things have to be understood with the mind. That is a tall order. Most people have neither the time, the capacity, nor the inclination to do that. And such people can be moved by songs to destroy the institutions that keep them alive.

    That is what I am talking about.

  7. I suspect libertarians would be the last people to find a song praising bureaucracies heart-stirring. (Even when the importance of, say, the recorder of the deeds is acknowledged.)

  8. Lex,

    I agree with you about Lee Greenwood. The style of cheesy show-patriotism epitomized by God Bless the USA’s post 9-11 marketing seems not only insincere, but has the distinct smell of callous exploitation about it. Much of the material from anti-authoritarian types in country like Haggard or Cash (the entire Highwaymen and their like) is, even when patriotic, riddled to its core with class warfare rhetoric (I mean, c’mon they’re named the Highwaymen).

    I think Ginny’s point is an important one. No Soviet song every raised the spirit talking about the commissars, central planners, and bureaucrats that made the Soviet system possible. Songs with political meaning are always about general principals and broad emotions.

    Still, I hold fast that there are any number of artists, ranging from outlaw country and religious music (as Ginny notes) all the way to Ted Nugent and even guys like Kid Rock who espouse views that are entirely consistent with libertarianism.

    Unfortunately I agree that the miracle of the market is obviously not something that inspires poetry. It is amazing that more artists don’t see the obvious contradiction between individual expression and collectivist politics. Take heart, however, in the fact that the rock and roll revolution was founded on the same deeply rooted traditions of freedom and liberty that shape our political and economic systems.

    And I think Economics: The Musical would be awesome. Imagine Marx, Keynes, and von Mises in a three way dance-off, a la the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story. Think about it…

  9. Ginny, that is one bureacracy and two laws, actually. I could have also mentioned the Chicago Board of Trade or Ebay or other things that facilitate private business, which are privately owned. Without property rights and laws to govern them you don’t have capitalism. Libertarians like to theorize about a totally government free system, but no one has ever done it on a large scale. A state strong enough to enforce property rights and contracts, but which chooses not to be a predator is a rare anamoly. We are lucky to be here. Note that people do sing about unions.

    Tatyana, thanks for the clarification. You cannot keep a good tune down. It can serve as an all purpose war cry, by changing the lyrics.

    Captain, OK, the musical would be cool in an off the wall, absurdist sort of way. Sort of like the episode of Star Trek where Kirk and Spock team up with Lincoln and Surak of Vulcan against Colonel Green, Kahless the Klingon, some lady with paint all over her named Zora and the great one himself, Genghis Khan. Two ChicagoBoyz would be beamed down to the planet surface, where they meet up with Hayek and Friedman, and they have to take on Marx and Keynes and some other guys. Musical and comedic hijinks ensue.

  10. The Canadian rock group Rush had some strong libertarian songs before they turned PC around the late 90’s.

  11. Songs on libertarian themes can be written, they are just not being written. Political songs
    are often “the story of a man done wrong”-type song e.g. union members brutalized or killed by corporate goons, the poor oppressed by the rich and so on. We can have the “Ballad of Cory Maye” and the “Kelo Blues”. Songs about an individual triumphing over powerful forces or being stomped on by them can be very powerful and these can be written from a libertarian perspective just as easily as from a socialist perspective. A story about teenage scateboarders being hassled by the cops can be a very good vehicle for communicating ideas about freedom and power to teenagers. The story of a down and out man who struggles against obstacles to achieve success can work to promote individual initiative, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurship. If bans on interstate wine sales were still an issue we could tell the story of some people going on a road trip and suffering all kinds of troubles just to buy some special wine. We could tell the story of a person in Canada who nears death while waiting for some medical procedure and who’s life is saved by rushing across the border to America. Or whatever, there are lots of possibilities. One of the problems with much of libertarian discourse is that it is too narrowly focused on the minutia of economic theory and legal theory. Libertarians need to venture out and think more in terms of story than of theory in order to capture people’s imaginations and inspire people to act.

  12. It is where the socialist got the upper hand in their quest to win the hearth and minds of the people. In Latin America for example, Castro sent out his singers to Nicaragua and Chile and other countries to spread the “blessings of socialism”.
    Silvio Rodrigues, Pablo Milanes among others of the so called Trova Cubana, their lyrics, resembling Neil Young’s but with a Latin-American flavor and anti imperialistically persistent twist, touched many naïve and unguarded minds and even recruited some dumb Latin-American singers who gladly sang with them and opened local audiences in their countries and of course inadvertedly served Castro’s propaganda game. They became true Castro ambassadors, and whilst they have always spoken of liberty, revolution, equality, struggle, independence, and self determination in their lyrics, they somehow intentionally left the word “democracy” out of all and each one of their songs, and they have never answered why they still support the Castro regime after 50 years.

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