It’s day three of The World Transformed and I’m not sure if I’m one of the many or a parody. It’s not clear whether I’ve been charmed or conformed.
The four-day festival of “politics, art, music and culture”, curated by Jeremy Corbyn-supporting campaign group Momentum, is running alongside the official Labour Party conference for the third successive year. This is my first year in attendance, and the festival’s second appearance in Liverpool. Right now, the city is awash with red ties and clipboard-wielding guerrillas. Delegates and Labour suits are wandering through the tight-knit streets of the festival fringes, waving hands through a mist of cigarette smoke.
Press credentials have enabled entry to a wide range of events, but my mind is busy kneading the potential of one workshop in particular: ACID CORBYNISM – a rave, of sorts, dreamed up by the far-out left. Cutting shapes and sticking it to Tory policy seems to be the procedure. Having seen newsreel clips of delegates and activists awkwardly swaying to Jon Hopkins’ Open Eye Signal at the Acid Corbynism event at Brighton in 2017, I saw it necessary to become one of the awkward many when it debuted in Liverpool.
This psychedelic strain of Corbynism is spreading within Hinterlands’ theatre room, in the heart of the arts versus luxury redevelopment warzone, the Baltic Triangle. Leaving the bicycle-ringed Black-E, where I sat on dusty floors and listened with the Momentum movement, I travel down towards the Baltic in a stream of turn-ups and Golden Virginia plumes.
Much of the day so far has been as expected; the socialist hipsters, Q&A segments lacking brevity, handlebar moustaches greeting each another with “that policy sounds sick, but have you got a spare filter”. And, of course, lots of clapping. The movement demands tired hands and woke minds. What’s to come next this evening still appears mystifying beyond theoretical explanation.
It’s outlined that the event will help relieve our post-capitalist desires, before moving our flesh prisons to the approved sounds of the new faith. This doesn’t sound too dissimilar from an evening spent babbling away in a Russell Group university student’s bedroom, listening to psytrance and commenting on the social order of their house-plants. So, how will this Momentum-approved ‘rave’ find validation through political confluence? In the words of Jeremy Gilbert, academic and Merseyside native, “Acid Corbynist politics would ask what it might take to turn us into a different sort of people, a people comfortable in the complex world of the 21st Century. Politics that would put forward the argument that government has a responsibility to facilitate the development of real artistic and social creativity among all of its people.” It’s a theory that lends from Mark Fisher’s research into Acid Communism, a vision that asks us to go beyond the hegemonic hold of capitalist realism – where there is no alternative to, or future other than, capitalism – and imagine a social structure that enables the exploration of human potential in a more communal atmosphere. Acid Corbynism, then, isn’t so much an escape, it’s an inquisition; a self-assessment carried out to unlock the potential of new ideals awoken through collective dancefloor movements.
Outside Hinterlands we form two lines; one for the upcoming Q&A with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of French left-wing party La France Insoumise, the other for Acid Corbynism. Here’s where the faces of the disco revolution make themselves known.
At first the opposing line is far greater in length and popularity – unsurprising. Mélenchon is a populist, after all. Attendees drip into line for Acid Corbynism while being stared down by the geopolitically-informed stood opposite. Their faces question why anyone would want to enter a communist confession box complete with 128bpm soundtrack. I ask the same question of myself.
The line grows more excitable as the opposing queue filters inside. Nobody seems sure of what’s to come. A pair behind me hatch the following plan: “We’ll take some trippers and align our stars with the communist dream – sound good?” “Yeh, sounds alright, cool.”
We’re still outside. One attendee cuts from the line to smoke his roll up, resting on a fence guarding a farm of propane tanks. His comrade notices and calls to his aid: “Mate, I don’t think you should smoke there, imagine if you were to destroy half the movement!” The potential irony of a waywardly-tossed extra slim filter bringing down the youthful Corbynista movement would be more scorching than any flames lighting up the night sky.
It passes half seven, and frantic volunteers finally usher us in. We reach a holding stage; a tunnel sporadically plastered with vibrant colours. Anticipation builds, as rumbles from whatever awaits inside lights up the faces of those towards the front of the queue. It feels as though we’re wayward tourists over-indulged on psychedelic truffles, about to set foot on the hallowed turf of Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena.
The volunteers pull back the doors and the visual entity of Acid Corbynism is revealed. High-powered spotlights glare from each side of the room; opaque red sheets hang from the ceiling and swoop down towards head level; seats are dispersed in circles with a carpet of balloons filling the floor; turntables are set up along with two projectors. There’s even a snack table loaded up with pots of hummus and carrots. Is this the future? Corbynista club culture rising from the subterranean depths, a contingent red curtain of hope? Foregoing standard clubbing procedure, attendees stock up at the bar and take seats in designated circles where we await our orders. Arms loaded with Red Stripe jolt as balloons begin to explode below foot. Eyes fill with wonderment and perplexity. It’s time to find out if we pass the acid test.
“We’re going to start with a radical consciousness-raising workshop before getting into the party,” a microphoned voice informs. “Radical consciousness-raising” sounds like the deep breath you take before crossing Concert Square on a Saturday night. “Essentially, you’re going to be answering questions,” the microphone asserts. After a day of lengthy debate, I’m unsure whether it’s my capitalist urges I can feel loosening or my sober eyelids growing heavier at the prospect of an ideological pre-drinks.
There are two guides for the first instalment of this Corbyn acid trip: one female and one male. The male begins by articulately outlining the importance of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. He draws the dots between the room’s fluorescent spotlights and Ken Kesey’s famed acid tests in 1960s San Francisco – the cerebral blueprint for the evening in waiting. Lurching back towards Fisher’s Acid Communism, we’re informed that the counterculture of the 1960s discovered there was another form of existence, one where LSD was a vessel to make the permanent contingent, the understood absurd. Here, the use of LSD is not being endorsed; rather, its effects are being highlighted to prove the validity in exploring possibility beyond the regimented reality of neoliberalism. A strain so viral even free spaces such as festivals, clubs and universities now feel its ever-tightening hold. And for collective joy, dipping into the pocket for another pill isn’t free from market logic either. Our launch pad to the authentic now simply provides a blinkered euphoria. One where the heights of dreams don’t percolate any higher than the subterranean roofs of shared experience. A comedown is merely fighting the dominant tide on the final reserves of energy.
Our female tour guide of the Acid Corbyn psyche initiates the beginning of assessment. This is my litmus test for membership of the hedonistic left. Questions range from “when was the last time you felt free from work?” and “when were you last bored?” to “when did you last experience collective joy?” My circle is a mix of young and old, those sure of their answers and others taking encouragement from the relatable responses. Each group reports back a general consensus:
“Even when I’m at home, I feel guilty for being there.”
“I feel like I should always be productive.”
“It’s a constant battle between productivity and creativity.”
“Not even boredom is free from work; I’ve stood there on the dancefloor at 3am, answering emails.”
“If you’re ever bored, you should really try morning yoga. It helps!”
The responses show the prevalence of anxiety regarding employment and self-dependency: the neoliberal fatigue. It’s difficult to weigh up whether this collective strain would be felt differently in a socialist society. But it’s painfully clear that, like first light through a half-drawn curtain when smashing that same Boiler Room mix at an after-party, neoliberalism instils chaotic anxiety. Those not already climbing the social ladder on the back of their parents worry about validating their existence, rather than success. This isn’t the defining mood. As a seasoned lefty attests: “I have the universe to consider; I’m never bored. Boredom is a fetish, and there are drugs for that.” The room’s laugher is wholesome, yet the statement confirms the intrusive reality we live in. These drugs have been normalised to offer momentary escapes; our night-time culture plays by the rules of the market and turns a blind eye to the necessity of a three-hour release for a single slice of your minimum wage. We’re handed our ideal pleasure drug to bookend the 40-hour week. Our very own ‘soma’: you must work before play.
The room is asked to come up with questions that will enable us to assess our post-capitalist desires in modern society. “Is there any happiness in monogamy?” rolls out first. Faces are momentarily bemused, elder partners look towards one another sheepishly and raise a wry smile, then look away, anxiously awaiting the room’s approval. “When was the last time you were enchanted?” “When was the last time you spent a day away from your phone”. The contemporary set of questions again provoke an uncomfortable awareness of society’s expectations and the piercing individuality that perforates our communities.
It’s been over an hour, and this disco is yet to feature music. Having felt the room collectively air its frustrations towards constant neoliberal surveillance, the party mood is lacking. New attendees have entered the room and stand towards the door, bemused by the loose conversations against a surreal backdrop. The palpable impatience has me wondering whether music and shared experience has been commandeered by neoliberalism to generate a distraction: a reason to journey to the end of each week without question. The peak we strive for through remedial work, suffocating ties and razor-sharp heels. The room is assured the music will come following the next round of discussion.
Aforementioned academic and Merseyside native, Jeremy Gilbert, takes the microphone and spurs on my prevailing thought. He touches on the hollow nature of collective joy in the capitalist world. “Cream,” he announces, in reference to the former club on Seel Street, “who used to go there? Do any of you remember their TV advert in the 1990s? People working crappy jobs, in offices, and then the tag line springs up at the end: ‘Cream: it’s the reason I work all week’.” This harrowing depiction of the neoliberal state of consciousness shows how dredging creative culture and collective joy is necessary to free ourselves from unnecessary anxiety. Work does not make you free. It’s here where the stars of Acid Corbynism begin to align with progressive, grounded policy. It’s the reason the event makes sense.
Acid Corbynism has gone way beyond the provocative tagline that ensured my attention and attendance. Through Corbyn’s strain of socialism, the drive for individuality can be altered; community aspiration can be restored; cooperative ideals find a more hospitable environment to flourish; environments such as Hinterlands, The Gallery, The Royal Standard, venues that can be the home to these ideals. But, for how long? Neoliberalism denies permanence beyond its own dominance. Even the 2008 financial crash couldn’t bring it down. How long before the stagnant white brush of redevelopment attempts to stretch its bristles from its latest trophy, Constellations? Through Acid Corbynism, contemporary politics has a mixing pot in which it can draw out ideas informed by utopian and democratic impulse, those that see beyond the permanence of capitalism, just as the counterculture of the 1960s saw past the necessity of the commodified American dream with the help of LSD.
It’s an evening where the pre-drinks alerted mental despair, rather than the serotonin depletion in the days after. Collective joy is now in the hands of the neoliberal weekend, a living replication of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where its occupants are advised to load up on prescribed drugs to fight off an understanding of their free-range prison. At the Acid Corbynism workshop, it’s as though you’ve removed yourself from the party, taking a breather outside as the senses grow too vibrant. You find a seat on the pavement and next to you, slouched on the floor, is Foucault. He’s muttering in your ear: ‘Prison, panopticon, punishment… and all this, mon ami, we let happen without question.’
It’s easy to ridicule Acid Corbynism as a kitsch Momentum brainchild bred to blur the lines of getting pissed up and politics. But over two hours in, and I haven’t had one drink or awkwardly danced to Jon Hopkins with some aging socialists. Acid Corbynism hasn’t so much raised my consciousness, as forcefully reminded me of its need for change. Acid Corbynism has the potential to nudge the first wave of a movement, the potential to watch it roll back across a fairer society cleansed of individualistic urge.
Acid Corbynism isn’t the counterpunch for contemporary counter culture, but rather it’s the place where we weigh up the opponent and realise fighting back is necessary. It’s up to us to swing first. 2022 perhaps, maybe sooner, if Theresa May’s vision of a red, white and blue Brexit loses all colour. The dancing queen would be no use here. Nobody is dancing, and there’s no music. When it does come, heading into the final hour of the event, I barely notice the calm disco-goers who fold away their seats and ignite the party. I was the spectacle that I set out to document at the start of the day; sitting on floors, relentless clapping, discussing hatred of neoliberalism, taking refuge in shared anxiety, finding my place as one of the many.