Let Fury Have the Hour……

by | 31 Oct, 2021 | Punk Rock Philosophy | 0 comments

Working for the Clampdown

The Clash on how to avoid becoming part of the establishment…..

 

For this instalment of Punk Rock Philosophy, we are going to do something slightly different. Instead of casting our net wide and looking at a specific concept such as anarchism, feminism or psychogeography and analysing across the punk genre, this time we’re bringing it in smaller. Let’s get out our magnifying glass and look at a specific song and see what ideas are explored within its lyrics. We’ll start with one of my favourite songs by my favourite band- Clampdown by The Clash. After all, it’s my party and I’ll play The Clash non-stop if I want to! So, if you want a (perhaps unnecessary) academic look at the message behind the song then you have come to the right place!

 In case you are not completely familiar with the song we’re talking about, Clampdown is a track on London Calling, third studio album by punk gods The Clash. The lyrics are largely focused on how the promise of youth- the enthusiasm, tolerance, uniqueness, and capacity for change- is dampened down, diluted, ridiculed, and stamped out by certain aspects of the world of work. I say certain aspects, because it seems that Strummer and Jones had a certain type of work in mind- mundane, powerless, monotonous work that saps your strength, joy, and compassion. The original title of the song was “Working and Waiting” which pretty much sums up the gist of the song- working and waiting for what though? Death? Revolution? The song seems to be more of a call to arms than a resigned acquiescence, so I’d say more of the latter.

The title word of the song is repeated throughout- the eponymous ‘clampdown’ representing possibly a regime, a boss, a system, a culture, a general conformity- in many ways you can project your own boogeyman onto the term- what do you feel clamps you down? What is preventing you from fulfilling your true nature? What is holding us all back?

For The Clash writing as the 1970s drew to a close, the ‘Clampdown’ could have referred to many groups or areas of life that faced scrutiny, harassment, and derision from the ‘establishment’- striking workers, political activists, feminists, trade unionists and of course, punks. The song warns about falling for the promise of more money (They put up a poster saying we earn more than you) as a slippery slope to being brainwashed by those who wish to enforce the punitive conditions of the status quo (We will teach our twisted speech to the young believers). Once you’re on their side, you will become the next generation of Clampdown-ers and thus the whole sorry cycle of Capitalism continues (So you got someone to boss around/ It makes you feel big now).

But the song indicates that for those who are hearing it, perhaps it is not too late. Some have managed to retain their perspective and can sound out warnings to the future generations not to make the same mistakes they did. Workers in a factory are described as “old and cunning” and tell the next generation not to get caught in the same trap (You don’t owe nothing, so boy, get running/ It’s the best years of your life they want to steal).

Strummer doesn’t just urge individuals to avoid the trap of meaningless work, as the song recognises there are bigger structures at play here- it is not so easy in a system built on money for labour to just ‘opt out.’ Instead, the entire system must be reformed . The opening refrain of the song which is mumbled by Strummer and not instantly intelligible talks of a possible scene from a conflict- or worker’s revolution? Listeners are asked to consider their feelings of anger and far from being helpless in the face of the system, perhaps the anger could be a way out of it, if used correctly.

 The Clash recorded numerous songs which have similar messages or themes regarding the soul-destroying impact of monotony and obedience to prescriptive, narrow societal ideals- Career Opportunities, Janie Jones, Magnificent Seven, Death or Glory, to name a few. In various interviews, members of the band talk about the lack of prospects for working class children in the UK in the 70s and 80s. Whilst Joe Strummer did not come from a working-class family, he had witnessed the trappings of wealth from within his own family and those he observed whilst in boarding school and stated:

 I saw through it. I saw it was an empty life.

So, where does the song’s message fit in terms of philosophy? Who was talking about the relationship between workers and their labour and the impact on the spiritual health and of the individual and society? It will be no shock to see that our first port of call is Karl Marx, who was writing over one hundred years before The Clash put this track on London Calling.

For Marx, our wellbeing and place in the world is intrinsically linked to what we do to put food on the table. Marx would not be particularly fond of the reality described in The Clash song and would agree with Strummer’s sentiment that a revolution is necessary (and for Marx inevitable) in order to sweep away the injustices of the current system and pave the way for a better one.

Capitalism cannot be reformed or tweaked in order to deliver equality- the unfairness and inequality is built into the system. In order for some to become rich, others must remain poor. The poor must be reliant on the rich for income. And this is usually because the rich own the means of production (the institutions that provide work) and can exploit the workers that work for them.

Marx’s theory of alienation was first articulated in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and it is this theory that is explored in many The Clash songs- in many punk songs in fact. For Marx, people are naturally creative, cooperative, and free spirited with the inclination within them to create a fair and just world. But a system like Capitalism, deliberately alienates the masses as they have a limited amount of control within the system. They work to produce things for someone else and it is the boss as well as market forces that determines the price it sells for, who makes it, how much they are paid. The average worker has little say into the direction and consequence of their labour outcomes. Workers know this and have a kind of cognitive dissonance as they are aware that they need to continue to work but that ultimately, it is not fulfilling, and they are not valued. Sounds to me like the old, cunning men in the factory who have enough self-awareness to tell the next generation not to waste their lives.

It wasn’t just Marx who had something to say about work and its significance. Aristotle wrote in Politics that a virtuous life is one that is NOT devoted to work.

…in the most nobly constituted state, and the one that possesses men that are absolutely just, not merely just relatively to the principle that is the basis of the constitution, the citizens must not live a mechanic or mercantile life [………] for leisure is needed both for the development of virtue and for active participation in politics.

 

In other words, the things that important in live (according to Aristotle) are things that you develop when you are not at work- civic duty, morality, community etc. The Clash echo this when singing that anyone with a ‘living soul’ would not be working for the Clampdown.

 So, as well as being an excellent song by a band at the peak of their powers, Clampdown also brings together two behemoths of philosophy- Aristotle and Marx. All united in the belief that the system in which we toil is ultimately unfair for the vast majority of humanity and we all need to retain a bit of that rebel spirit in order to avoid becoming part of the dreaded clampdown.

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