Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Hegemony or Survival: The politics of System of a Down

'We fought your wars with all our hearts,
You sent us back in body parts,
You took our wills with the truth you stole,
We offer prayers for your long lost soul.

The remainder is,
An unjustifiable, egotistical, power struggle
At the expense of the American Dream,
Of the American Dream, of the American.

We don't give a damn about your world,
With all your global profits, and all your jeweled pearls,
We don't give a damn about your world,
Right now, right now.

There is no flag that is large enough,
To hide the shame of a man in cuffs,
You switched the signs then you closed our blinds,
You changed the channel then you changed our minds.

We don't give a damn about your world,
With all your global profits, and all your jeweled pearls,
We don't give a damn about your world,
Right now, right now.

No flag large enough,
Shame on a man in cuffs,
You closed your blinds.

The remainder is,
An unjustifiable, egotistical, power struggle,
At the expense of the American Dream,
Of the American Dream, of the American,
Of the American.

We don't give a damn about your world,
With all your global profits, and all your jeweled pearls,
We don't give a damn about your world,
Right now, right now.'

The lyrics of 'American Dream Denial' (A.D.D.) (2002) really do tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the politics of American metal band System of a Down - they are not just 'anti-Bush' like say, Green Day - they want to see the overthrow of global capitalism and then some. One reviewer of their 2001 breakthrough album Toxicity in Rolling Stone nevertheless felt that their political outlook was 'simplistic' with 'black-and-white divisions', before remarking that it 'ain't Noam Chomsky'. Given Chomsky was recently voted 'top public intellectual' and has been declared 'arguably the most important intellectual alive', one wonders how many political theorists, let alone metal bands, he can be seriously compared to. However, that aside, I want to try and argue that SOAD's politics deserve to be taken more seriously than they currently have been for two reasons.

Firstly, SOAD's politics were not 'new found', the result of fashion as mass movements based on anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism emerged towards the end of the 20th century, as the Rolling Stone critic hinted that they might be. All the band members are from Armenian descent, and therefore know from bitter family experience about how brutal imperial power can be. Their eponymous debut album (1998) was therefore not just 'meandering impressionism' but included a song, "P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying Unholy Cowardly Killers)", and stated that "System Of A Down would like to dedicate this song to the memory of the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish Government in 1915."

In 2001, their breakthrough album Toxicity came out with its outstanding track 'Chop Suey!' The moment it came out, the terrible terrorist attacks on September 11th happened, and Chop Suey! was criticised as it had a chorus with the lyric "Trust in my self-righteous suicide". Nevertheless, incredibly it still went straight to #1 in the US album charts, though many thought 'Chop Suey!' was simply 'meandering palaver'. However, according to SOAD the lyrics came from a quote from Father Armeni after the Armenian genocide. 'He was asking why have you forsaken me in your eyes and also saying in his speech self righteous suicide has taken place'. Yet just as SOAD were concerned to raise awareness about the past injustices of the Ottoman Empire, so after September 11th they did not remain silent about the current injustices of the American Empire. On September 13, 2001, Serj Tankian penned an essay, which he posted on the official System of a Down website, titled 'Understanding Oil', which was promptly removed by Sony. This is an extract:

'People in Serbia, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan to name a few have seen bombs fall, not always at military targets and kill innocent civilians, as the scene in New York city yesterday. The wars waged by our government in our names has landed smack in the middle of our living room. The half hour of destruction closed down all world financial markets, struck the central headquarters of our military, and had our leaders running into bunkers, and our citizens into fear and frenzy. What scares me more than what has occurred is what our reactions to the occurrences may cause. President Bush belongs to a long generation of Republican Presidents who love war economies. The media has only concentrated on the bombings, if you will, and what type of retaliations are looming for the perpetrators. What everyone fails to realize is that the bombings are a reaction to existing injustices around the world, generally unseen to most Americans. To react to a reaction would be to further sponsor the reaction. In other words, my belief is that the terror will multiply if concrete steps are not taken to sponsor peace in the middle east, NOW. This does not mean that we should not find the guilty party(s), Bin Laden, or whoever they may be, and not try them. Put simply, as long as a major injustice remains, violence precipitates to the surface of life.'

That an American band with mass appeal put out such a statement when they did was an incredibly brave act, and gives the lie to the idea that their political stance is merely for show or fashion. Toxicity itself was a very timely album indeed for the climate created by Bush's 'war on terror'. 'Prison Song' attacked the way in which US 'global policy' saw the US 'police the globe' with the help of 'brutal corporate sponsored dictators'. 'All our taxes paying for your wars, Against the new non-rich.' One could almost smell the tear gas of US anti-war protests in 'Deer Dance'. 'Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality, Of plastic existence. Pushing little children, With their fully automatics, they like to push the weak around'. The title of the album, 'Toxicity', stressed the way in which Bush cared about profit, not the planet.

Yet since 2001, SOAD have got even more political and even more radical - and this provides I think the second reason why it is important to critically examine where they are at now. With Bush now trying to justify war and bloodshed through hearing 'voices from God', SOAD seem to have retreated from some of their more mystical religious songs (see 'Science' from Toxicity, with its lyric 'Science has failed our Mother Earth'). In 'Tentative', on the latest album, Hypnotize, SOAD examine the ways in which much organised religion upholds the power structure of the rich. This is a marked step forward. The lyrics of the title track of their latest album reveal much about their new concerns:

'Why don’t you ask the kids at Tiananmen Square
Was fashion the reason why they were there
They disguise it hypnotize it
Television made you buy it
I’m just sitting in my car
And waiting for my girl
She’s scared that I will take her away from there
Her dreams and her country left with no one there
Mezmerize the simple minded
Propaganda leaves us blinded
I’m just sitting in my car
And waiting for my girl...'

To me one of the overriding themes of their 2005 double album Mezmorize/Hypnotize is this focus on the power of the mass media to control and manipulate. If obviously not as detailed as the densely argued monographs of Noam Chomsky, SOAD are in essence now 'Chomskyian'. The massive influence of Chomsky can be seen even in the lyrics to A.D.D. I printed at the start, in the line 'You changed the channel then you changed our minds,' which is essentially Chomsky's 'propaganda model' of the 'free media' under corporate control. That song's attack on the power struggles waged by the American ruling class are also in keeping with Chomsky, an 'elite theorist' at heart. In their song 'BOOM', an explicit attack on Bush and Blair's looming war on Iraq, SOAD explicitly noted that 'Manufacturing consent, Is the name of the game, The bottom line is money, Nobody gives a fuck.'

That their songs are so imbued with Chomskyian attacks on corporate power and the American Empire is to be celebrated - SOAD are probably the biggest anti-capitalist band in the world and that they are also such conscious anti-imperialists is a huge strength. Mezmorize/Hypnotize has songs like 'Sad Statue' ( "You and me/We’ll all go down in history/With a sad Statue of Liberty/And a generation that didn’t agree") and the powerful 'B.Y.O.B.[Bring Your Own Bombs]' ("Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?") System of a Down have arguably picked up the mantle left by Rage Against the Machine and helped to inspire a whole new generation internationally to fight back against capitalism and war - and this makes them currently possibly the most important band in the world today. That is in itself justification for a Marxist analysis of the band, but it should not be forgotten that musically they don't just rock but also break boundaries and transcend genres. I like them, anyway.

Yet despite all this, there remains a problem, and it is one that afflicts Chomsky as well - the question 'What is to be done?' When asked recently about this, Serj Tankian had little in the way of an answer:

'Q:I think many Americans feel frustrated with the way our country is being run right now. But feel helpless as to what they could possibly do? What would you say to them?
Serj: I wouldn't say anything to them. I want to hear what they would say to me.'

One one level, this humility is welcome - and far better than a stance which pretends to have all the answers written down in some 'little red book' or something. However, Tankian like Chomsky is someone that people look to for political leadership at the present time. What they suggest and put forward is important - these people are leading figures in the movement. Therefore, when Tankian, like Chomsky, decides to endorse John Kerry for President ("We need someone with a high degree of both intelligence and compassion in the White House, someone deserving of the good will of the American people. Bush and Co. do not deserve us as their public"), there is a problem.

The problem stems from the Chomskyian focus on the huge power wielded by the elite, and the idea that they can 'mezmorize' and 'hypnotise' the rest of us through the corporate media. This perspective robs the rest of us of any agency, leaving us as passive spectators trying to work out which rich politician would be better than which other rich politician come election time. It rules out the idea that it might be possible for working people to build an independent political organisation for themselves in the here and now - that can break through the 'power spectacle'. If it really was the case that this was an impossible task because such a party would inevitably get corrupted by power, then there is little point in being political at all. Everybody may as well just go out 'to the party and have a real good time' while American soldiers are 'dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine'. American hegemony would be triumphant.

Yet there is a rich but hidden history of working class struggle which attests precisely to the fact that ordinary people can take control of their own destiny and make history themselves, from the Chartists in Britain to the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Soviets of 1905 in Russia and then the Russian Revolution itself and beyond. The American working class in particular has an incredibly militant history of struggle and self-organisation. Classical Marxism is nothing more and nothing less than the theory that arises from the experience of working class people in struggle for their own liberation. As such it does have something to say about the strategic and tactical questions of the movement, and arguably therefore deserves critical attention from all who are concerned with the survival of humankind in the twenty-first century.

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At 8:29 pm, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Breaking fighters from the Democratic Party, is the main job of revolutionaries.

The anybody but Bush idea brought Kerry. How many liberals who voted for him, knew or cared, he wanted more troops in Iraq? Now the Dems will start pushing Hillary (Eisenhower Republicanism).


At 9:28 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The politics of SOAD may be sound, but it doesn´t stop the fact that they are crap. Ditto with Iron Maiden, on whose lyrics Snowball has also focused in the past, but who are utterly execrable.

Admiration of a band or artist´s political stance has to be tempered with some sort of artistic critique, otherwise a love of music (or any other form of art or media) becomes pure agitprop, a kind of 21st century socialist realism.

Try out these two for size:

(1) Entertainment! by the Gang of Four, which any self-respecting punk fan / socialist probably knows already; and
(2) Robert Wyatt´s "Nothing Can Stop Us". RW is often not considered edgy enough to be a lefty spokesman but this album, made in the early 90s when he joined the Communist Party (an odd time to do it, I agree), is gorgeous and inspiring. You can get it cheaply if you look hard enough, and I recommend that you do.

By the way, this is Paddington speaking, and none of you have left any comments on my first post from Argentina. I know it was pretty deadly, but just humour me with a comment or two - pleeeease. It doesn´t even have to be complimentary...


At 9:59 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Okay, I'll concede my musical tastes leave much to be desired, which is why I didn't try to convert people on here to liking what I like.

However, I will defend my post from the idea that it is 'socialist realism' - because the evolution of SOAD's politics I think is worth tracking in its own right. SOAD have collaborated with Tom Morello (formerly of RATM) to set a an 'Axis of Justice' website to try and direct some of the anger that is out there against injustice. They want to be taken seriously not just as artists in their own right but also as part of the new movements emerging. I think Marxists therefore can engage in a debate on their politics alone without discussing their music - though of course it should be recognised that their cultural product (eg a live perfomance) is a political intervention in its own right...

However, as I have only ever seen them once live I cannot really comment on this aspect of their 'politics' as much as I might have liked.

At 3:23 pm, Blogger Imposs1904 said...

Check out Half Man Half Biscuit - fuck socialist realism

At 6:35 pm, Blogger Rob said...

'Classical Marxism is nothing more and nothing less than the theory that arises from the experience of working class people in struggle for their own liberation.'

I'm not sure I'd agree with that. Though I am admittedly somewhat esoteric to limit Marxism *solely* to being the theoretical 'reflection' of the working class' consciousness has always struck me as doing Marxism a disservice. Whilst I'd agree it is made possible by the growth of the working class I'd also argue that it takes on a greater role than simply serving as their 'experience'. I suppose one could take the Lukacsian route and posit that the position of the working class allows Marxism to transcend the particularities of class interests - but this always seemed too easy to me.

At 11:17 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Very Good Point (I think capital letters are appropriate) - and one I will concede. I think I had just finished reading some of Rosa L's 'Anti-Dialectics' website at the time, and was feeling - yeah, like who the fuck needs Hegel and the bourgeois social theorists?

Marxism lays claim to be 'the theory for the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat' - as I think Engels put it. But you are right - this is about more than just accumulating and generalising from the experience of the working class in struggle - it is also about what Hegel calls aufheben or the sublimation of the best in social thinking at that time - from whatever class it comes from. That means always relating to and trying to see what is useful about the most advanced social theory of the bourgeoisie - in order to better help make the socialist revolution.

I really like your blog btw - even though most of it goes way over my head. (I am also staggered that you are only 19)...

At 7:22 am, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Oh gods, not Gang of Four, part of every spotty SWP newbie's Approved Music List this year.

I like them, but if there ever was a case for politics over music it is there. Might just as well recommend the Pop Group....

The good thing about both Maiden and SoaD is that their music is accessible and *fun* as well as much much better than mainstream music critics give them credit for.

At 11:05 am, Blogger Cie Cheesemeister said...

System pulls no punches. This is what I respect about them. Also, they don't have any "rock star" attitudes about them. They are just real people trying to get a point that is important to them across. Nice post, thanks for taking the time to put it together!
The Cheesemeister

At 3:10 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for the last two comments - I was kind of waiting for the '[heavy metal] cavalry' to arrive and defend me getting away with writing about SOAD on my blog...

Yeah - the main point about SOAD is that they have a sense of humour and don't take themselves too seriously, and I should have probably brought this out more in my post.

At 7:00 pm, Blogger Ed said...

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why anyone likes Iron Maiden.

I've seen a couple of SOAD vids and they appear to be three scary men with pointy beards doing quiet, loud, quiet, loud nu-metal by numbers. Sorry.

At 8:21 pm, Blogger antrophe said...

Without looking into it too much, it did seem rather cynical of them to sell their latest double album mesmerise/hypnotise in two seperate parts. Cashing in from the record label was it?

To be honest, I think they've been absailing down in musical quality for the past while as well. Still, great band.


At 2:52 pm, Blogger Yehuda Draiman said...

The Survival of Humankind, and Improving the World, Society, and Yourself!

Yet who can the world trust to be idealistic and moral enough to help all of humanity and the environment, and at the same time, be practical enough to make extremely difficult decisions that can and will harm a great deal of people?

Humanitism is a philosophy for the continued survival and perpetuation of the human race. Humanitists (people who believe in humanitism) do not have the luxury of trying again after failing. Humanitists must be more vigilant than environmentalists, because we will not have a second chance at survival.

The survival of humanity is more important than the well being of our environment; however the environment is necessary for humanity to survive. That does not give the right for big businesses to continue doing whatever they want with only minimal or no consideration for the environment, so long as our surroundings support human life. We need to protect the environment for the continued survival and future well being of humanity. Keep in mind that without the human race, there would be no one and no need to protect the environment. Therefore, humanitism is more important than environmentalism.

It seems that in the past 50 years the human race has pursued the money train, that such desire for financial gain has caused society to ignore and abandon honesty, values, morality and candidness etc.

The race to financial gain has caused our leaders and the executives of the corporate world to disregard laws, ethics and the caring for each other and humanity as a whole. Deception, fraud and outright theft are their new motto all for the sake of financial gain, fame and success.

It seems that for the sake of success and profit people will step on anybody, family friends, co-workers and anyone who stands in their way or take advantage of anyone that could help them achieve what they want.

That is not to say that honest and compassionate people who care do not exist, where honesty and integrity is a way of life for them, but they are a very small minority.

As we begin the year 2008, we should all look at the past and decide with determination that everyone will from now on contribute to the betterment of humanity, society and mankind.

We should all learn to live with each other and respect each other for the sustainability of mankind.

Compiled by: Yehuda Draiman – 1/1/2007

At 5:22 am, Blogger Yehuda Draiman said...

The deterioration of family values

Since World War 2 when women were encouraged to join the work force en mass, to replace the men who went to war and keep the economy and the war effort going.

There has been a trend where a mother was not home to take care of her children, monitor their behavior, help with the homework and discipline when and where necessary.

The advancement in technology has harmed family values. The Media and Television has totally destroyed any comprehension of values in our society.

The lack of discipline and total disregard for authority and respect is clear to anyone who has watched the past 50 years and seen our society’s values deteriorate.

One example alone is that 50 years ago a teacher was happy to go to school to teach, a teacher was respected and looked up-to, a teacher could discipline. Today teacher fear for their lives they are petrified by their students.

This scenario caries on to other social interactions of society today, and the situation is getting worse and worse every year.

You will notice that many families who come from other countries have a very strong family values, good education, respect and the children excel in their studies. That is because they have not had the chance to be influenced by our society.

The education of our children begins at home and continues in school – the parents and the school must take a proactive approach to teach our children values and respect.

In today’s society a teacher is not permitted to discipline a student, the teachers will be sued, not to mention that teachers fears for their safety.

Parents in today’s society are also restricted as to how to discipline their children; in many cases parents are getting sued. In many cases children would never dream of treating their parents with such disrespect 50 years ago. Today some parents are afraid of their own children.

Abuse has been and will be with society to eternity that does not give society the right to prohibit discipline; a few acts of abuse should not cause society to prohibit proper discipline.

When an individual or individuals utilize a vehicle to commit a crime cause the death of others, does society prohibit vehicles altogether, no, a vehicle is very important for our everyday life.

Well, the discipline of our children by parents and teachers is extremely important for our society and the preservation of humanity.
It seems that our society is so busy chasing the dollar, fame and glory, that anything goes all values goes out the window. We should be an example of honesty, integrity and respect to our children.

Yehuda Draiman, Northridge, CA

Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand.
-- Chinese Proverb.

At 6:52 pm, Blogger Yehuda Draiman said...

Humankind sustainability and improving the World, Society, and its Resources!

Yet who can the world trust to be idealistic and moral enough to help all of humanity and the environment, and at the same time, be practical enough to make extremely difficult decisions that can and will harm a great deal of people?

In only 12 years – between 1987 and 1999 – the world’s population increased by 20 percent, from 5 to 6 billion. This growth, in only 12 years – between 1987 and 1999 – the world’s population increased by 20 percent, from 5 to 6 billion. This growth, combined with dramatic increases in per capita resource consumption, contributes to increasingly serious social and environmental problems.

These problems will only worsen over the next 50 years as the projected world population nears 12 billion and developing nations become more industrialized. We are using finite nonrenewable resources at an ever-increasing rate, with little regard for future generations. Facing these facts, we are compelled to ask: are Earth and humankind sustainable?

People, governments and industries worldwide must adopt policies and practices that promote sustainable development.

Increased life expectancies, births to American citizens, and legal and illegal immigration, if continued, will dramatically increase the population of the US in the 21st century. In addition, the number of Americans aged 65 and over is projected to increase from 35 million in 2000 to 78 million in 2050 (Schneider 1999), and the present 4 million American citizens at age 65 will expand to 18 million by 2050. Unfortunately, many demographers believe that these projections are underestimates (Schneider 1999).
The increasing world population and the advancing technology worldwide is causing the accelerated depletion of natural resources and are creating genuine concern for maintaining our and future generations way of life.

The current depletion of fossil fuels is of major concern to world population today.

Any interruption in such commodity will cause a major economic downturn worldwide.

The issue is not to panic or cause panic, but to educate the public and the government the urgency of the impending crises and to take appropriate action to prevent such a catastrophe.

We have the science, knowledge and technology to overcome these impending energy crises.

We should accelerate our investment in research and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency, utilize energy efficient materials and systems to construct any new structures and in remodeling and rehabbing existing structures.

The amount of resources and funds should be a least a trillion dollar, this is a potential crisis of enormous magnitude, and we must utilize those funds wisely and carefully.

If we all pull together, the people the government and the scientific community, we can overcome these potential crises and enhance our living on earth.

In addition all we have to do is show the corporate world the financial benefit they can derive from such investment in those technology and we will see them all running to join the task of renewable energy at an affordable cost.

Yehuda Draiman


What if humankind continues its present unsustainable practices for the remainder of the 21st century? What if nature’s laws stop the exponential growth of the human population and its concomitant destruction of natural capital and ecosystem services? If humankind continues unsustainable practices until it finds the answers to these last two ‘what ifs,’ this collapse will demonstrate that the human mind was an evolutionary failure. One hopes that reason guided by evidence, compassion, and ethics will make these two ‘what ifs’ merely speculative visions.

But, what augurs well for the future is that people are taking cognizance of what matters to the very future of humankind –
a sustainable and just world.

Be careful in what portfolio you invest in, some of those funds may end up in the hands of terrorists who want to kill you and your family.

At 7:24 am, Blogger YJay Draiman said...

American economy in crises - a long time coming

When a country and its society import more than they export for over a quarter of a century, it is bound to erod the economy to its primate state.

We have only ourselves to blame, what goods and products are we exporting, what goods and services are produced in the USA, the answer is very little by comparison.

In the past 50 years as our population has increased, technology advanced, we have become a nation that consumes enormous amounts of resources, we shop for competitive prices. Corporate America is constantly looking to increase the bottom line.

Most of the goods for and by Americans and its companies are produced overseas and in the past decade with the advancement of telecommunications, many of the services sector are also imported.

The increased costs of energy over the past 10 years, has affected the economy to unimaginable comprehension.

This economic activity has eroded our economy to its core. It seems that the situation is getting worse every year. American debts are increasing beyond our wildest dreams, endangering the future economic vitality of our future generation.

I hope it is not too late for our society to recognize the graveness of our economic predicament and its resolve to take appropriate action to stem the tide of our economic downturn.

Americans are a nation of great technology and knowhow. We must utilize that technology and our resources to find new means to regain our economic independence.

We must face and implement fiscal responsibility, both by the government and the population with its infrastructure of corporate America.

It is no longer an option, it is a must if we as a nation want to survive and retain our way of life and economic vitality.

Inflation, recession and financial crises are here. Let us take the bull by the horn, initiate immediate actions to minimize and hopefully reverse our economic crises.

Jay Draiman, Northridge, CA.

The US economy has enormous momentum. Metaphorically speaking, if someone turned off the locomotive that drives the US economy, the economy would go on for miles before anyone would likely notice something was wrong. But something has been wrong for many years. Is there really hope for the future? Maybe. But the terrible truth is that no one really knows. But if there is hope, we're already on the wrong track. And that has to change..

At 5:50 am, Blogger Marcelo said...

Your blog are soooo bad ass man! You deserve my respect... Socialist vision, SOAD fan.... you are my broder from U.K??? D: hahahhaha! Fuck the system..... I love the Lenin picture and the lirics from System of a Down, i'm a sick fan...Your blog are show! Union is the key for revolution man! Go and did a look in my blog to, is about socialism, anarchism and society union in releationship with the world around us; but is in portuguese... sorry, but try translate, you got a socialism political vision, for you is very nice blog! Peace bruder!



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