Is Sistema a “movement”?

[12/04/2016]  The question that has been in my mind for the last couple of days, since the end of the Reframing El Sistema conference, did not come up at the event, or even occur to me in those terms during it. But now it’s there, somewhat insistently. Is Sistema a “movement,” as it so often describes itself?

(I will use Sistema as shorthand for the Sistema-inspired field, and El Sistema to refer to the Venezuelan original.)

According to John Berger (Hold everything dear, p.8), a “movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal.” Does Sistema have a definite goal, and if so, what is it? And is it moving collectively?

That goal seems to have something to do with the social, or being “socially-driven.” Yet what does “social” mean in this context? What is it shorthand for?

In Venezuela, and in some other parts too, it’s about social inclusion. This is an idea, as I have explored in my book and other places, that is closely tied to the rise of neoliberalism and (to put it very simplistically) rests on the presumption that society basically functions, but some people are excluded from it and therefore need to be included in what is essentially a workable design.

For others, however, it’s about social justice. This is quite a different beast to social inclusion, because it focuses on systemic inequalities. You can provide social inclusion for a single person, but the frame of social justice is broader, and it articulates a critical position on the way society works.

So social inclusion and social justice are not the same thing, and in some ways they might be seen as antithetical concepts. Then there’s social action (which actually says little, since action can be positive or negative), as in El Sistema’s “social action through music”; there’s the social learning that Jonathan Govias demonstrated at the conference, which is something different again; and social change, which begs the question: change from what to what?

What is the problem to which Sistema offers a solution? What is that solution? What would the end result look like? And which role does contemporary capitalism play in all of this: the problem or the solution?

These are not semantic games. This discussion gets to the heart of the issue of what Sistema is and what it wants to do. If it’s unsure whether it’s aiming for social inclusion or social justice, social learning or social change, or simply some sort of social action, can it be said to have a definite goal?

Many of these questions arose in one form or another at the conference, during which it became clear that (a) the people in the room did not share a common goal, and (b) they were not moving collectively either. This is not a criticism – quite the opposite. What I observed was a positive differentiation within the field.

Sitting at the back of the hall, it was apparent that Sistema teachers and researchers were at times perplexed or incredulous during the speeches of program leaders and prominent Sistema figures, due to what was said and also what was left unsaid (which often had to do with race). I had already been aware of conservative and progressive tendencies within Sistema, and I had personally experienced the disjuncture between the defensive postures and media denunciations of certain figures of authority and the more constructive exchanges possible with individuals at the middle and lower levels or margins of the Sistema field. But what became much clearer during the event was that a small number of self-appointed leaders are out of sync not just with progressive tendencies in music education and social justice, but also with many of those Sistema people that they claim to lead. (These are two sides of the same coin, of course.)

This lack of collective moving undermines the definition of Sistema as a movement, and it raises some awkward but important questions for the progressive wing. Are they willing to be represented in the public arena by people who do not understand key issues surrounding music education and social justice, are in denial about some important aspects of the field, and are frankly unqualified to take a leading role in such a significant debate?

Internal divisions within Sistema are illustrated by the fact that salvationist and deficit approaches to poverty and culture were strongly criticized and resoundingly rejected at the conference, yet just two days later, Sistema Global republished this article, which hangs on prominent references to a “salvational relationship,” poverty as “a spiritual lack,” the program “saving hundreds of thousands of children,” and so on. So while one branch of Sistema is engaged with current thinking on music education, poverty, and social justice, grappling with these issues at an intensive two-day conference, another branch is on the opposite track. Are kids culturally poor or rich? Do they need saving or facilitating? Sistema needs to make its mind up on this, because each answer points to a completely different goal and strategy for getting there. There is no room for diversity of opinions here; this is a fundamental principal at stake.

Similarly, on the first day of the conference, Sistema Global republished this article, an El Sistema press release about its new generation of young conductors. It illustrates the point that I made at the conference about gender, since (as usual) there were no female conductors presented and no mention of their absence. Sistema Global – like El Sistema – apparently sees no problem with conducting (classical music’s most prestigious role) as an exclusively male occupation. So what is Sistema’s line on gender discrimination? Does it care or not?

It’s nice and affirming to talk about the diversity of Sistema programs, but I see more (or perhaps less) than diversity: I see a lack of a shared sense of what the fundamental problems and solutions are. I think Sistema needs to do some soul-searching about its goals, and ask whether those goals are really shared by all. There was the usual talk about the desirability of unity among Sistema programs, but can Sistema be conservative and progressive at the same time? I don’t think so, and the tensions I felt in the hall suggested discomfort over this issue. I believe that the progressive wing has left not just El Sistema behind, but also its own leaders as well – and that makes unity a problematic aim.

If the progressive wing does not share many if any of El Sistema’s values, and embraces values and practices that are alien to the Venezuelan original, what makes it “Sistema” in that case? Is “Sistema” a practice or an ideology or simply a convenient label for appealing to funders? A leg-up in the funding race might be reason enough to keep quiet, but ideologically speaking, the progressive wing has more in common with progressive music education outside Sistema than it does with the conservative wing of Sistema. There was talk at the conference of an identity crisis; is the time now approaching for a split and/or change of name? How much longer can the progressive wing put up with being explicitly associated with an organization as conservative and problematic as El Sistema?

A point that recurred in private conversations during the conference was that in terms of its public discussions and debates, Sistema lags far behind adjacent fields (music education research, music studies more widely, the study of race, international development, etc.). Far from representing movement, Sistema seems afflicted by stasis, and it is well worth asking why this is the case if – as is so often claimed – Sistema is driven by a sense of inquiry. A concerted move forward seems necessary; those difficult conversations urgently need to move from the private to the public realm, from the back to the front of the hall. And that might mean the progressive wing breaking away from the forces that are holding it back and the voices that falsely claim to represent it. This might be the only way for Sistema truly to become a movement.