Political systems

My friend Roman Krznaric recently sent me a quirky, provocative article by the anarchist writer Colin Ward about Ruth Finnegan’s exemplary book The Hidden Musicians: Music-making in an English Town (Cambridge University Press, 1989). I had read Finnegan’s study of musical culture in Milton Keynes more than a decade earlier, but Ward’s article brought it back to life for me and gave it a new layer of meaning. Anyone interested in music, society and politics should read the article (and ideally the book) for themselves, but in a nutshell, Ward identifies a number of characteristics of local, primarily (though not exclusively) amateur music-making that chime with the political philosophy of anarchism.

Ward is entranced by the variety of musical styles and abilities on display, but above all by the fluidity evident in the constitution of and interactions between musical groups. In contrast to a top-down model, such as patronage of the state or a large organization, relations are decentralized and characterized by voluntary association and cooperation. A particular feature of the local musical landscape is improvisation, both musical and social, with spontaneity and creativity in abundance.

Ward is not claiming that anarchist tendencies are explicit or conscious, except perhaps in the odd case, but rather that local musical culture loosely embodies and exemplifies this political philosophy. He finishes by suggesting that this musical scene might serve as a model for wider society: “I want you to reflect on what an interesting world we would be living in if we organized everything the way we organize our music.”

Gustavo Dudamel regards the orchestra as “a beautiful model for a society” – what kind of world would we be living in if we organized everything like an orchestra?

What kind of political system is The System?

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