Guest post by Peter Harrison
‘Love Me Do’ by the Beatles, and the first Bond movie, ‘Dr No’, were released in the same week in 1962. After that, most British men had a better idea of themselves. Not quite like God and his Creation but the new alternative identities for men were all revealed in one 7-day period. ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas S. Kuhn was published in 1962. Not in the same week but close enough to be relevant. The book introduced the word ‘paradigm’ and the phrase ‘paradigm shift’. It soon became influential even eventually spreading to cod management theory. Kuhn gave an alternative view on how science progressed. Gone was the idea of steady development with knowledge accumulating incrementally over time. Kuhn demonstrated how scientists within any given specialism operate inside a set of defined ideas, a paradigm that determines the acceptable directions available for further research. These limits to understanding continue until enough anomalies are identified to show that the rules no longer match reality. Then the paradigm shifts with a jerk like an earthquake, producing a new frame for research. Science progresses in leaps and bounds which are determined by the community of scientists’ intellectual frame of reference. In ‘Treat Me Nice’, the book on Elvis and the Frankenstein Creature, Howard Jackson talks about ‘cracks in history’ and how rebels and innovators can be suddenly regarded as conformists and conservatives by the next generation.
100 years before the Beatles and Bond, in 1862, Karl Marx was part way through the analysis of economics that would eventually become the cornerstone of his most well-known work, ‘Capital’. Three years before, Marx had published (in German) ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ outlining where he thought this research would lead. The 3 or 4 pages in the introduction remain the clearest summary of his thinking about history and change.
To Marx, human society is not static, it necessitates constant change. The rate of progress may differ in different periods but change is always inevitable. Like Kuhn, Marx does not see this change as a steady and constant accumulation. Instead it moves in dramatic leaps driven by changes in the relations between people. These relations are determined by the process of production – what we might call ‘the economy – and what Marx calls the ‘productive forces’.
To borrow the language of Kuhn, the productive forces create a paradigm within which the rest of society operates. Medieval peasant production supported feudalism and Victorian capitalism facilitated the liberal ‘democracy’ of Gladstone and Disraeli. As with Kuhn’s scientists, these structures initially help production to develop. Cottage industries gave way to factories and then to increasing automation. But there comes a point where the structures created earlier begin to restrain further development. The tension builds, until eventually a revolutionary earthquake destroys the old and a new politics emerges to match the revised economic relations within society.
The books of Marx are like the albums of Elvis. Few feel obliged to either read or listen before making judgements. Freud has the same problem. So, before anyone dismisses Marx as wrong they need to reflect on what has happened in Western economies over the last 5 years. The post-Thatcher consensus or self-inflicted paradigm of neo-conservative economic liberalism has torn apart the economy, social democracy and our faith in our current politicians. Few today believe they can cope with the crisis. If the situation does not feel revolutionary to you, then watch again what happened in Syntagma Square.
That people often still insist on seeing the world as static and unchanging was exemplified in the recent documentary by Stephanie Flanders on Marx. The right wing controversialist, Peter Hitchens, described a world without capitalism as like imagining the planet ‘without weather’. The same mistake was made by the US political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, after the fall of the Eastern European ‘communist’ governments when he wrote a book describing the triumph of liberal democracy as the ‘end of history’. To both Hitchens and Fukuyama, humanity will never develop further. Both writers are constrained by experience that creates its own limits and ‘paradigm’. We struggle to see beyond it and what will exist after capitalism.
Marx would have nothing but contempt for the faith of Hitchens and Fukuyama that somehow the direction of human society is dictated by forces beyond the control of the humans that constitute it. If socialism meant anything to him it stood for humanity grasping control of it’s own future. And it is this basic humanity in Marx’s thinking – the emphasis on society as something determined by the people who form it – that makes his thought attractive to many. For some, in the more difficult periods of history, his humanity or hope has been essential. His concern for human suffering in periods of change was forgotten, both by the communists who claimed him as their own and by their enemies in the West who regarded him as the inspiration for totalitarianism. Now the Greek economy and people are sacrificed to placate ‘the markets’. Perhaps it is time to start thinking of solutions that go beyond capitalism and hierarchical visions.
In 1962, Elvis’ ill-fated movie career was established. That year saw the release of ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’, the only Elvis film that still seems to get a regular showing on British television. The movie included the hit, ‘Return to Sender’. It reaffirmed both the great man’s talent, and the extent to which things had changed since 1956. No longer the dangerous rebel he had been turned into the wholesome ‘boy next door’.
Months later ‘Love Me Do’ appeared and to paraphrase Apple on the release of yet another iPhone ‘this changes everything…again’. And so it did and so did Dylan and Hendrix and others. But did the Beatles’ first single truly represent a new paradigm, the beginning of the 60’s proper? What characterised the 60’s was the culture of youth and rebellion, a deliberate turning away from the life of the older generation. The rules of this change were established in the 1950’s, by Elvis among others. The Beatles were important in the same way that the Large Hadron Collider is important. They defined, proved, and pushed the boundaries of the existing paradigm, ‘normal science’ to use Kuhn’s phrase. But The Beatles operated within the rules established after the revolution of the 50’s, of music focused on a rebellious youth. Talented as he was, by 1962 Elvis never epitomised this paradigm like the Beatles did. Except there is an irony, what Jackson in ‘Treat Me Nice’ means by ‘cracks in history’. Elvis was more complicated than the rebels that followed, and perhaps more damaged. What happened in the 60s was a movement. Opinion and behaviour changed but, as Marx and Kuhn understood, it was not because the paradigm was removed but merely because it was given alternative dimensions. The real rebels are not comfortable in any paradigm. Maybe this was what led to the self-destruction of Elvis and why he became compliant with the wishes of the people around him. The King did not suddenly conform as others have concluded. He merely abdicated because there was nothing in the future to inspire him. Unfortunately, for Elvis there was a sinister Dutch courter in attendance. This man had no knowledge of paradigms and appeared to be incapable of ever imagining alternative dimensions. He was, though, more than willing to exploit the defeatist alienation of a genuine rebel.
This challenge was written by a guest, Peter Harrison, and it marks the end of the Elvis Presley Challenges. The blog will continue but in a different format. The Challenges were only ever intended to last for a 12 month period and they now exist as a kind of almanac. They have exceeded the original target of 52 because certain topics demanded to be included. As the subject of the blog above is change, it serves well as a final episode in the series. More information will be available next week about the future of the blog. There will be surprises which I hope will appeal. Howard Jackson
If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.
If you want to read about Frankenstein and the Creature click here.
If you want to read about Brazil click here.