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Book Reviews

Is Jazz Dead? Or Is It Just Pining for the Fjords?

By Published: October 5, 2012
If We All Glocalize Together....

But perhaps the weakest aspect of Is Jazz Dead?, contrary to the Jazznytt review, lies in Nicholson's use of the idea of globalization as an explanatory tool. At no point does he ask the fundamental question whether or not what is described as "globalization" actually represents any significant change or development in capitalism. The term began to come into use in the 1970s to describe what was considered by liberal and neo-liberal economies to be a fundamental change in the world economic system, one that effectively transformed the nature of the nation state. Put simply, the state within the "new" globalised world economy was seen as having changed from one where it might be characterized as a "national Keynesian/social democratic" entity to become one where free-market, neo-liberalism ruled. Clearly, this must involve a highly idealized interpretation of the post-1945 Western/Northern Hemisphere states and of the nature of pre-and post-World War II capitalism, an interpretation that is open to question.

Not only does Nicholson fail to ask such questions, he even uses the concept of "globalization" anachronistically, to explain the dissemination of jazz around the world in the period after 1918 and the dissemination of the English language still earlier than that. Ironically, he quotes Lewis Carroll from Alice Through The Looking Glass (1871) on page 19 of Is Jazz Dead?. Words mean what I choose them to mean, indeed. Yet, on another level, this serves to emphasize that the whole idea of "globalization" itself is ill-founded and ignores the history of Western imperialism from the 17th century onwards. As early as 1902, socialist economist J.A. Hobson was arguing that imperialism was both rooted in inequality at home and in the search of finance capital for markets and areas of investment on a global basis. The reduction of barriers to trade, to the movement of labor and capital, lie at the very heart of capitalism and have done since the Victorian era. Indeed, the European Free Trade Agreement, the European Economic Community (or now expanded European Union), the World Bank and International Monetary Fund offer further proof for this aspect of capitalism, all of which predate the point where globalization became a dominant theoretical explanation for late capitalism.

The theory behind globalization is, arguably, little more than an ideological gloss to cover and depoliticize neo-liberal economic policies and their effects. In other words, we have no alternative but to make ourselves ripe for exploitation. So all-pervading has this notion become that even critical thinkers such as Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens seem to have been seduced by it and propose at best adaptation and the amelioration of its impact.

In fairness to Nicholson, he does acknowledge that what he calls "globalization"—and I would call capitalism—"operates at many levels," noting its impact on "politics, war, migration, crime, terrorism, the environment, at a cultural level, and in all forms of media." (p.164) Yet, these are all swiftly left behind as he concentrates solely on the dangers presented by globalization in terms of a sweeping cultural homogenization based on American culture. He even quotes now-disgraced British politician Tessa Jowell twice on this matter. One is left with the impression that, not only is Nicholson's explanation of globalization inadequate, but that he trivializes it and its effects. More significant examples of its deleterious effects might include the subsistence wages and atrocious working conditions of Chinese labor manufacturing iPod for Apple, the destruction of the rain forests, the 2008 financial crash, global warming and, since the mid-seventies, the growing gap between rich and poor.

To function adequately as a tool for explanation in Is Jazz Dead?, "globalization" needs to be examined fully as a conceptual device before being put into service. Questions need to be asked about what it is, whether it in fact represents any fundamental change in capitalism or whether the processes, and their cultural implications, which we are observing are actually more readily explained in terms of other explanatory models and systems. We know that minority cultural activities like jazz experience serious difficulties within a capitalist market place. However, the notion of globalization is both too vague and too blunt an instrument to assist us in understanding why this is so.

An alternative, and more useful, explanation of the processes Nicholson describes must focus on the nature of crisis in capitalism. For example, such crises often arise in situations where the market becomes flooded with capital resulting in a devaluation of investments, such as stocks and shares. Surpluses of devalued capital and labor exist side by side, but it proves impossible to bring these together in ways that bring an end to the crisis. The system becomes caught in a spiral of declining demand. There are a number of ways out of this spiral, all of which can have very negative consequences for many in society including those involved in cultural production. One is to cut to the bone all forms of public expenditure and reduce workers' rights. This can have, and indeed often has, the effect of causing demand to decline still further leading to further recession. A second involves moving capital or labor to a different territory, where costs of production are lower and demand for products potentially higher. A third relies on the creation of new markets, perhaps in internal or external non-capitalist markets. A fourth is the Keynesian approach which involves the reflation of the economy by government investment. All this should sound remarkably familiar to readers. We might add, that excluding more recent events post-2008, the previous occasion where a crisis of over-accumulation occurred in the Western hemisphere was around 1983, which is almost precisely where in time jazz-bible scholars might locate Anno-Marsalis.

It is always problematic to try and relate cultural developments to changes in the economic sphere. However, record companies were happy to capitalize on the political ferment of the late sixties and early seventies by signing even the more radical political rock and jazz musicians who questioned the very right of these companies to exist. The ideological, political and cultural retrenchment that began in the middle and late seventies, in fact, occurred alongside a remarkably important economic event, which is not referenced in Is Jazz Dead?, namely the abandonment, around 1973, of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. Bretton Woods aimed to avoid the recurrent crises that had so decimated capitalist societies in the twenties and thirties and which had contributed to the rise of fascism and the Second World War by tying the two spheres of capital—finance and manufacturing—together. One of the main mechanisms for this was the linking of currencies to the gold standard. The abandonment of Bretton Woods freed up finance capital, led to greater and greater market deregulation and to a modern capitalism where investment focuses on the quick or very quick return regardless of longer-term considerations. Money goes wherever the fast buck can be found be that in the USA or China or South America, in new technology, in manufacturing consumer durables, food production and, for our purposes, in the arts and entertainment industries.


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