Tracey Emin was asked recently to design a new £50 note.
Sinead O'Connor was similarly inspired twenty years ago...
The music business certainly contains some odd contrasts. On 5 November, the world's biggest music publishing company, Time Warner, handed a cheque for £26 million to Elton John and Bernie Taupin for the future marketing rights to all their songs from 1974 onwards, including the next six future albums. This was the largest advance ever paid in music history. It reflected the safety of investing in the popular material involved.
Around the same time, a fairly successful but somewhat more controversial singer hit
the headlines, not just of the music press, but also in the tabloids and elsewhere. Sinead O'Connor had torn up a picture of the Pope, live on camera on the "Saturday Night live" American network comedy show. This only added to an already radical reputation, which had polarised opinion between the "moral majority", particularly in the States, who see her as a public enemy and figure of hate, and the few who have been intrigued by the passionate protests she has pursued.
On an earlier occasion, she had refused to participate in a concert which was to have ended with a rendition of the Stars And Stripes, and for this Frank Sinatra was quoted as eloquently saying that he would like to "kick her butt". The Sun did an excited expose about her alleged support for
the IRA, which later turned out to be unfounded. She horrified the music industry by refusing to collect her "Brits" and US "Grammy" awards in 1991 as she disagreed with the acquisitive and competitive ethos it represented. Then, at the time of the Gulf War, this popular singing star again distinguished herself from her musical colleagues by nailing her colours to the mast and going on record as being emphatically opposed to the war.
In the USA, ugly scenes ensued in which piles of her records have been destroyed in public (no doubt in the name of freedom of expression). In Britain, she has been ridiculed instead, through the somewhat limp wit of radio DJs, attempting pathetically to stray into the vocal exposition of their insipid conservatism.
Matters came to a head last October, when she was violently shouted off the stage at a special New York concert held to commemorate thirty years of records produced by Bob Dylan. How ironic that this smug party held for the protest singer of a previous generation should have displayed such brutal intolerance for someone who had spoken out with views which had protested against certain sacred cows in the 1990s. Did they think that the sixties had
been so successful in liberating humanity that "protest" could be quietly laid to rest?
It was in the aftermath of that concert that she announced her resignation from her singing career, stating that she had striven to achieve fame only in order to obtain a platform for certain strongly-held views. She then explained these views in some detail through various press interviews. It was subsequently announced that her record company had then persuaded her to reconsider her decision, and she was therefore included in the bill for an Amnesty International
So what were the ideas which lay beneath this wave of controversy?
The opposition to Sinead O'Connor's pronouncements about the need to abolish money had a tiresomely familiar ring to socialists. In supposedly radical journals like New Musical Express and supposedly liberal organs like the Guardian the tired old arguments in defence of the money system were trotted out with religious devotion, as if kept permanently ready, to use
at the first signs of any heretical statements made against the money god:
"Take away money, then you take away the
pillars of society...Money may well be
the root of all evil. but what choice do we
have? Right now. no money equals no
power. No power equals a voice in the
wilderness. Sad, but that's the real world.
(NME. 14 November).
So you don't accept that human nature is
essentially competitive and that money is
just part of this? ... But what about you,
Sinead? You must have a few quid stacked
away somewhere? (NME. 31 October).
"Mad Woman in the Artic, Part II"; "I'm
not a raving loony". Sinead O'Connor
told the Sun last week. "My biggest aim
is to get rid of money", she continued.
"If everyone agreed to do it at the same
time, it could happen". Unsold piles of
the last Sinead CD could be the new currency."
(Guardian, 31 October).
Revolutionary socialists, who have been working for many years for the creation of a moneyless system of society, have grown used to these inane defences of the money system. They confuse the notion of a fixed "human nature" with the wide variety of human behaviours which have evolved through the conditions of various social systems.
It was of note that in the main NME interview involved, 'O'Connor made no
fewer than fifteen separate references to the urgent need to abolish the money system. Whilst socialists will want to question some of the religious commentaries which were woven in with this, it was very heartening nevertheless to see this proposal receiving this unexpected platform:
"So the only solution to all of the problems
in the world - starvation, homelessness,
joblessness, etc - is to get rid of money..
A survey has to be conducted. Let's have
a vote and see..."If everyone else was
going to do it, would you be prepared to
live without money?" Let's see how
people feel about it - -supposedly we live
in a democracy. I bet you that people will
be able to do it...as long as there exists
the system of money, there will always be
people who have some and those who
haven't...Ninety-five per cent of the
world's wealth is owned by five per cent
of the world's population. That's the
whole problem...We can do it, but
there's no point unless everyone's gonna
do it, it just can't work...Look at our
lives, how they're run by money...get
rid of money. In one foul swoop, you get
rid of the whole thing. With love, and our
supposed belief in God...Have the faith
to go through the rocky part and believe
that God's gonna help us out. (NME, 31
She holds the view that most modern social problems had their origin in the rise of the Catholic Church and "Roman Empire" based in the Vatican, with its sanctioning of various invasions and imperialisms, and its imposition of repressive moral codes over millions of people. In her own country of origin, Ireland, she describes how alcoholism, drug-abuse and, in particular, child abuse have in her view been the inevitable legacy of that historical process. She makes no secret of the fact that her own childhood there was plagued by persistent sexual abuse. It might readily be seen that her theorising about the key historical role of the Vatican in the rise of a globally
exploitative system is a reflection of her own experiences and is too narrowly based on one interpretation of the development of certain, mainly European countries and in particular of Ireland. She fails to take a broader world view of the ruling class which in fact encompasses all religions, and in many cases none. On the other hand, these arguments are soon tied in with sounder lines of economic criticism:
"We're all trapped in a society that has
been very, very carefully orchestrated and
structured to control us by people who
want power over us, for money...they
took us away from the truth, brutalised
us and then only offered us one God, a
God outside and above us, unattainable.
They made our God into money." (NME,
She goes on to explain that the people who did all this were the Catholic Church, especially with reference to their role in Irish history. Again, this is a peculiarly narrow definition of the minority class enemy which exploits us, and leaves out of account the quite separate evolution of ruling
groups in other ways in other parts of the world. Her proposed solution, however, of abolishing the social system which is based on money, is both universally applicable and urgently needed. There is an international ruling class which certainly does impose moral codes and supervise institutionalised poverty and abuse.
Regardless of the reservations referred to above. Sinead O'Connor is to be applauded for these specific proclamations which she has pursued so single-mindedly. The profusion of panic, misunderstanding and venom with which her comments were greeted is in fact testimony to the refreshingly different and viable ideas involved.
(Socialist Standard, January 1993)