As he packs his bags and guitars for an Australian tour where each stop will feature three nights in a row – split between career wrap-up; first three albums; next three albums – there are some things that remain true about Billy Bragg now and at the start of his career.
There is no division of “life with politics” and “life without politics” in his world. Anyone who has heard or seen him – on stage, radio, TV talk shows and rallies - in the past 35 years would know that. And anyone who haunts the odd bookshops knows it too.
As he explained in part one of this interview, even if the songwriting eased back a bit in recent years, the 62-year-old has been adding to his published works of political and historical writings, which now include, alongside countless opinion and comment pieces for newspapers and magazines, The Progressive Patriot: A Search For Belonging, Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World, and the new The Three Dimensions Of Freedom.
In part two of the interview we find that more than party divisions, more than issues of weapons and peace, taxes and equity, Englishness, free speech and the nature of socialism, he believes that today one thing matters most: holding those with power to account.
Billy Bragg’s most recent book, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, is in a grand tradition, “a pamphlet” he calls it, “a polemical essay arguing that free speech alone is not enough of a definition of freedom”.
As he puts it, if free speech were enough “Donald Trump’s Twitter feed would be the greatest expression of freedom”.
“You wouldn’t need Martin Luther King’s ‘I Had a Dream Speech’, you could just have Trump’s Twitter feed,” Bragg says derisively. “To be truly free, we need free speech, obviously, but we also need equality in terms of both listening to other voices and respecting what they have to say. But crucially, the third dimension, is accountability. And to me, what socialism was in in the 20th century, accountability seems to be coming in the 21st century, in the sense that socialism was kind of like a guiding principle for liberation, in the broadest sense of the word.”
More important than, or replacing the long struggle for fair treatment and a society built on principle of equity? How does this work?
“The thing now that connects Black Lives Matter with #MeToo and with Extinction Rebellion, is accountability. That seems to me to be where the frontline is,” he says. “So what I’m trying to do with the book is give people three vectors so they can get a framework to work out whether the situation they are facing is fitting with their principles. It’s not only a means of looking at a political debate. If we’re talking about accountability, we’ve also got to talk about not just authoritarianism on the rise, not just algorithms, but also climate change.”
Bragg was asked in 2018 to give a talk to the staff of the Bank Of England and the subject was the lack of accountability in neoliberal capitalism “and the way quantitative easing in the UK was used without anyone being in charge of it”. It went down better than you might expect, and spurred plans for the pamphlet when the UK publishers, Faber & Faber, came calling.
“It also works with regards to social media and our social media discourse. I think very often you find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to have a debate with someone online that you don’t know, and it very quickly can spiral out of control,” explains Bragg, who has been very active on social media at different times, always polite but never diffident.
“There are times when you’re arguing with people who throw up a smokescreen, ‘political correctness’ for instance. Political correctness doesn’t exist: there is no such thing. There is no political party out there campaigning for it, there are no intellectuals writing the ideology of it, there is no one marching on the streets. It’s basically a trope used by right-wingers to police the limits of social change. And in terms of social discourse, it’s a way of deflecting your argument without actually dealing with it.”
And where does the book fit into this?
“The three parameters in social discourse should give you a framework to be able to work out if the person you’re talking with is actually capable of having a debate, or whether they are just taking the piss and not worth talking to because they refuse to be accountable for the debate they are trying to have,” he explains. “I think too many of us get deflected by charges of virtuous signalling or whatever and I’m trying to find a way to puncture that and give people some tools with which to very quickly work out whether or not the situation they are involved in is worth continuing with.”
The other great diversion these days of course is the argument that you shouldn’t “be mean” to people, that getting angry is not just bad but debilitating to any argument. That you won’t convince someone unless you are coolly and rationally critiquing the likes of Boris Johnson or Scott Morrison or Trump.
(Since this interview, Elizabeth Warren copped a load of that after forensically taking down the billionaire arrogance of Michael Bloomberg in the Democratic primary debate, her brutal frankness misdescribed as anger. As fellow Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez expressed in a tweet, even if Warren had been angry, we’re allowed to be angry about exploitation and abuse and racism.)
The “don’t be mean” line acts as if so many supporters of shamelessly fact-averse, outright lying public figures haven’t already committed themselves with the understanding that facts or truth — and heaven help us, civility — don’t matter.
“I had a bit of a dingdong with [former Smiths singer, now supporter of far right nationalist groups] Morrisey over the summer and he has the right to say whatever he wants to say. I’m not trying to shut him up; I’m just saying that it is going to say those kind of things he’s going to be held accountable for them,” Bragg says. “And that’s where the problem is. So many of the people who make those kind of statements and then clutch their pools and claim freedom of speech, it’s not the right to speak that they are complaining about, they complaining about the fact that someone is challenging them. They want the most dangerous type of freedom, and that is impunity.
“Free speech without equality is privilege, that’s absolutely clear. But free speech without accountability, that’s really dangerous, that’s impunity. And we’ve seen the danger of that we Donald Trump. There are elements of this in what’s going down with Johnson as well.”
Bragg does stress that there is a difference between taking responsibility and accountability. The former is personal, done by individual; the latter is external, holding people or organisations to account. “It’s the bit of freedom that has teeth,” he says. “If freedom doesn’t have that then it means everybody can be Donald Trump.”
Impunity pretty much sums up the way people like Trump and Johnson, and to a certain extent you could say Bloomberg and Zuckerberg, have sailed through life. If businesses have gone under or women with children have become an encumbrance, if violence has resulted from a comment they’ve made or elections are being corrupted by behaviour they have allowed, they move on as if untouched.
“Everybody thinks freedom is a great thing but freedom can be dangerous. Impunity is dangerous. If you are dealing with someone who acts with impunity, whether it’s in Parliament or a relationship, you are in a dangerous situation. When decisions about our lives are made by algorithms, where is the control over that? Which is why I think accountability is set to become the defining idea of the 21st century,” says Bragg.
“The whole raison d’être of neoliberalism is to avoid accountability. And the government tells you they will have to see what the bond markets think of that, and I’ve heard a Tory minister say that on the TV program, the lack of accountability there is just startling. I didn’t vote for the bond market, and neither did anybody else.”
If you’re worried that even three nights won’t be enough to give you all this and more when Bragg is here in April and May, you can get this in more detail in print and online. Or if you want to listen instead, the audiobook of The Three Dimensions of Freedom, is read by the author. He even knows how you can take it in.
“It takes 90 minutes, it’s really short. You can put the kettle on, have your breakfast and by the end of it you will be up to speed,” he says with a chuckle. “Just listen to the sound of my voice.”
Tomorrow, in the concluding section of this three-part interview, Bragg and I get a little personal.
The Three Dimensions Of Freedom is available now, published by Allen And Unwin.
Billy Bragg plays:
Freo Social, Fremantle, April 24-26
The Gov, Adelaide, April 30-May 2
Croxton, Melbourne, May 6-8
Metro Theatre, Sydney, May 12-14
The Triffid, Brisbane, May 18-20