Music to accompany a Revolution

Summary: Music can motivate individuals to join a political movement, and build support for it among the people. Here we look at music that might spark not specific policy change (eg, about the environment), but broad reform of our political system.


  1. The role of music
  2. “Sleep Now in the Fire” by Rage Against the Machine
  3. “Testify” by Rage Against the Machine
  4. Why music has power
  5. It’s about choice
  6. The futility of protest without vision of a new order
  7. For More Information

(1) The role of music

Profound political reform at some point becomes a revolution, if society resists change — and sufficient people will pay the price.  It’s a small “r” revolution, if the society eventually adapts to the new forces unleashed.  If the society resists and the conflict escalates it might become a large “R” revolution, but the price paid becomes very high. What music can motivate that kind of change?

(2)  “Sleep Now in the Fire” by Rage Against the Machine (1999, lyrics here)



(3) “Testify” by Rage Against the Machine (2000, lyrics here)

For our conservative readers, here’s an endorsement of Rage Against the Machine: it’s Paul Ryan’s favorite band!



(4) Why music has power


From Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind:

The power of music in the soul—described to Jessica marvelously by Lorenzo in the Merchant of Venice—has been recovered after a long period of desuetude. And it is rock music alone that has effected this restoration.

… Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror.

Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato’s analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses.

(5)  It’s about choice


“Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.”
— The Merovingian, in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Music can arouses passions, but political movements require more.  Not just rocking and dancing.  Revolutions require individuals to pay the price of opposing the existing political regime — and risk the consequences.  It’s this commitment that gives power to those standing together outside the ruling elites — if in sufficient numbers.



(6)  The futility of protest without vision of a new order


“We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.”
— The Oracle, ibid

Anger provides the fuel for action, but goes nowhere without a vision of a something to replace the existing political apparatus.

“Anger is easy. Anger at the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, is difficult.”
— Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, book IV, chapter 5 (lightly paraphrased)

Under the pressure of government opposition sometimes political movements mature, developing from people protesting to vent frustration to people seeking reforms (often vague in nature) to people offering an alternative to the existing system. At that point they become a they might become an existential threat to the ruling elites — or even the existing regime. Then things quickly get interesting.

“Telemachus, now is the time to be angry.”
— Odysseus, when the time came to deal with the Suitors. From the movie The Odyssey (1997)

(7)  For More Information

About heroes as inspirations for the American spirit, the American soul:

  1. A philosophical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  2. Sources of inspiration for America’s renewal, 23 April 2009 – The Law of Equivalent Exchange
  3. The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes, 2 November 2010
  4. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011



19 thoughts on “Music to accompany a Revolution”

  1. What a great post. Thank you. I listened to a very wide range of music when exploring American politics for a series of paintings I did across 4 years. Learning about the history of American music and culture I found lost values embedded (emotionally without words) just the way you describe the effect of music on revolution. It’s good to read an appreciation of how art/music and politics are inseparable and that the road to recovery of spirit isn’t necessarily a rational one. Today war artists are very few and they are trained up with the troops and “embedded” like journalists, but I learn’t this wasn’t always so.

    PBS produced a great website called ‘They Drew Fire: combat artists of World War II’ where they noted that in March 1943, 42 artists were sent a memorandum by the Chair of the War Department Art Advisory committee outlining their mission. For me, it represents an American exceptionalism I can live with. It read:

    “…Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel that it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line battle landscapes; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troops, of prisoners, of the natives of the countries you visit;- never official portraits; the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture. Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart’s content. Express if you can, realistically or symbolically, the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake’s mysticism, by Goya’s cynicism and savagery, by Delacroix’s romanticism, by Daumier’s humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our committee wants to assist you to that end.”

    1. Carlgopal,

      Thank you for your comment!

      I am the opposite of you, knowing almost nothing about music and its history. So this is an attempt to introduce a new dimension into our discussion, something largely unknown to me.

  2. Not music, but a quote I keep coming back to when you post the duality of quotes about the timing of anger.

    “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing – for the sheer fun and joy of it – to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

  3. Music for a revolution? How about this — Great text, too.

    From Wikipedia: Warszawianka is a Polish song written some time between 1879 and 1883.[1] The title, a deliberate reference to the earlier song by the same title, could be translated as either “the song of Warsaw” or “the lady of Warsaw”. … Its Russian version with altered lyrics, the Varshavianka, once experienced considerable popularity. It served as a name for 1953 film Hostile Whirlwinds. Gleb Krzhizhanovsky is usually reported as the author of the Russian version and the moment of writing the text is thought to be 1897, when Krzhizhanovsky was imprisoned.


  4. Rage Against the Machine was a good band. Here are some other revolutionary (or at least, protest) songs you might enjoy:

    Fight The Power“, by Public Enemy, off the “Do The Right Thing” soundtrack. It portrays the people getting together to do just that.

    Or for a more ironic view of what revolution could mean in our media-saturated world of meaningless spectacle, consider: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron.



  5. “Anger provides the fuel for action but gets nowhere without a vision to replace the existing political apparatus.”

    The construction of such a vision will have to deal with an intense debate on a number of issues.

    For example– the choice of appropriate theoretical frameworks for those contemporary groupings in revolt against the status quo:

    Back in the 1960s the non-psychedelic sectors of the then New Left began their long march to extinction by–either buying into some type of crude mechanical Marxism nostalgically recycling a mythological proletarian insurgency that no longer was taken seriously even by the still existing and most committed communist apparatchiks—or by slowly degenerating into the shock troops of liberal and later neo-liberal doctrine. The end result was the collapse of the New Left because it was unable to articulate a new political vision and thus seemingly doomed to be reintegrated into the existing structure of power.

    A similar trajectory may be in existence today (see, the commentary on Naked Capitalism ( a grouping of potential revolt against the status quo) where much of the thinking seems split between those arguing, in 2012, for a reassertion of some form of Marxist thinking or those who favor a more traditional form of social democracy (which leaves the modern concentrations of private and public power largely untouched) while putting faith again in supposedly enlightened experts, professionals and a new core of incorruptible national bureaucrats, similar to the progressives after 1900 or the New Deal groupings after 1933, to properly manage the levers of power (without dismantling them) into a future Nirvana. What these modern social democrats have failed to examine is how this managerial formation (which includes both the left and right, Democrats and Republicans) evolved after 1900 to emerge after the 2008 crisis as collusive supports of plutocracy.

    Meanwhile the libertarians (another grouping, of potential revolt against the status quo, especially those who have rallied around Ron Paul) seem caught in a theoretical framework which is incapable of critiquing large concentrations of private power (large-scale corporate capital) yet offering a powerful critique of our modern surveillance state (public power) and its foreign policy operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Their theoretical framework seems to combine a type of evolutionist theory with the “invisible hand” to conceal an explicit choice for a classical liberal order (the market) which is not historically grounded.

    Is there a theoretical framework which could incorporate the best elements of the libertarian right (its critique of public state power) with the best elements of the social democratic/liberal left (its critique of private corporate power) and perhaps also draw in an increasing portion of disillusioned Democrats, Republicans and Independents?

    Out of such a framework, perhaps, a new political vision and realignment might be born.

    1. I wonder if that’s a fair account of the “new left”… I actually don’t know much about its history, but I heard one interesting explanation that I want to share. After its successes in the 60’s and 70’s, (civil rights, ending the draft, epa, osha, etc), some of which were actually the result of some pretty serious agitation and sometimes violence, the left began to deeply believe that the federal government was their agent for change… that it was the main center of power (vs for example, big business), and that its institutions are responsive to the will/needs of the people. This stopped being true, but the belief that it was true stayed around… until just recently. Supposedly one of the actual accomplishments of the “occupy” movement was laying to rest the idea that the government is making a sincere attempt to look out for regular folks.

  6. Hard to tell whether FM’s post is satire. The Rage Against the Machine video for “Testify,” made in 2000 by Michael Moore, tells us that there was no meaningful difference Al Gore, then the Democratic presidential candidate, and the drunk-driving C student and Texas ex-frat boy who went on to become president.

    Can anyone today seriously suggest that if Al Gore had become president in 2001, we would have had:

    [1] The 2003 invasion of Iraq
    [2] Runaway national security state death squads run by Dick Cheney
    [3] Massive warrantless wiretapping of every American’s phone calls, emails, bank records, text messages, etc., all now stored on gigantic server farms in the Nevada desert, and most recently the cause of a bizarre spectacle in which the surveillance state ate itself and devoured the career of the head of the CIA because of runaway surveillance gone berserk (the apparent cause of the entire Petraeus situation was that some silly woman who happened to know an FBI agent got an annoying anonymous email, and the FBI without warrants or probable cause, dug through the emails not only of the sender of that annoying anonymous email but of everyone she knew)
    [4] Massive tax cuts for the rich
    [5] Out-of-control military spending
    [6] Out-of-control national security spending?

    Michael Moore and Rage against the Machine have a lot to answer for. Their execrable and dishonestly smug “above the fray” video for “Testify” was part of why Ralph Nader was able to take so many votes from the Democrats, and part of the reason why we had such a fractious and contentious runoff situation in Florida. Without self-satisfied more-liberal-than-thou prigs like Michael Moore and Rage Against the Machine using their influence in the media to proclaim the false message that there is no meaningful difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, the 2000 election would not have been tossed into a highly politicized Supreme Court which then selected a drunk-driving coke-snorting sociopath as president.

    Joseph Stiglitz, an economists who used to run the World Bank, has written a book in which he lays out the costs of the Iraq war in excess of three trillion dollars. Permit me to suggest that Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq and America would not have pissed away that three trillion dollars if he had been president. Now, three trillion dollars may not be a lot of money, but as they saying goes…a trillion here, a trillion there, and sooner or later it all adds up.

    Moreover, if Al Gore had become president it seems clear that we would never have had those massive tax cuts for the rich that remain at the center of America’s fiscal problems.

    Does anyone seriously want to tell me that with three trillion dollars extra in the bank and without those ruinously costly tax cuts for the rich, America wouldn’t be much better off today?

    Far from promoting revolution, music like “Testify” and the video that accompanied it offer a self-congratulatory feel-good dose of egotistically contemptuous narcissism for self-satisfied nihlissts who are too lazy to get up off their asses and actually get involved in politics, but who are certain they’re so smart and so far above the level of all the other peons that they think they’re doing something revolutionary when they sneer that “both sides do it” and “the Democrats are no different from the Republicans” and they vote for Ralph Nader.

    We know what that gives us. 8 years of endless unwinnable foreign wars, 8 years of death squads running amok in foreign countries (“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” — Gen. Stanley McChrystal), 8 years of warrantless wiretapping, 8 years of an out-of-control national surveillance state, 8 years of tax cuts for the rich, 8 years of crumbling roads and collapsing bridges and towns that can’t afford to keep their streetlights on or run their busses anymore. States are now selling off their airports and parking meters and prisons to private companies who take the money and leave the states holding nothing but enormous debts in a gigantic Ponzi swindle — does anyone really believe this would have been possible without the drunk-driving C student in the Oval Office for 8 years?

    The states are in dire fiscal straits because of America’s gigantic deficit — and that results mainly from the Iraq war and the tax cuts for the superrich. Without that crazy spending gobbling up our national budget, we’d have plenty of money to bail out the states and repair those bridges and resurface those roads and replace those burned-out streetlights.

    If you want revolution, fine, talk about revolution. Talking about a bunch of whiney smug prigs like Rage against the Machine who smirkingly assure us “both sides do it” and think they’ve so smart and so hip they’re above mere distinctions of left and right, is insulting as well as infantile.

    As far as new possibilities for organizing society, a number of economists are now formulating viable methods of organizing zero-growth economies. See, for example, “The radical implications of a zero-growth economy,” by Ted Trainer, University of New South Wales, 2011, Real-World Economic Review, issue no. 57.

    An economy without growth may also require an economy without money. As Iain M. Banks says in his science fiction series based around a future interstellar society called The Culture, “Money is a sign of poverty.” The entire function of money, in other words, is to allot resources in a scarcity-based society. But as Marshall Brain notes in “Robotic nation”:

    “With the robots doing most of the work, it should be possible for everyone to go on perpetual vacation. Instead, robots will displace millions of employees, leaving them unable to find work and therefore destitute. I believe that it is time to start rethinking our economy and understanding how we will allow people to live their lives in a robotic nation.”

    Daniel Suarez’s near-future science fiction novels Daemon and Freedom posit a zero-growth society in which “whuffie” is used instead of money. People get “game points” for interacting with others, and accumulating resources without developing a trustworthy reputation is pointless, since you can’t use the resources without a sufficient trust rating. In Saurez’s future alternative society, people have to undergo periodic fMRI scans to determine whether they’re telling the truth — political leaders, police, and so on.

    Bruce Sterling has written a story (“Kiosk”) and Cory Doctorow has written similar stories (“Printcrime” and “After the Siege,” available in his excellent story collection Overclocked: Stories of the Near Future”) in which near-future societies use 3D printers to produce radios, blenders, washing machines, lawnmowers, laptops, and other home appliances without needing to depend on factories.

    Fantasy? Wild sci-fi B.S.? Not quite… Consider this TED video by USC engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, who is working on a 3D printer that builds houses.

    “The building is built layer by layer,” he says, adding that “in the process lots of things can be done including automatic reinforcement, automatic plumbing…” In other words, you get a full house, not some sort of ramshackle Potemkin village-style façade.

    “In the end the whole building can be ready in an unprecedented time. We anticipate that an average house…can be built in about 20 hours, custom-designed.” A house in a day? That’s pretty disruptive.

    “The walls do not necessarily have to be rectilinear… you can execute very exotic beautiful architectural features, without incurring extra costs.” Translation: we can all have our own angular or undulating Taliesen Wests and Bilbao Museums, on a smaller scale.

    He goes on to show the device actually pumping out a concrete wall with 10,000 PSI strength–more than a threefold factor above the average 3,000 PSI strength found in most concrete structures. He includes illustrations showing how a multi-nozzle machine can build wide structures, and how a machine can scale a building to make tall ones. And he mentions support he’s been receiving from NASA, which is interested in developing the tech to build landing pads, roads, hangars, support walls, and the like on the moon or elsewhere.

    As Marshall Brain has noted, a future society in which you print out a house in 20 hours using robots, and in which everyone has their own individual 3D printer for creating personal objects like teacups or dishwashers, and in which all the food is cultivated and harvested by robots, is a society in which we won’t need money. Capitalism becomes superfluous because money won’t be need to allocate scarce resources. We’ll have access to whatever we need because robots will be producing so much of it that, and the cost of labor will be so low, that everything will become essentially free. As Bruce Sterling remarked, “We’re heading toward a society in which everything is mostly free, and no one has a job.” The big question is how we deal with that situation.

    Saamah Abdallah, in his paper “Policies for a zero growth economy,” suggests that we need to change our socioeconomic system in three basic ways to smooth the transition to a zero-growth economy: [1] Taking productivity gains as steadily reducing working hours. Various laissez faire hardliners claim this is impossible; France already limits its work week to 35 hours without having fallen into economic collapse, so it clearly is possible. [2] Re-structured ownership. An economy dominated by shareholders who only take a stake in firms so as to make a quick profit is driven relentlessly to growth. Once again, the plutocrats claim no other possibilities exist — this is provably false, and seen in Mondragon Corporations, a community-owned form of socialism practiced in one of the Basque regions of Spain since 1956. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson posits a future society using the Mondragon group-ownership structure in his recent science fiction novel 2312. [3] Re-focussing measurement, meaning that we must throw out narrow economic metrics like GDP that fail to take into account externalities like pollution, social oppression, suicide rate, etc. in favor of better measures that include the cost of the externalities as well as the goods produced.

    1. More,

      “Can anyone today seriously suggest that if Al Gore had become president in 2001, we would have had …”

      I appreciate your effort of imagination. But it is IMO delusionally overconfidence. Obama — as good a liberal as Gore (so the Left told us in 2008) — continued most of the economic and national security policies of Bush Jr. So how do we know that Gore would not have not done the same things as Gore Bush Jr? We don’t, no matter how many hundreds of words you write insisting otherwise.

      My guess — that’s all we can do with contrafactuals — is that deep structural factors produced Bush Jr’s key policies, and these factors resulted in them continuing under Obama. I doubt that either of these people, neither too smart or strong in my opinion, are key deciders in any real sense.

      As for the rest of your comment, it strikes me as a bit of a muddle. Brain’s future of massive automation is probably the very opposite of the no-growth economy you describe in the next paragraph. Note how working hours in the US have remained high — and increased for many — as incomes and productivity have risen. People make choices, often quite unexpected ones, as individuals. Collective outcomes are even more mysterious.

      As for stuff being free, that depends on the social system in place. Your confidence that there is only one outcome is … interesting. Confident.

      Also, please keep your comments to a reasonable length. When they’re longer than the post, it suggests you should open your own website. You cannot possibly get sufficient people reading such a long comment to justify the effort.

    2. Thomas More, you may be right about what would have happened had Gore won, but as Fabius points out there really is no way to know. In addition, while Nader’s 2000 candidacy may have been counterproductive, I’m not sure it make sense to blame Bush on him. According to Wikipedia, Bush won Florida by 1,784 votes. Now consider that Florida’s “Choice Point” program was alleged to have incorrectly nullified the votes of 57,700 people. Of these people it is estimated that 80% would have voted and about 90% of these would have voted for Al Gore, suggesting a loss of 41,544 votes. I am not sure why Nader continues to inspire more anger than do the shenanigans of the Florida Republicans.

    3. I personally believe that Gore probably wouldn’t have responded to 9/11 in the same way as Bush and that we probably would have been better off if Gore had been President but as Fabius points out is is difficult to disambiguate how much institutional inertia would have pushed the US to war regardless of who was in the White House.

      I think though that to put the blame on Nader is to misdirect your anger. Part of the problem is that the major government leadership is corrupted, high-level bureaucrats and politicians alike and the system encourages corruption. I think to see significant change of the government and the parties is going to require a credible threat of third-party candidates, picking brand R or brand D isn’t going to make the big changes. In that point Rage is right. Neither party nor the bureaucracy seems to be focused on fixing real problems, a credible third-party can change that even if they don’t win by changing the debate. I don’t care what brand the fixes are packaged up as, D, R or Other, as long as the military, budgetary and unemployment issues are fixed.

      Imagine instead of Clinton we got Perot, that could have been a game-changer.

      1. My guess is that to understand what Gore would have done differently than Bush Jr one must understand why Obama did the same as Bush Jr in most aspects of national security and economic policy.

        We have actual facts to answer this. Then with this foundation we can attempt counterfactual speculations about Gore.

        IMO liberals avoid this question because it is unpleasant for them. Rosy imaginations about President Gore are more fun than explaining anti-civil libertarian anti-whistleblower drone-spec ops assassinating Obama.

  7. My guess at the difference between Gore and Obama is timing. Obama entered office immediately after a president who had greatly expanded the reach and power of the office. Politicians who readily surrender power of that sort are so rare that we hold them up as paragons for centuries. The question then is what Gore would have done in a similar situation. I was not paying attention to politics at the time but I doubt he would’ve had the same vision as Bush. Or maybe he would’ve used the crisis to push something else, who knows?

    1. themurr,

      I believe we can draw a few more conclusions. The dreams of Gore are based largely on myths.

      The Democratic Party is quite willing to wage wars and limit civil liberties. Obama did the Af-Pak surge when public support for the war was low after 7 years of war. He aggressively expanded Bush Jr’s assassination campaign, including assassination of US citizens without charge or trial. He expanded many government programs curtailing civil rights, including the unprecedented expanded use of the 1917 Espionage Act to attack whistleblowers. There was no public pressure to do these things; they were entirely unforced.

      The response of liberals and the Democratic Party to these things: appplause.

      The logical inference: a Democratic administration in 2001 might have acted similarly to the GOP administration. Perhaps more strongly, as they would have had less opposition from the Left.


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