Capitalism, innovation, artistic labor Reading musicians’ memoirs and books on popular musicians reveals a strong discursive coherence

that, nevertheless, does not correspond to any obvious ideological formation within contemporary politics. Simultaneously antinomian and deeply conservative, celebratory of eccentricity and approving of the arbitrary exercise of disciplinary authority against marginal figures unable to adapt to the whims of capricious managers, populist and elitist, morally outraged by the emotional toll of poverty and silent about their complicity in the perpetuation of inequality as members of the American economic elite—the life-writing of a George Jones or Merle Haggard seems ideologically inscrutable. Similarly, histories of jazz musicians are often structured on deeply contradictory premises. They frequently prioritize both connection to tradition and modernist innovation; submission to the rigorous labor discipline of the jazz ensemble and romantic resistance to creative constraints; acknowledgement of the collective and collaborative nature of jazz’s mode of creative production and a myopic focus on the achievements of individual artists. Burt Korall’s
Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz distills to an almost uncanny degree the dominant tropes of individual heroism (measured in terms of innovation) in jazz historiography. Korall writes that “a few musicians are special” because they “bring something fresh, new, and unusual to music.” Like most jazz historians, Korall begins by constructing a normative perspective from which to make judgments about art, progress, and social function. He demonstrates the near-universal voluntarism that characterizes discussion of artistic decision-making, and the tendency to divorce “musical” decisions from those related to labor, work, and survival. Because his subject is drummers, traditionally subordinated to a secondary position within jazz’s division of labor and its inherited hierarchy of “greatness,” Korall gives the clear impression that the serious consideration of drummers needs to be justified: “drummers have also

made meaningful changes in jazz and heightened its expressiveness.” Left unremarked upon is the

cognitive dissonance produced by an aesthetic theory that assumes that thousands of musicians should toil in obscurity, under conditions of massive economic insecurity, in order to produce a handful of geniuses per generation (“each decade, one or two more artists of vision come along and
push music into the future.”)

Careful consideration of this literary corpus reveals the source of the ideology that sustains the negative capability at the heart of writing by and about musicians: what the New Deal-era economist and critic Thurman Arnold called “the folklore of capitalism.” Arnold’s contribution, like that of Thorstein Veblen, was to place the internal contradictions of the bourgeois mentality at the center of his analysis. Looking at writing by and about musicians as beholden to the “folklore of capitalism” makes legible much of its seeming incoherence. Consider, for instance, the value placed on innovation as the measure of artistic worth or historical moment in much of this literature. Writers cling to this measure of value even when writing about musical forms the enjoyment of which plainly has nothing to do with “hearing” novelty (such as bluegrass, punk rock, and traditional “world music” for example), and even though innovation in the realm of technique is often associated with musicians in whom music historians express little interest. “Thumbs” Carlisle and Stanley Jordan do not receive the recognition of Eric Clapton and Wes Montgomery, even though Carlisle and Jordan were certainly the more “innovative” musicians in pioneering unorthodox guitar techniques; Serge Chaloff and Steve Lacy are not written about with nearly the frequency of a Charlie Parker or a John Coltrane, even though Chaloff and Lacy pursued sonic novelties more audible and personally idiosyncratic than the “harmonic extensions” in Parker’s lines or Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” both of which have become maddeningly overused clichés of jazz writing. “Innovation,”

per se, is obviously not what historians should be, or indeed are interested in—but they persist in pretending that it is. The reason for this continued focus on what is clearly the wrong element within aesthetic history is, I would argue, allegiance to the idées reçus of the “folklore of capitalism.” Within the “folklore of capitalism,” “innovation” occupies a central role: it is the motor that drives intellectual
property law, which is always justified by the “folk belief” that the artificial scarcity produced by copyright is the necessary condition of future innovation. The folklore of “innovation” legitimates and justifies the capitalist “spoils system” whereby laborers get nothing, but a few “innovators” win fame and acclaim. At times, Marx and Engels came close to endorsing the vision of innovation as a product of capitalism, with their image of a market-based economy caught in the fetters of feudal social relations, waiting to burst forth and revolutionize the means of production. Finally, the “folklore of capitalism” works to minimize widely shared anxieties about the negative impacts of technological innovations: whether in the form of new sources of destruction and misery, as in the case of the military innovations that dominate the industries that most aggressively pursue innovation for its own sake; new complications in daily life—the nightmare inverse of labor-saving technology, expertly satirized by Rube Goldberg and embodied in the Taylorist timeand-motion study; and in the science fiction excesses that the profit-motive encourages, the biotechnological tinkering with very materials of life. Within American history, the idea of capitalism as the source of innovation has been pervasive, whether in a Marxist, Weberian, or Boorstinian-affirmative mode. James Willard Hurst, for instance, in his

Law and Social Order in the United States, explains the growth of the American economy in the nineteenth century by reverting to the “folklore of capitalism.” Hurst sees a widespread consensus among all segments of society, agitating for intensification of a capitalist legal order. Contrary to almost all of the social historical evidence, the experience of every other western society, and common sense, Hurst sees an “impatiently opportunistic society,” supported by the

popularly shared desire for “substantial autonomy of free will in the market” and individual liberty. Why would Revolutionary-era Americans have wanted to trade the security of traditional labor and legal protections for the chaos of the free market in work and goods? Hurst’s answer is that they recognized that capitalism, encouraged by a market-friendly jurisprudence, was a system that would encourage the creativity of individuals to achieve a “release of energy”—here Hurst verges on a Reichian heuristic of pent-up drives that sees capitalism as a solution for collective frustration—far-fetched, bizarre, possibly nuts, but well-grounded in the “folklore of capitalism”—in fact, it is this image that dominates the most impressive continental exploration of this folklore, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s two volumes on capitalism and schizophrenia. Jazz historian Scott De Veaux has produced an impressive analysis of the themes and tropes that dominate mainstream jazz historiography. Disregarding the complex social origins that produced jazz, and the wildly varied artistic, economic, and political realities that have both sustained it and made its survival precarious, historians have placed a whiggish, unilineal, and organicist narrative at the center of jazz history. This narrative is predicated on the insistence that jazz is "America's classical music." De Veaux notes that this familiar formulation validates a number of related and heavily loaded conclusions. Especially important for a consideration of the theme of innovation in the historical literature on jazz is the implicit notion that jazz's "failure" to sustain itself in the marketplace necessitated its “rescue” by transformation into an autonomous "artistic tradition" that replicates the evolutionary progress familiar from history of Western art, a progress that is “proven,” in the last instance, by a succession of innovations.

It is not just the textbook writers and Ken Burns, however, who persist in valorizing innovation above all else. The late leftist jazz critic Frank Kofsky, for instance, in his chapter “Afro-American Folk Roots in Innovation” in Black Music/White Business directed his considerable rhetorical gifts to what seems like a pointless exercise—distinguishing between African American and white “innovations” in jazz: “Hence despite the fact that jazz music has been relatively widely disseminated on a world scale during the last few decades, it does not follow, as some have naively argued, that now ‘anyone’ can aspire to be a jazz innovator (as opposed to a competent jazz musician)… It is not simply because they have heard more jazz recordings during their childhood and youth that black artists have been far and away the dominant innovators in jazz. Rather, it is because they are immersed in a social milieu that is itself suffused with the complex rhythmic juxtapositions, syncopations, cadences, timbres, body movements, and so on, of African-based music and dance—and this fact is not about to change. For the foreseeable future, in which the destruction of de facto separation of white and black communities appears at best a remote possibility, we can anticipate that black artists will continue to be the source of the leading innovations in jazz” (136-37). Ironically, by focusing so intently on innovation, Kofsky the Trotskyite comes close to the worldview of innovation-centric free enterprise boosters like Ayn Rand. As Jennifer Burns explains in her excellent essay on Rand (“Godless Capitalism: Ayn Rand and the Conservative Movement” [in American Capitalism, ed. Nelson Lichtenstein]), Rand’s unique appeal to college students and young libertarians was her celebration of capitalism as a motor of individual autonomous creativity “without making concession to religion or the post-New Deal welfare state consensus.” Burns notes that the early 1940s saw a consolidation of a virulently anti-government strain of conservatism in the United States. Initially focused on the 1940 presidential campaign on Wendell Willkie, this movement began to generate important philosophical articulations of its core values during the WWII era: Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and lesser-known but influential works such as Federal Reserve Bank economist Carl Snyder’s

Capitalism the Creator: the Economic Foundations of Modern Industrial Society. Snyder’s tome, published in 1940 argued that that “capitalism was the chief mechanism by which societies moved from ‘barbarism and poverty to affluence and culture.’” Rand’s The Fountainhead pursued a similar tack, lionizing its protagonist Howard Roark, a brilliant architect, who embodies Rand’s idea of the heroic individual. Burns highlights the importance of Rand’s selection of protagonist—a creative, even avant-garde innovator who “refuses to modify his designs to gain popularity” but “emerges triumphant at the end of the novel because he has never compromised his individuality.” In The Fountainhead’s dramatic climax, Roark “gives voice to Rand’s antistatism when he dynamites a government-funded housing project that has been built based on his adulterated architectural plans. He remains unrepentant about the destruction and insists that the entire project was morally flawed because it set a collectivity against an individual” (276-277). Rand’s heroes, “a diverse band of ‘producers’ including industrialists, artists, and scientists” embody her ideas regarding the signal importance of capitalism as a source of innovation. Burns notes that the character of Henry Rearden, owner of several steel mills, allows Rand to transfer her image of the radically selfish artist to the notoriously anti-creative and conformist spheres of business and industry. Rearden is “the only man able to bring to market a new material to make trains safer”; through him, Rand advances her beliefs “that innovation and progress will happen in the private sector, and only be inhibited by government,” that “the profit motive should be acknowledged and celebrated as a spur to creativity,” and that “selfishness is… humanity’s highest calling” (280).

However variegated the spectrum of plausible readings of the culture of jazz might be, it certainly seems reasonable to assert that “selfishness as humanity’s highest calling”--which underlies not just the free market fantasies of Ayn Rand, but the entire philosophy of innovation in intellectual property law and the mainstream discourse on musical creativity—cannot be included as a legitimate position. Locating the distortions inflected in the historiography of music because of its reliance on the “folklore of capitalism” is one important task in establishing a more honest and productive way of talking about creative labor and popular culture.