Like so many people of my age group, I have been emotionally hard hit by the death of David Bowie at the age of sixty-nine, since his music and personae were so much part of my adolescent years – ‘Life on Mars’ and Ziggy Stardust in particular. But I have also been somewhat sickened by the excessive media coverage of his death and influence; it’s not quite up to the level of the vomit-making national hysteria we all indulged in at Princess Diana’s death in 1997, but it’s getting on that way. And when an article in The Independent today calls for a Bowie memorial ‘fit for a true rebel’, then the philologist in me is roused into action and wants to probe that term ‘rebel’ (as in the famous Bowie song), since it’s also a word that means a lot to William Morris.
Bowie’s rebellion went well beyond music, of course, and was a matter of making alternative lifestyles not only acceptable, but cool, stylish and sexy too; and that indeed was highly liberating, in terms of both culture and sexuality, for many people who had faced serious prejudice and oppression. But standing back, and looking at the multiplication of lifestyle choices within the framework of postmodernism theory, one might well see rebellion of that kind as part of capitalism’s own process of dynamic change, as a spin-off of its epochal shift from centralised Fordist systems of production to multiple, decentred post-Fordist styles of production and marketing (all of which Marxism Today analysed so excellently at the time). When even Tory Prime Minister David Cameron can tweet his tribute to Bowie, one has to wonder just how much of a ‘rebel’ the latter really was after all.
‘”… the rebels,” as they now began to be called’: this is from chapter XVI of News from Nowhere, devoted to ‘How the Change Came’, just after the calling of a general strike in response to the government’s massacre of civilians in Trafalgar Square: and the term ‘rebels’ is used many times thereafter in that chapter, mostly in inverted commas. ‘Rebel’ is thus, for Morris, what capitalism calls you when you challenge its economic ascendancy rather than seek to expand lifestyle possibilities within it; and it is a prelude to that system unleashing against you all the violence - first verbal, then military - that it can muster. Think, as a modest taster of that, of the amount of venom the right-wing and even to some degree the liberal press and media have unleashed against Jeremy Corbyn; and we have even had a serving British general warning of possible mutiny against a Corbyn government (and not being disciplined or sacked afterwards).
So I must conclude that, wonderful artist and force for cultural good that he was, David Bowie was a ‘rebel’ in a limited sense that capitalism could encompass; and that there are much more difficult kinds of rebellion, more challenging kinds of self-reinvention, for which we need to find the energy and courage today.