I wouldn’t describe myself as a veteran of the summer festival circuit, but I’ve been to enough to have a theory about them. Or, rather, discuss someone else’s — in this case that of Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA.
For those readers who’ve never been to a festival, I will begin with a short primer. They usually take place in a muddy field over a long weekend, often in the grounds of a stately home or similar, and cost upwards of £200 to attend. There is nearly always an adjoining campsite, where many of the festival-goers stay for the duration, although the sanitary arrangements are poor. The festivals usually feature second-tier rock-and-roll bands and a random collection of authors and journalists — these are the ‘performers’ you’re paying to see, although many of them you’d cross the street to avoid. Towards the end of the evening, disc jockeys take over and play loud, repetitive music until 4 a.m., making it impossible to sleep. Perhaps for that reason, a large number of festival-goers will stay up and dance all night, even though they have often brought their children with them. The upshot is that nearly every festival features a ‘lost and found’ tent that fills up with abandoned toddlers after midnight.
So it’s a bit of a puzzle as to why anyone would want to go. Yet they do, and not just anyone. Festivals usually attract educated Guardian-reading types, the sort who pride themselves on being discerning, ‘ethical’ consumers. What’s the appeal?
Well, according to Matthew Taylor, who chaired an Intelligence Squared debate I participated in at a festival earlier this month, they are essentially shopping malls disguised as anti–capitalist protests (I’m paraphrasing). People who would normally feel inhibited about spending £8 on a bacon bap have no qualms about splashing the cash at festivals because they think there’s something vaguely anti–establishment about them. By some sleight of hand, festivals have retained their counter-cultural cachet that dates back to the 1960s, even though they’re about as ‘alternative’ as a five-bedroom house in Kew. Which, come to think of it, is the sort of house most festival-goers live in when they’re not in a bell tent or a tepee.
I think Matthew is on to something here and for those who want to explore this paradox further I recommend a book called The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank. Frank is a Marxist cultural historian who convincingly argues that 21st-century consumer capitalism is a hybrid of mercenary, corporate greed and hippie naivety, combining a one-world, peace-and-love, Buddhist innocence with a jaded, knowing, materialist venality. Think of Steve Jobs, the barefoot billionaire, and you get the general idea. If you accept Frank’s thesis, festivals aren’t in any way anomalous. They’re just another example of capitalism’s ability to co-opt its political opponents and become even stronger in the process.
The shortcoming of Matthew Taylor’s thesis is that it fails to account for one of the most striking features of festivals, which is how monocultural they are. You’re unlikely to see more than a handful of black or brown people at a festival. Indeed, you’d be hard pushed to spot anyone working-class, apart from the men in high-viz jackets patrolling the perimeter. No, they are almost exclusively white, middle-class affairs, redolent of the voluntary segregation you find in large American cities but which is less common in London, where most of the festival-goers come from. So what’s going on?
My theory is that they’re an unconscious reaction to the decline of the cultural influence of the educated white middle class. I’m not suggesting there’s anything racist about the people that go to these things, but at the ones I’ve been to there’s always an undercurrent of the liberal intelligentsia coming together to celebrate what is now a struggling subculture rather than the dominant ethos of Britain. In this regard, they’re a bit like religious festivals, where the sense of belonging and community spirit stems from the fact that everyone present is a member of a beleaguered minority. Indeed, most festivals aren’t a million miles from the Conservative party conference.
I don’t mean this to sound superior. I’m the owner of a five-bedroom house in Acton, which isn’t a million miles from Kew, and I enjoy the frisson of ‘cool’ that festivals give off. I just hope I’m a bit more clear-eyed about their real appeal than most of my fellow revellers.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.