No-Places and Good-Places

Massive Attack's new EP consists of three audiovisual lectures on basic income, tax avoidance and climate change as an attempt to visualise a 'eutopia' – an attainable 'good-place.'

‘There is never any shortage of horrible creatures, who prey on human beings snatch away their food, or devour whole populations; but examples of wise social planning are not so easy to find’

– Thomas More, Utopia

From their work with Adam Curtis to Robert Del Naja’s collaboration with director Darren Aronofsky and artist JR on the public artwork The Standing March at the UN Climate Conference, Massive Attack have consistently channelled activism into their art. ‘Eutopia,’ the band’s first release in four years, references Thomas More’s 16th century Utopia. Combined with hypnotic visuals, each of the EP’s tracks is designed to create a forum for three prominent political speakers to talk about respective crises accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic: climate change, economic insecurity, and tax evasion.

In More’s Utopia, Raphael Hythloday recounts a conversation he has with the Archbishop of Canterbury about providing every individual with ‘some means of livelihood so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.’ #UNIVERSALBASICINCOME, a collaboration with Young Fathers, echoes Raphael’s sentiment. Guy Standing, co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, provides a short lecture outlining how the universal right to a basic income could curb social ills that plague modern society. In 1942, the Beveridge Report identified the ‘five giants’ that held back society (disease, idleness, squalor, ignorance, and want). Eighty-eight years on, we face a similar predicament. Rentier capitalism has created eight modern giants: Inequality, insecurity, debt, stress, precarity, extinction, right-wing populism, and automation. According to Standing, pandemics have become the ninth giant. The pandemic has spotlighted the fragility of an economy based on exclusionary income support measures and precarious work.

Massive Attack and Mark Donne have drawn attention to tax avoidance in the past, having collaborated on the documentary-film The UK Gold together. In #TAXHAVENS, with a backdrop that morphs into an automated take on Ambrosius Holbein’s ‘Map of Utopia’ and an arresting beat produced with Saul Williams, professor Gabriel Zucman’s monologue highlights the damage done to economies by offshore tax havens, leading to the siphoning off of $700 billion of global untaxed profit each year. In the midst of the current fiscal emergency, increasing tax revenue will be vital for treasuries to keep public services funded adequately. Three measures are suggested to address offshoring. Firstly, Zucman suggests that states should publicly call to attention the difference between what multi-national corporations should pay if they were subject to the correct tax rate and what they actually pay. Secondly, countries can unilaterally collect the tax deficit of multi-nationals according to what percentage of sales are made within their boundary, thereby reducing avoidance. Thirdly, governments must bar companies registered in tax havens from state bailouts. Wales, Scotland and France have all taken a stand against tax-dodging corporations by preventing them from receiving state subsidies during the pandemic. However, Boris Johnson’s government has already shown their unwillingness to tackle the issue with £4.79 Billion in bailout cash being handed out to companies with links to tax havens, according to TaxWatch UK.

Featuring Algiers, an American band with a defiant political agenda, #CLIMATEEMERGENCY uses discomforting visuals of mutating skulls and a stirring soundtrack of protest drums overlaid with distorted gospel samples. On this track, Christiana Figueres, a world authority on environmental sustainability, calls for solidarity and cooperation to tackle the acute crises we face. With the help of entrancing typography, she outlines vital transformations of the food and energy sectors that must occur to aid a transition towards a sustainable economy. Firstly, Figueres states that the food system must be aligned to the four principles of food security proposed by the FAO; access, sustainability, utilization and stability. This would ensure a fair, environmentally healthy system that can stand up to the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change, which are already affecting the ability of the world’s food production to meet a growing level of demand. Secondly, the energy sector must move away from its use of fossil fuels in order to reduce pollution. With regard to their own industry, Massive Attack have been vocal about decarbonisation. Recently, they commissioned the Tyndall Centre to create a roadmap for reducing the carbon footprint of live music tours and help them schedule a ‘super-low’ carbon gig in Liverpool to showcase how dramatic reductions in the level of emissions produced by live music concerts can come to fruition.

The use of music as a medium of resistance is nothing new and Massive Attack’s discography has always had political undertones. However, this EP uses their worldwide platform to create a visionary, new genre of protest art that allows dissenting experts to take centre stage over musicality. In creating a form where visual art, music production and political speech coalesce so effectively, they have amplified the power of all three seminars by ensuring the message resonates long after each video’s conclusion. This project is not merely another anti-establishment album to be enjoyed as entertainment: it is to be engaged with and acted upon.

In his novel, Thomas More played on the inability of the English language to distinguish between ‘Utopia’ and ‘Eutopia.’ Utopia, coined from the Greek word ou-topos, translates as ‘no-place.’ Massive Attack’s use of Eutopia as the title, taken from the greek word eu-topos, meaning an attainable ‘good place,’ is not a spelling mistake. Accompanying their release, the band stated that ‘the spirit of this EP, its elements and ideas have nothing to do with naïve notions of an ideal, perfect world, and everything to do with the urgent and practical need to build something better.’ This project is not an unachievable utopian dream. Rather, Massive Attack’s audio-visual collaboration is a medium-bending, dystopian warning for a world on the edge of impending destruction, an urgent plea for change and a set of practical proposals for a progressive restructuring of the economy in the post-pandemic age. Like Utopia, it serves as both a critical mirror held up to our society, as well as a hammer that intends to help shape a better future.