Anarcho-Punk as Militant Liberalism Part Two 1995
|Anti-Criminal Justice Bill Hyde Park 1994|
The following is only part of a much longer article which has as its main focus a discussion and critique of opposition to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act- the one famous for its attempt to make ‘repetitive beats’ illegal. The VERY full text from Aufheben 4 March 1995 can be read here
Read from today’s perspective, there is an interesting absence from the full article- neoliberalism. If written today, a section like this on Tony Blair would include a reference to neoliberalism. However it was not until David Harvey's 'A Brief History of Neoliberalism' was published in 2005 that the history of the recent past became the history of neoliberalism.
It has taken 15 years in opposition for the Labour Party to respond to the dictatorship of finance capital by planning to scrap the traditional commitment to nationalization. During those 15 years the party has swung to the right, recognising that if it is to win an election it will have to satisfy City analysts that it is capable of imposing as harsh a monetary regime as its opponents. This process has reached its logical conclusion with the election of Tony Blair as leader and his plans to reassure the bankers that his party does not even have a semblance of a commitment to the type of fiscal regime which would allow the diversion of surplus value into loss making nationalized industries and public services.
And the ‘question of Europe’ has now taken centre stage. The marginalized are now immigrants, welfare scroungers and the disabled rather than punks, travellers, ravers and road-protestors.
Despite the ditching of the 'petty nationalist' Thatcher, the Conservative Party is still divided over the question of Europe: the problem of class rule in the new economic reality of global finance capital…The problem they face which seems to be defying any easy resolution is simply the need to impose austerity, the need to attack the gains of an entrenched working class, without destroying the fragile Conservative social consensus represented by the 'Essex Man' phenomenon. With the dream of a property-owning democracy sinking into the nightmare of debt, the consensus is rapidly becoming unravelled, but UK plc cannot retreat.
What better tonic than a good old attack on those firmly outside of the deal, the marginalized, whose exclusion the Conservative deal was predicated upon, to stiffen up resolve in the ranks for those attacks which threaten to recompose the class. But even such an apparently uncomplicated weapon has been threatening to blow up in the faces of those trying to use it.
Aufheben’s 1995 critique of anarcho-punk
b) No Future:
Given the close relationship between alternative lifestyles and music, and the importance of music in providing something concrete within which value can invest itself in its repeated search for a new generation of consumers, the word 'alternative' needs to be treated with a degree of caution.
Nevertheless, not all youth cultures are the same. Some contain more or less positive tendencies than others, a greater or lesser potential for recognizing the contradictions inherent in the phenomenon and developing a practical critique of their grounding. And all 'alternative' lifestyles are by definition outside of the remit of the usual forms of political representation.
Music was in a moribund state in the mid 1970s. The musicians of the '68 generation had become tired and boring, the naive optimism of hippydom out of tune with the harsh realities of ongoing class conflict. No amount of lustre or glitter on the stage sets of glam rock could disguise the fact that all was not well in the (music) factory, and it was obvious that the new subjects of struggle required new overtures.
And as Callaghan declared his intention to launch the war of austerity in 1976, a different declaration of war was beginning to reverberate through distorted amplifiers in the back rooms and basements of London: the declaration of war on 'society' by punk. Punk was able to articulate the frustrations of the new generation. But in comparison to the wave of youth revolt in Italy, both inside and outside of the factories, punk was only a caricature of revolt, superficial nihilism.
Punk was inherently contradictory. Central to it was the 'DIY' ethos, but it lacked an explicit critique of the commodity-form. This lack of critique allowed self-valorization to give way to recuperation, giving a long overdue kick up the backside to the entrepreneurs involved in the 'youth culture' industry.
The shops of King's Road and Carnaby Street testified to the process of turning rebellion into money, shelves laden with designer bondage trousers, studded leather, mass-produced 'Destroy' and 'Vive La Revolution' t-shirts, and badges. But the recuperative powers of these new commodities were not without limit.
For the punks that had taken the mocking lyrics of their anti-heroes seriously, the sight of all this commodity capital awaiting realization, and the selling out to major labels of the biggest bands, was an insult they could not leave unanswered. They realized that 'the great rock and roll swindle' had in fact been perpetrated on them.
Perhaps the most important point, however, is the fact that selling an image of revolution to keep would-be revolutionaries from the real thing requires that they have the necessary purchasing power. And many of the working class youth attracted to punk were on the dole and therefore skint. The time was right for a sub-genre to emerge from all this shit to explicitly politicize the DIY ethos that punk stood for.
'Do you believe in the system? Well OK. I believe in anarchy in the UK'. These words from the release of the first Crass record on their own non-profit making label were accompanied by the words 'Pay no more than £2'. If you still had to pay for your anarchy at least it was affordable! Crass had the means to release their own cheap records, play cheap gigs, and promote other bands who shared their ethos.
The anarcho-punk scene soon became a vibrant alternative to the punk scene it declared dead. The anarchism of the typical anarcho-punk was however little more than militant liberalism. Crass had their roots in the old peace movement, and largely ignoring the harsh realities of class warfare in the world outside their commune, set about promoting the ideas of pacifism and lifestyle politics.
Offensive though many of their dogmas were, the anarcho-punks must be judged not just by the lyrics they sang along to, but, crucially, by what they actually did.
During the early 1980s, the main political focus for the new breed was the CND demonstrations which drew hundreds of thousands of concerned liberals to Hyde Park on a yearly basis. Grouping under a collection of black flags the anarchos would hand out leaflets and fanzines encouraging personal revolution and then heckle the speakers and try to storm the stage.
As numbers swelled, the anti-militarist struggle was taken into the heart of enemy territory with the Stop The City actions when banks and rollers would get smashed under the cover of a pacifist carnival. The obsession with lifestyle politics, however, was a major factor hindering the development of the 'movement', making links with those who didn't fit problematic, as would become apparent during the miners' strike.
Far too many anarchos simply changed their clothes, diet, drugs and musical tastes, deluding themselves that by doing so they were creating a new world within the belly of the old which would wither away once it recognized its comparative existential poverty.
But most of the criticisms of lifestyle politics, then and now, were and are mere defences by militants prepared to accept the continual deferral of pleasure in favour of the 'hard work' of politics. The desire to create the future in the present has always been a strength of anarchists.
How one lives is political. Thus the anarchos may be considered to have constituted a political movement seeking social reproduction unmediated by wage labour.
In 1980 Crass played the Stonehenge festival and a close link with the free festival scene subsequently evolved. Likewise the anarchos gave a massive impetus to the squatting scene left over from the 70s.
By the mid 1980s, virtually every town in England and Wales had its squats. Bands were formed, venues either squatted or hired dirt cheap (church halls and the like which meant no bar - take your own home-brew) and gigs organized, often benefits which would succeed in raising money despite cheap entry because the bands would play for next to nothing.
During the summer months much of this activity would shift on to the free festival circuit, meeting up with those who had chosen to spent the whole year travelling between peace camps and festivals, and who in turn would benefit from the links with the urban scene (news, contacts, places to rest and repair, opportunities for fraud etc.).
This scene was particularly well organized, and more politicized, in the cities. On Bristol's Cheltenham Road, the Demolition Ballroom, Demolition Diner, and Full Marx book shop provided a valuable organizational focus, with the activities of the squatted venue and cafe supplemented by the information and contact address of the lefty book shop. Brixton squatters not only had their own squatted cafes, creches and book shop, but also Crowbar their own Class War style squatting oriented paper.
Strong links were forged with the squatting movement on the continent, particularly Germany, and draft dodgers from Italy were regularly encountered. And with direct communication supplemented by the then fortnightly Black Flag, a couple of phone calls and a short article could mobilize numbers in solidarity with other struggles.
Whilst the anarcho-punk scene created a not insignificant area of autonomy from capital, such autonomy was always disfigured by the continued existence of exchange relations. Going to gigs and eating in squat cafes, even brewing your own beer to share with mates, all required money. And free festivals, whilst standing in stark contrast to the commercialism of Glastonbury, were anything but - there was no entry fee and no-one would let you starve if you were skint, but drugs in particular cost money.
Unless you wanted to cloud your relationships, obscuring lines of solidarity and friendship by becoming a dealer, if only to cover your own dope requirements, money remained a problem. There was always a correspondence between the satisfaction of needs and the need for money, a correspondence that contradicted the professed desire to abolish the filthy stuff.
d) Fragmentation of anarcho-punk:
This contradiction partially explains the subsequent fragmentation and decline of the anarcho-punk squatting/travelling movement. On the one hand, the state relaxed credit restrictions, abandoning tight monetary policy, producing the credit-fuelled boom which preceded the 1987 stock market crash.
This led to a rapid fall in the number of jobless. Many previously involved with organizing in and around the squatting scene got jobs during the boom, and whilst many remained living in squats (to stay with friends and save on rent), momentum was being lost. Individualism tended to replace a collective approach to social problems, as wage earners and dealers could afford to accept the position money held within the scene. The carrot of the boom, however would not have had the same impact without the repeated blows with the stick of state repression.
With unemployment falling, it became easier for the state to make the benefit system more punitive. The changes in 1987 and 1988 certainly increased the disciplining role of the welfare state, thereby throwing down a gauntlet to the lifestyle of work-rejection. Benefits for 16 and 17 year olds were scrapped in favour of an extension of YTS slave labour, thereby removing the possibility of work avoidance (except by begging) for the young school leavers who had always been central to the movement.
The introduction of the Job Training Scheme and the availability for work requirements also had an effect. Restart interviews were easy enough for most people sufficiently clued up to blag their way through, but tended to encourage people to rely on their own wits. Because these changes were ultimately divisive, they encouraged people to look after number one. Attempts to organize against them were met with responses that expressed a distinct lack of solidarity, and this reflected not only the nature of the attack but also the divisions that had emerged within the scene.
The biggest causes of such fragmentation were the smashing of the miners and printworkers on the one hand and the repression of the festival scene on the other. The anarchism of the anarcho-punk scene was always pretty incoherent, a militant liberalism that sought to destroy the state yet which was committed to pacifism. Within the movement there would be differences, some placing greater emphasis on non-violence or animal rights, some more committed to a revolutionary class position.
For a while these underlying differences could be glossed over, and whilst people could argue about the 1981 riots, for example, it was just talk. But the miners' strike presented a major challenge by its longevity and opportunity for involvement, one that caused underlying differences to surface with a resultant divergence between those who dismissed the miners as violent macho men performing an ecologically unsound activity, and those who, despite a certain amount of confusion, recognized that there was a war going on and, whatever it was about, they had to choose the violence of the pickets over that of the state's thugs.
Most anarchos supported the miners, even if such support was not of a particularly practical nature, though bands like Crass and Poison Girls and numerous others played benefits for the miners to give some material assistance. The resultant defeat therefore had a demoralizing effect on the anarcho-punk scene.
The same conflict between liberalism and class struggle anarchism came to the fore with the Wapping dispute the following year. The movement was divided between those who saw the need to support the printworkers and those who dismissed them as sexist, racist, homophobic macho men. However even amongst those more sympathetic to the former view were some who argued that it was better that pickets got trampled by police horses than horses get broken legs by pickets rolling marbles under their hooves.
The defeat of the printworkers was another demoralizing factor, but also one which accelerated the process of fragmentation. The inherent contradiction in the movement led to a substantial parting of ways, one pole devoting itself almost exclusively to the moral crusade of animal lib and many of those they fell out with getting so fed up with lifestylism that they joined one of the national anarchist organizations.
Meanwhile those who had been more attracted to travelling than squatting or political activity were being put under severe pressure. The Stonehenge festival was banned in 1985, and the determined attempt to defy the ban was met with a response not unlike that experienced by the miners, culminating in the famous 'Battle of the Beanfield'.
The following year the state brought in the Public Order Act, section 13 of which established a 4 mile radius exclusion zone around the stones. Other sections gave new powers to proscribe demonstrations and extended the law against trespass. The former were successfully challenged on the streets of London by the Campaign Against The Public Order Act/Campaign Against Police Repression; but whilst many travellers have battled bravely in adverse conditions, the police have been able to use section 39 to intimidate and harass them, continually moving them on.
Travelling and free festivals continued, but, with the loss of the weeks-long Stonehenge focus, went into something of a decline. The police-benefit festival at Glastonbury, extortionately priced but affordable to those now working, mopped up. And before they were successfully excluded in recent years, convoys of travellers used to gatecrash it (literally), with many others bunking in, and so the new reality was gradually accepted, particularly as the 'unfree' festivals were full of punters waiting to be parted from their cash.
The nomadic dream of rural idyll gradually gave way to the reality of being moved from noisy lay-by to squalid car park, with decent sites often blocked off by farmers and local councils. As the links with squatters and politicos became more distanced, so the mysticism of the 60s hippies, aided by reminiscence of the magical stones now out of reach, took further hold, alongside cynicism.
Alienation from capitalist society increasingly expressed itself through alcoholism and heroin addiction, bringing new problems to deal with or run away from. Ghettoization increased, with the 'you've had a bath so you must be a cunt' mentality increasing.
Whilst the late 80s witnessed a decline in the anarcho-punk phenomenon, it did not disappear. The Poll Tax riot demonstrated that the anger of the punks only needed an invitation to riot to stop it being internalized and bitterly misdirected. And despite all the repression since 1985, the loss of direction, supportive links, and ghettoization, a significant travelling scene survived to see the psychedelic cavalry arrive in 1992.