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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, July 08, 2011

Punk as Counterculture

What would have been the Fourth Windsor Free Festival in 1975

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar… as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, [they] rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
Karl Marx 1845 The German Ideology

I thought I’d throw the Marx quote in to illustrate how tricky it could get if I follow Gerard’s suggestion (see his comment on previous post below) that I should write a book. I spent 18 months sweating over a 50 000 word academic thesis on a suitably obscure historical incident and got conditioned to the style and the footnotes and bibliography, sources and references. So a book could end up pretty indigestible.

In the meantime here are some thoughts on punk as counterculture. One starting point is the ongoing global economic crisis. This could be capitalism’s final crisis, sparking a wave of revolutionary actions. Or it could be the beginning of a long recession which will create mass unemployment and force wages down far enough to ensure capital once more prevails over labour…

Complicating this crisis are two new factors. One is global climate change and the other is peak oil. Both are fiercely argued over because of their implications. These are the need for a global to shift to a low/ no growth economy which is not based on burning fossil fuels. The problem with taking any steps in that direction is that capitalism requires continuous growth - usually measured as gross domestic product - at a minimum of 3% per year… every year for ever and ever. Without this continual growth, there is no point in re-investing capital in the economy because over time you would end up with less capital than you started with - due to loss of value through machines wearing out, buildings needing maintenance and such like. For a proper explanation try David Harvey’s book the Enigma of Capital £8.99 from Housmans

So we really could be getting close to the end of the (capitalist) world as we know it. So it would seem sensible and rational to start planning for what will happen next. Lots of people are and have been doing so for a long time. But - so long as the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class - the capitalist class in our era- the ideas cannot get turned into actions. It would mean the ruling class planning their own downfall, making themselves and the whole social/ economic system they rely on for their power, redundant. Which is impossible for them to imagine so nothing new happens or can happen.

Wearing my woolly Green hat, I know that back in the early seventies there was a branch of the counterculture which ’talked about windmills and psychedelic dreams’ [Crass, General Bacardi]. There was more than talk, people tried to built their own wind generators and even attempted to a company- Lucas Aerospace- to adopt such alternative/ radical technologies. For a brief moment, sparked by the 1974 oil crisis the ideas almost became mainstream. [The 1975-78 Good Life tv sit- com was a popular culture response to this.]

Although it was mainly a rural phenomenon, there was an urban dimension which involved the reclaiming and transformation for community use of buildings (through squatting/ housing associations) and also derelict spaces. Meanwhile Gardens, established in 1976, is an example which should be familiar to readers of KYPP. The radical technology movement had a strong DIY ethic, which included how to guides to setting up your own pirate radio station.

There was also a global dimension. For years, until I passed it on to some folk living in a tipi in the back garden of a squat in Lewisham, I had a copy of Victor Papanek’s book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. The book included a description of a transistor radio, made from ordinary metal food cans and powered by a burning candle, that was designed to actually be produced cheaply in developing countries. Papanek also came up with an innovative method for dispersing seeds and fertilizer for reforestation in difficult-to-access land. See

While parts of the Radical Technologists’ vision led on to the Ecology Party, later Green Party, some of the DIY aspects were adopted and adapted by punk. Which is where things get tricky.

A central part of punk’s self-definition was that it marked a distinct and definite break with the immediate past - with the preceding hippy generation. ’I hate Pink Floyd’ as one well-known punk said on his t-shirt. Musically, punk’s short sharp statements could not be confused with prog rock’s 20 minute meanderings. Punk was a revolution, and 1976 was Year Zero.

As a music and style based sub-culture, punk was new and different and nothing like what had happened before. It was also, on the same grounds, dead by the end of 1977, to be replaced by something now called ’post-punk’. Such journalistic definings of punk are the first draft of history. Second and later drafts of history are also available. Just like 1984, history is always being re-written.

But who is writing the history? Usually it is the victors who get to (re)write histories, recuperating the past so it always conforms to the (ruling) ideology of the present. Ah, but what if the ruling ideology is bankrupt and about to be consigned to the dustbin of history? What if all that is seemingly so solid is about to melt into air? Well, then the countercultural historian can reconstruct an other version of what really happened. Not ‘the’ version, just one amongst many other possible versions.

Such a countercultural approach might look for continuities rather than breaks. It might see punk as part of rather than apart from a turbulent undercurrent of idealist/ materialist opposition to the material ideas of the ruling class. This would involve recognising a process of constant/continual challenging and questioning of the ruling ideology, the ruling class. So long as the ruling ideology can keep fracturing and fragmenting and suppressing these challenges, they can never achieve the crucial breakthrough to become the ‘thought’ or ‘consciousness‘, of a revolutionary class.

Through divide and rule -through the Brew Crew strategy- every challenge gets defined as isolated and unique, as a one-off. To get beyond this victor’s version of history, we have to step back and see the bigger picture. [Edward Thompson’s The History of the English Working Class is useful tool for learning how to do this.] Applying this countercultural approach to the history of the counterculture itself - as Ken Goffman did with his Counterculture Through the Ages, 2004 - punk ceases to be an isolated fragment of resistance to the ruling ideas of the age, but becomes a particular instance or moment of the counterculture.

So punk drew on/ defined itself against, the range of oppositional strategies available at the time to create a ’new’ set of oppositional strategies which then became available to/ were recycled back into - the ongoing counterculture.

It may appear that the counterculture has more recently died or otherwise ceased to exist/resist. It hasn’t. Its apparent absence from the present is a sign of the immanent demise of the ruling ideology. So profound is the crisis of the dominant culture that it can no longer effectively function as the ruling ideology - it is now splintering and fragmenting and so can no longer write the history of what is happening right here and right now.


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