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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Anarcho-punk and the Spectacle of Neoliberalism

Demolition of Ravenscraig Steel Works 1992

Wow, that was fun. Just spent  90 minutes on the phone (due to Skype malfunction) with Matt Grimes doing an interview for a  research project on ‘the role of cultural memory in the lives of former participants in the British anarcho-punk scene aged 52 to 65’. This was the third  interview I have done with Matt.

Why is it fun? It is fun because it is quite challenging. With some of the questions Matt asks I can answer almost by rote, they are questions I have answered before in various (written) interviews but every so often Matt throws in a question which stumps me and my reply becomes more vague, less certain as I rack my brains trying to formulate a coherent response.

There are two aspects to this problem. One relates to conflicts and tensions at the time. The other are conflicts and tensions which emerged later.

At the time there were conflicts and tensions between both the anarchist aspect of anarcho-punk and the punk aspect. From the perspective of  people who were already self-professed  anarchists, the punks were not really anarchists at all. Most punks had picked upon ‘anarchy’ via the Sex Pistols and were only in it for the chaos [‘get pissed, destroy’] and knew nothing of the history and current practice of actually existing anarchists.

At the same time, by 78/79, musically punk was already splitting off into 57 varieties of  what is now called post-punk. What was to become anarcho-punk was only one part of this creative confusion and, apart from Crass, scarcely existed as a genre. But punk was always about more than the music.

One of the questions Matt asked me was about direct action as an anarchist tactic. In my answer I talked about road protests but I didn’t mention squatting as a form of direct action. Thinking about it a bit more,  I think squatting was very important for the development of punk towards anarcho-punk, but also reveals  the limitations of ‘anarcho-punk’ as a descriptive category.

If we go back to 1976, there already were a lot of squats in London  which had their origins in the late sixties/early seventies countercultures revival of squatting .[There had been a large spontaneous squatting movement post- WW2 as a response to the immediate post-war housing crisis]

Punk squatting began 1977/78  when hundreds of young people were inspired by punk to move to London and had nowhere to live. It was not a ‘political’ act, it was purely practical, but once established within the punk community it became part of  punk-as-a-way-of-life  as an alternative and in opposition to punk as music based subculture. Squatting could not be co modified, could not be ’sold’ as a punk product, it meant living punk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Squatting was also a practical way in which punk acted out the situationists’ theory of re-imaging the city.

Although there were punk squats in other cities, the sheer size of London and its then possession of  thousands of derelict/ empty/unused properties plus the continuity of squatting from pre- through to post-punk eras allowed the creation of a critical mass of punk squatters.  At the time, via my involvement with the Kill Your Pet Puppy collective, my perception of ‘anarcho-punk’ was of its emergence out of the punk squatting scene and its overlap with the counterculture squatting scene- for example  pre-Wapping Autonomy Centre gigs at a squatted church (St James) on Pentonville Road where Rubella Ballet and the Mob amongst many others played1980/81. [The first punk gigs at the Wapping Autonomy Centre were in late 1981].

That trajectory carried through from Wapping to the Centro Iberico on Harrow Road and then to a whole string of squatted buildings across London. [And in other cities but that is not part of my direct knowledge.] But although what was to become anarcho-punk overlapped with the London  punk squatting scene the two were not identical. Through Crass’ high profile and their willingness to play  in village halls and community centres across the UK, anarcho-punk grew and flourished  in many very different situations and contexts.  Equally, the punk squatters in London were a very diverse group numbering in the thousands while  the Wapping Autonomy Centre and Centro Iberico gigs attracted only a few hundred punks, many of whom were teenagers.

My benefit of hindsight  interpretation of this is that  although squatting is a practical form of direct action and therefore has a political/anarchist dimension, living in a squat in itself/ on its own did not ‘politicise’ punk squatters. Rather, where there was an awareness of squatting as a significant act, its significance was understood within a generalised/vague countercultural opposition to the status quo. This aspect or element of the punk squatting scene acted as a pathway towards many punk squatters becoming ‘new travellers’ in the mid /late eighties, with a corresponding blurring of the distinction between ‘punks’ and ‘hippies’.

In the conversation /interview I also tried to highlight the ways in which Kill Your Pet Puppy  engaged with the more Crass influenced aspects of anarcho-punk which we felt at the time were narrowing the possibilities punk had opened up. One way we did this was by putting together a ‘recommended reading list’ which republished in KYPP4 (summer 1981 -ie pre-Wapping Autonomy Centre). Here it is…

KYYP 4 (1981) recommended reading list (complied by Brett Puppy)

The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Floodgates of Anarchy by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer
News from Nowhere by William Morris
Play Power by Richard Neville
Ivan Illich’s books
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
Functions of the Orgasm and The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich
The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach
The Christie Files by Stuart Christie
Spectacular Times (booklets) by Larry Law
Beneath the City Streets by Peter Laurie

Music (listed immediately below the reading list)
The Mob x 2 , Soft Cell, Lou Reed, Syd Barrett, T. Rex, The Associates, The Cramps, The Igloos, Charge and a couple I can’t read plus the Barracudas….

I think the diversity of books suggested above illustrates the diversity of sources  KYPP was able to draw on in constructing our particular version of punk. It is important to remember here that KYPP was successor to Tony Drayton’s Ripped and Torn which was first published in October 1976 and ran through 19 issues to1979. This meant that KYPP never doubted its punk credentials so we [the Puppy Collective] were fully confidant that what we were doing was a continuation and expansion of  ‘punk’ in its pure form.

But were we really  articulating the essence of punk? Yes we were, if punk is a ‘permanent revolution’, a continuing creative ferment which keeps re-inventing itself/ ourselves, resisting commodification, resisting ossification, resisting becoming a known and knowable entity. Neti, neti. Not this, not that, but always something more, something beyond limits and constraints, always challenging the fixed and frozen time/space of the spectacle. Cue Situationist quote…

Another side of the deficiency of general historical life is that individual life as yet has no history. The pseudo-events which rush by in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those informed of them; moreover they are lost in the inflation of their hurried replacement at every throb of the spectacular machinery. Furthermore, what is really lived has no relation to the official irreversible time of society and is in direct opposition to the pseudo-cyclical rhythm of the consumable by-product of this time. This individual experience of separate daily life remains without language, without concept, without critical access to its own past which has been recorded nowhere. It is not communicated. It is not understood and is forgotten to the profit of the false spectacular memory of the unmemorable. [Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, # 157]

The above quote is what inspired me to start my Greengalloway blog in 2005, but even before then - back in 1996-  I was challenging limited versions of the history of (anarcho-) punk as this quote from my sleeve notes of ‘May Inspire Revolutionary Acts’ (2007) by the Mob shows.

I am listening to The Mob’s 1983 album ‘Let the Tribe Increase’ and looking at the cover of a 1996 book which  shows two ‘new age traveller’ style road protestors standing on a pile of chalk at Twyford  Down, blowing horns.  The photo is on the cover of ’Senseless Acts of Beauty : Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties’. It is a damn good book, moving from free-festivals to acid house raves, but it annoys me. Or rather this quote does:                      
Of all the successful punk and post-punk outfits, Crass alone managed that most difficult of manoeuvres: to avoid recuperation, to maintain political and artistic autonomy in the music industry. That is such an achievement. If punk was a discourse of authenticity, obsessed with street credibility, with not ‘selling out’, Crass must be placed at the centre of that discourse.
 [Back in 1996 when I first read the book] I underlined  the ‘Crass alone’ bit and   scribbled ‘ What about the Mob!’ in the margin. Then I took  it up with  the author, George MacKay, who was a lecturer, now professor, of Cultural Studies. He apologised. He had never heard of The Mob, did not know about the many ‘Anarchy Centres’, about the punk squatting scene, about fanzines like Kill Your Pet Puppy… about any of it. A whole underground  punk ‘culture of resistance’ had grown, flowered and faded between 1978 and 1985. It spread like some strange mutant weed through an ever shifting and changing network of squats across London. Then it vanished without trace, leaving only ‘Crass’ in its wake.

Although the Crass/MacKay interpretation of anarcho-punk remains the dominant narrative, 18 years on the MacKay ‘argument from ignorance’ cannot be sustained without a 1984 style re-writing of history to consciously exclude alternative constructions of anarcho-punk. In particular the sheer volume of material archived since 2007 on the KYPP blog site -music, print material, photographs and personal recollections- challenges the simplification of anarcho-punk. At the same time, Rubella Ballet, Zounds, the Mob and Hagar the Womb to name but four groups have all played live, recorded and released new material recently.

At the same time, to give credit to MacKay, he did attempt to trace the continuing story of the counterculture through the free festivals and new travellers as a parallel and overlapping narrative from the seventies through into the road protests and anti-criminal justice act protests (which drew in the acid house ravers) of the nineties as ‘cultures of resistance’. Although the targets for the resistance may change, there is a continuing counter culture of creative opposition to power. Significantly, this counterculture has emerged and grown as what is now called neoliberalism has developed and grown as the dominant ideology of global power.

EDIT- I have just cut a 2000 word section on the history of neoliberalism which I wrote here. My conclusion was that neoliberalism can be equated with the situationists’ society of the spectacle.

But this conclusion confuses the construction of anarcho-punk as a distinct genre, as a distinctive subculture. Instead it becomes one among many historical forms of resistance to/ disruption of  ‘the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.’ [From Chapter 1 part 24 of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’].

Such historical forms of resistance are very interesting. I started my Greengalloway blog while I was researching the (armed) uprising of the Galloway Levellers in 1724. Although now regarded as only a minor incident, I found that it had connections backwards to the early 17th century Plantation of Ulster and forwards to the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. I also found that only one account by a participant had survived- that of John Martin 1710-1801. Martin had run away from home to join the Levellers as a teenager, had been fined for his actions and gone on to become a respectable clock-maker, living long enough to pass on his recollections to a local antiquarian.

So when I started jotting down my memories of anarcho-punk, I was also thinking of the Galloway Levellers, of history from below as a form of resistance to history from above. The idea being that the existing order’s laudatory monologue contains the subliminal message ‘resistance is futile, resistance is futile’, that opposition will always be negated and/or assimilated. What this does is keep the possibility that resistance is fertile submerged below the level of historical consciousness.

The world already possesses the dream of a time whose consciousness it must now possess in order to actually live it. [Debord, Society of the Spectacle #164] 

taken from :

Marx, Letter to Ruge, September 1843: "The world has for a long time possessed the dream of a thing, of which it now suffices to become aware so as to really possess it."

But ‘dream of a thing/time’ suggests fantasy not reality. I would re-word this as ‘The world already contains the potential of a future which we must become conscious of before we can make it happen’.

This fits with the experience of the independence referendum in Scotland. At the beginning of the process, independence was a possibility. As the grassroots Yes campaign began to develop outside the official Yes campaign, through thousands of debates and discussions on doorsteps, community centres, village and town halls and online, the reality that another Scotland is possible became part of a collective, historical, consciousness.

But as opinion polls showed the Yes vote gaining traction in the last few weeks of campaigning, the No campaign went into overdrive. Scotland was bombarded with scare stories of job losses, price rises, pensions being slashed and economic meltdown. At the same time promises -a ‘Vow’- of maximum home rule and the federalisation of the UK were made.This combination of fear and hope was enough to win the vote for No on the day.

However, it is beginning to look as if it is not over yet. The No vote on 18 September 2014 now appears to have been a pause rather than a defeat for the process of independence. Attention has now shifted to the next UK general election which will be held in May 2015.

Stepping back, the bigger picture is that it is neoliberalism/the spectacle which seems more and more like a dream (nightmare) or fantasy. In this dream, the global economy stimulated by the free play of competition, would continue to grow forever and ever. That dream died with the global economic crisis of 2008. The spectacle of  neoliberalism is  now on life support, kept from flat-lining only by billions of money units being pumped into the system via quantitative easing and near zero interest rates.

The problem is that the spectacle of neoliberalism has been so successful at presenting itself as the only possible reality while eliminating and extinguishing alternative realities that it has become an evolutionary dead-end. It cannot adapt to changing circumstances, to shifts in the tectonic plates of reality. Locked in to its cold-blooded ideology of competition uber alles, it cannot conceive of warm-blooded progress through cooperation and mutual aid.

To talk of evolution and adaptation to changes in environmental/ecological circumstances brings in a final theme- climate change. Throughout our history, humanity has survived living under many oppressive/repressive social/economic systems. But history is only a record of the relatively recent past, the 6000 years or so since writing was invented, against the 195 000 years that ‘anatomically modern’ homo sapiens sapiens have existed. Writing and history can be connected to the domestication of plant and animal species (farming/ Neolithic revolution) which began about 10 000 years ago when the end of the most recent Ice Age created a more stable climate. This was essential for farming and the ability of post-Ice Age human communities to cooperate in building up surpluses of food which in turn allowed settled/fixed communities to develop. Within these communities specialisation of labour emerged and with it ‘civilisation’.

Climate change will disrupt out ability to create food surpluses. No food surpluses = no civilisation.

The spectacle of neoliberalism comes in to play here because it sees the shifts necessary to mitigate climate change as ‘anti-competitive’, as placing limits and restrictions on economic behaviour. Unfortunately by the time the food starts to run out it will be too late to do much about it. Fortunately, civilisation is about more than food surpluses, it is also about the accumulation of knowledge. Civilisation requires education as well as farming. Both are long term projects.

Liberalism as an economic doctrine had its beginnings when the industrial revolution took place in late 18th century Manchester gave rise to modern/industrial capitalism. This place and period strongly influenced Marxism because Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote ‘The Condition of the English Working Class’ based on his encounter with Manchester 1842/3. Marx’s major work ‘Capital’ was subtitled ‘A Critique of Political Economy’. In Engels’ book he mentions that Galloway born John Ramsay McCulloch (1789-1864) was the English bourgeoisies’ ‘favourite political economist’.

McCulloch is interesting since he provides a link between the theories of political economy developed by Adam Smith before the industrial revolution and the practices of industrial capitalism/ political economy which was then developed in Manchester. By the 1850s these had become the ‘Manchester School’ doctrines of free-trade and laissez-faire - the idea that economic success requires minimal state intervention. This can also be called economic liberalism.

Neoliberalism could then be described as an attempt to wind the clock back to the golden years of capital in the nineteenth century before it was contaminated by socialism. It was the doctrine adopted by Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA in the 1980s and which has now gone global. This was the version of neoliberalism set out by David Harvey in ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ in 2006. However…in 2009, French authors Pierre Dardot and Christian Lavall came up with an alternative understanding of neoliberalism which was published in English in 2013 as ‘The New Way of the World-On Neoliberal Society’.

Dardot and Lavall trace neoliberalism back to the later nineteenth century when Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who came up with the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ as a simplification of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. This simplification was challenged by Friedrich Engels in 1875.

The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbe's doctrine of bellum omnia contra omnes [a war of all against all] and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus's theory of population. When this conjurer's trick has been performed...the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved.

By the 1870s, Britain’s supremacy as the first industrial nation was threatened by Germany and the USA. Dardot and Lavall suggest that this led to a shift from the idea of the market as a place of exchange to the idea of the market as a place of competition. By the 1930s, as old fashioned liberalism was threatened by the rise of ‘state capitalism’ via fascism and Stalinism, a new liberalism based on the need to ensure competition began to emerge. The outlines of what was to become neoliberalism were established at an economic conference in Paris in1938 but had to wait until after WW2 to take root- in post-war Germany and in what was to become the European Union.

Dardot and Lavall go on to argue that neoliberalism has moved on from being an economic doctrine or ideology to becoming a ‘rationality’. Within this rationality the necessity of ‘competition’ has become so deeply embedded that, for example, the idea of cooperation is considered irrational and therefore impossible. What this means is that, as Margaret Thatcher once said ‘there is no such thing as society’, there are only individuals competing with each other as economic agents. Human beings are not social animals, they are calculating atoms existing within a global market place in an economic war of all against all. In this war the fittest, those who maximise their economic advantages, survive and prosper while the unfit, those who fail to compete successfully, must resign themselves to lives of enduring poverty.

This rationalisation of competition takes us back to Thomas Hobbes and ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’ - the war (or struggle) of all against all- which Hobbes believed was humanity’s condition before the invention of civil[ised] society. Yet, based on studies of existing pre-agricultural societies, their survival is rooted in cooperation rather than competition. We are a social species.

The spectacle of neoliberalism is a flawed rationality, a false consciousness which is slowly destroying our socialised humanity and the ability of the planet to sustain ourselves and a large part of life on earth.

Yet even now, there still seems to be a separation between economy and ecology, a belief that the struggle for economic justice is separate from the struggle against climate change. Bringing the two together is therefore the most pressing challenge we face.

Coming back to anarcho-punk… its cultural memory is useful to the extent that it was a culture of resistance, but it is also distraction, shading over into nostalgia. Of more interest to me right now is work I am doing-writing/researching- on the 19th century Scottish iron industry, showing how it combined economic exploitation of its workforce who lived in appalling physical conditions with unsustainable exploitation of natural resources-  iron ore and coal- leaving a legacy of social deprivation and adding millions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This combined legacy is very relevant to the present day in Scotland, influencing the political landscape and acting as a warning for the future against economic reliance on an oil industry which is also a contributor to climate change.