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11 June 2024  •  Politics & Law

Punk Bands and Politics

By Adam Montefiore (he/him)
Punk Bands and Politics

In high school, I found myself with an unquenchable thirst for skateboarding. I got my love of

eighties punk from old skate videos we shared around on USBs. Dead Kennedys were my favourite. What is immediately clear in their music is their anti-establishment message. They hated cops, big banks, and everything about Reagan.

In retrospect, it was mostly their aesthetic that drew me in, but I absorbed the political message, and today, I am firmly on the hard left. The feeling of skating past people who are walking was and still is an awesome feeling. On a skateboard, everything that’s built for some kind of social utility starts looking like something you wanna skate on – it’s both destructive and creative at once.

This got me thinking about what being anti-establishment actually entails. In Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi punks fuck off,” Jello Biafra sings: “Punk means thinkin’ for yourself; You ain’t hardcore, cause you spike your hair.” Unfortunately, today it's populist MAGA Americans who might do a little too much thinking for themselves. Strangely, this culminated in Johnny Rotten wearing a MAGA shirt and coming out in support of Trump. MAGA looks like the most enthusiastic anti-establishment movement Western culture has. However, ultimate scepticism of institutions leaves a gaping hole that fills itself in with brain rot if you have nothing else to offer. If this wasn’t obvious before 2016, it undoubtedly is now.

My friend from high school is now a school psychologist. From nine to five, she hears all the problems of subjective expression and so on from today’s youth. She was telling me about one of her colleagues who was going on about the plague of ‘woke culture’. It pissed her off. It pissed me off too. But what pisses me off about it most is that although there are legitimate problems with the way identity politics clash with hard left values in modern philosophical thought, the monopoly of this criticism has mostly been handed off to right-wing idealogues, as us on the left have been unable to fully understand the issues in our own position.

I can’t remember the exact irritation her colleague had, but I do remember thinking it sounded like it was pulled straight from a Jordan Peterson speech. We watched his debate with Slovenian Hegelian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, to get some ideas. After Peterson’s ramblings about his famous contradictory term ‘post-modern neo-Marxists’, Zizek had something interesting to say on the topic:

“White left liberals love to denigrate their own culture and blame eurocentrism for our evils. But it is instantly clear how this self-denigration brings a profit of its own. Through this renouncing of their particular routes, multicultural liberals reserve for themselves the universal position, graciously soliciting others to assert their particular identity.”

The point is that the profit is a monopoly on cultural critique. Those who humiliate themselves most are rewarded with the social privilege to arrange the state of the field from a now ostensibly objective view. Here they embody the contradiction in popular identity politics.

What is upsetting to see is that it seems this liberal tendency has permeated the hard-left ethos. While shaving one's eyebrows may well symbolise something radical – a rejection of established beauty norms through self-humiliation – it is also an aesthetic implementation that appears to relinquish social power when it in fact attains it. Here, another contradiction: the social commodity of attractive unattractiveness, where being unattractive is somehow now a popular object of desire.

But this is not to say Zizek or others who buy this argument are to be some kind of opponents to

dissidence. He himself dedicated the first issue of his Zine to punk, saying “it’s only through [the] punk movement that we had real opposition. Before [the] punk movement, it was just some narrow literary circles.” But the key point here was that it was only through an amalgamation of different political streams that their controversial magazine of poetry and essays gained enough momentum to even hit the shelves. Zizek said, “It was clear to everybody that the moment we will have democracy we will again become mortal enemies.” This was amidst a highly volatile political climate in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

However strong this case may be for power in popular progressive discourse, we know there are far greater contradictions in establishment neoliberalism. Remember not to forget the most beautiful part of punk culture, a subversive weapon: irony. Don’t forget the irony of a brand that hates brands, or establishing a counterculture that aims to tear down the establishment only to establish itself in the establishment's stead.

Being punk means expressing through yourself the damages of a broken economic system. It is not for aesthetic effect but for protest. But where subconsciously the aesthetic attraction necessarily emerges, then understand the irony in it and know that it is a mask just as is a suit and tie.


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