By Kindred Winecoff
When Fred Armisen paid a sort of tribute to Margaret Thatcher this Spring most took it as straight satire. Perhaps it was. But there is an argument to be made that part of punk rock’s driving force was rooted in the same dissatisfaction with postwar political economies that led to the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal moment. The 1970s were thus a decade of economic as well as cultural transition, and as the decade wound down things were not going well. England was on an IMF bailout program and suffered from a Winter of Discontent. As part of this, trash collectors went on strike, so London was literally covered in garbage. It must have made a sort of sense to wear garbage bags as clothing in response.
In New York (which had gone bankrupt in 1975) crime was near its peak, entire neighborhoods — and practically a whole borough — had burned to the ground, and the subway looked like something out of, well, the bleak movies a coked-up Martin Scorcese was making at the time. The Keynesian consensus had not anticipated stagflation; the postwar compromise between capital and labor had calcified.
The politics of the ’77 punk movement is assumed to be of the left. This is questionable. In the 1980s the punk and hardcore communities were solidly leftist in their opposition to the Moral Majority and other neoconservative forces, but most of the 1970s groups had no politics, or their politics was obscure. In New York, punk was an extension of the avante-garde art and fashion communities, and London (at first) simply mimicked New York. The first signs of politics were anarchist when not nihilist. ’60s collectivism was as worthy of mockery as ’50s individualism. The mantra of “God Save the Queen” is not republican but simple defeatism: “no future”. This was the Blank Generation. They had no ties to the labor movement. They issued nothing like a Port Huron statement.
The Clash summed up the situation in “Career Opportunities”: there were none worth taking. The British economy was being crucified by entrenched corporations, corrupted trade organizations, and a hapless Labour Party. “Career Opportunities” was written in 1977, two years before Thatcher came to power but describing a social condition without which she never could have gained authority. The Clash saw one way out: a “White Riot” to match the civil unrest exemplified by black activists. (The Sex Pistols may have wanted anarchy in the UK, but the Clash proposed a mechanism. To the extent that punk had clear politics it was anti-racist. To the extent it had potential as a movement it was anti-statist.)
Some kind of structural transformation was needed, and had begun earlier in the decade with the final abandonment of the Bretton Woods system of pegged exchange rates. The entire edifice of postwar capitalism was evolving, and the frictions were clear. Even on the left there was some suspicion, as Christopher Hitchens put it, that on some matters Thatcher might just have had a point. When the face of American labor is Jimmy Hoffa there is not much hope in that direction.
Johnny Ramone was famously conservative, and even claimed that punk itself was fundamentally conservative. This is wrong. To the extent that punk politics have ever been articulated they are oppositionist. In the late-1970s oppositionism meant pushing back against the stagnant institutions and slogans of postwar social democracy. These were controlled, at the time, by the parties of labor. From that fixed point only two roads extended: anti-democratic communism or neoliberalism, and by then even the communists were beginning to liberalize. Few punks were Thatcherites, but Thatcher was the only one who would provide the sort of destruction — the massive societal reorganization — that they were asking for.
That is, punk as a cultural force and neoliberalism as a political force are fixed in history. They were responses to the times, and each articulated a key insight: the contradictions of democratic Keynesianism had come to a breaking point. That punk emerged in the several years before Reagan and Thatcher came to power is not an historical accident; it was a warning. That neither punk nor neoliberalism exist as identifiable movements — rather than nods to fashion — in the U.S. and U.K. today demonstrates their contingency.
The fact that punk rapidly developed both left and right political factions — little-s soviets and Nazi punks, to give two examples — that were well beyond one standard deviation from the mean in response to Reagan and Thatcher is indicative of this. Some first-wave punk was assimilated into neoliberal political economies — we usually call it “new wave” for no clear reason — while others remained deeply oppositionist. During the 1980s the latter group included much of the emergent hardcore, the working class (often-nationalist) oi segment, and the avant-literate (Dead Kennedys, Minutemen); the former was on MTV.
Punk remains oppositionist but the political ideologies have shifted. Labor parties are the conservatives once again. Once again, the revolutionaries are on the right. The contradictions of the previous economic development model — the Reagan-Thatcher model — were made quite clear, but our political economy has so far not adapted. The rudderless nature of Occupy is illustrative of this, as is the return of vague Utopianism. As is the simple fact that in the U.S. and U.K. there is no cultural force equivalent to first-wave punk.
This could be temporary, but there are signs that it may not be. Mature political economies have gotten quite good at muddling through their contradictions; we’re six years on from the start of the crisis and we’re still muddling. Political demands are of the form “fix it!” rather than “destroy it!” Marginal tweaks appear more likely than systemic overhauls: revolution is incomprehensible, and anarchism is similarly unattractive. It’s not very fashionable but that’s the correct conclusion. The world is much better in 2013 than it was in 1977: we don’t have to wear garbage bags as clothes. And we have no need for another Thatcher.
[/1]Conservatism has periodically taken this “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'” mask, but Corey Robin’s definition of conservatism as fundamentally counterrevolutionary is, I think, a much more useful characterization of the core impulse than oppositionism.
[/2]”Neoliberalism” is a descriptor that lost its usefulness in the U.S. and U.K. well before Third Way liberalism adopted the Reagan-Thatcher platform more-or-less entirely. Any contemporary use in reference to Anglo-American political economy is usually an attempt at bullying.