The kids was just crass
June 2016 Published in The Aesthetic of Our Anger: Anarcho-Punk, Politics and Music, 1979-84 Edited by Mike Dines & Matthew Worley (Minor Compositions)
It’s the final scene of Trainspotting. Renton, the book’s main protagonist, creeps out of a hotel room with a bag full of money and flees to Amsterdam. Having completed a drug deal with his childhood friends, he’s now ripping them off. But this is no simple tale of avarice. It’s the act of betrayal that motivates Renton, much more than the money. By ensuring that his psycho-mate Begbie will kill him if he ever returns to Edinburgh, Renton is trying to engineer a clean break with his junky past: “There, he could not be anything more than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be.” In reality a break is never clean. We always bring a remainder with us, whether familiar modes of acting or habitual patterns of thought. But at least by breaking with his old haunts and his junky associates, Renton has increased his chances of self-reinvention.
A similar tale is told in Julian Temple’s documentary “Joe Strummer, The Future is Unwritten”. A key moment in the film comes when Strummer’s band, the 101ers, support The Sex Pistols. At the time the 101ers were the more successful of the two but Joe immediately knew his group were over. They had been a close-knit group named after the squat they lived in at 101 Walterton Road. Yet Strummer not only broke up the band but also cut his former housemates dead. The film contains poignant testimony of the hurt and bewilderment the ex-101ers felt when Strummer refused to acknowledge them. Over the next few weeks Strummer altered his look, changed his sensibilities and joined The Clash. Punk was a Year Zero for Strummer. He felt he had to break from his hippy friends if he was to explore the new potential.
It’s a truism of course that while punk produced a feeling of rupture, it was actually a continuation of much of the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the people who helped shape punk in its early days were themselves counter-cultural veterans: Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid worked on The Sex Pistols, while Caroline Coon and Bernie Rhodes both managed The Clash. On a more fundamental level London’s large, politicised squatting scene was a key part of the material infrastructure that made punk possible. So while punk felt like a clean break with the past, it’s better understood as a reconfiguration of that past, closing off some paths of sub-cultural development and opening up others. New antecedents were (re)discovered, while others were ‘forgotten’. This resetting, however, is never a one-time deal. There’s a pattern to events of this kind: once the initial explosion of possibility begins to contract, then the battle over the event’s meaning – and therefore its future and past – gets reignited. At this point veterans of past events can play a vital role offering past experience as a guide to the future.
We can place Crass here, within the secondary battle over punk’s direction. As a band they were the foremost proponents of the idea that punk was a continuation of the counter-culture that had gone before. They prominently rejected punk’s declaration of a Year Zero. Recently Penny Rimbaud has gone further, appearing to deny that punk was a moment of rupture at all: “Certainly the first wave of punk (Pistols, The Clash, etc,) was little but an extension of Tin Pan Alley culture, but what followed (led, I believe, by Crass) was a radical and often life-changing movement that changed many lives and had deep effects within mainstream culture.” 1 This claim seems contradictory to us. If early punk was “little more than music business hype”, why did it have such a profound effect on the people who would go on to form Crass? In fact, punk was an event that opened up a whole new set of – partly contradictory – ideas and problems. It took more than a decade to work through them.
The members of Crass were reconfigured by the event of punk just as Crass reconfigured punk’s future. The result was the anarcho-punk scene of the 1980s. Much less celebrated than the counter-culture of the 1960s, it was probably much more widespread, finding its way into even Britain’s smallest towns. In turn, anarcho-punk’s popularity helped regenerate the UK’s moribund anarchist movement. It reshaped both anarchism and radical politics in ways that are still detectable in today’s social movements. For this reason alone it deserves to be revisited. But in writing this article, we also have personal reasons to disinter this arcane history. The Free Association first met as friends during the early 1990s, in a political scene desperate to escape anarcho-punk’s limitations. That was another time of attempted clean breaks and personal reinventions. While we’re using this article as a kind of settling of accounts, there are wider lessons to be drawn about moments of rupture, the formation of generations and the handling of inheritance.
I was 13 in the school playground when The Beatles happened, I was 18 and went to university when the revolution in drugs happened, and I was 26 and a TV presenter with my own show when punk happened. And then it was when I was 38 that acid house happened. Because it’s a 13 year cycle: 1950, 1963, 1976 and 1989. I was too young for the Teddy Boys in 1950. My big ambition is to be around for 2002 when the next thing happens.
2002 must have disappointed Tony Wilson. There was no pop-cultural revolution that year. Tony died in 2007 and so missed the similar non-event of 2015. And today it looks as if that 13-year pop-cultural cycle of rupture, rebirth and exhaustion has definitively ended. Of course you could argue that, if the cycle only revolved four times, it may never have existed at all. Perhaps we are just seeing false patterns in random data. The difficulty is that such dynamics can’t be seen directly, and are only detectable by their effects. They become concrete when the expectation of a cycle’s return feeds back upon itself to structure experience, almost as if a rupture can be willed into existence.3 This idea of a Year Zero was a powerful and constant theme in punk, just as it had been in previous pop-cultural revolutions.
We can add some depth to the idea of a subcultural cycle by placing it within Mark Fisher’s concept of ‘popular modernism’. While modernism’s drive to discover the new is usually associated with art, architecture and literature, popular modernism is about the way avant-garde ideas and practices were reworked, extended and circulated through popular culture. By rethinking post-war popular culture in this way it’s possible to identify a trajectory in pop that takes its model from Mod (the original modernists) and reaches its apogee with post-punk. This idea of a modernist strain in pop fits nicely with both the accelerated innovation of a pop subcultural cycle and the desire for a clean break with the past. The popular modernist dynamic contains an oscillation between two modes of the popular; the first is popular identification with music and icons but at times this leads to a second mode, popular participation in cultural production. We find this model interesting because it closely mirrors the structuring problem of radical politics (how to popularise unpopular ideas). But it’s also important in its own right. It was this pattern that allowed working (and middle) class kids unprecedented control over their culture for a period of forty years.
It’s tempting to situate Crass within a British pastoralist tradition, if only because they lived at Dial House, a farmhouse in the Essex countryside. But we think it might be more useful to fit them into a popular modernist lineage. This is most obvious when we think about Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud’s stint at art school. These institutions played a central role in propagating a modernist feel to post-war pop, allowing smart working class kids like Gee to encounter avant-garde ideas. It also provided them with enough free time to incorporate these ideas into the problems of their own lives. The influence of modernist artists seems self-evident in Gee Vaucher’s gouaches and collages for Crass, not least the anti-fascist and communist pieces by John Heartfield and John Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?. Other elements of Crass’s practice also bear a modernist mark: there are echoes of Jasper Johns in their extensive use of stenciled graffiti; Gee has herself highlighted the influence of the Fluxus movement and the Situationists, saying “We were affected by street theatre – by the idea of taking something out of our four walls and off the canvas”; and there is a Dadaist/Situationist flavour to Crass’s use of stunts and pranks.4 Finally, the Crass symbol and all the elements of Crass’s live performance also fit the mould – from the banners to the uniforms to Mick Duffield’s films, the techniques of both the avant-garde and mass communication were thrown into the mix. All combined these extra-musical activities gave Crass an air of mystery and ambiguity that either made you want to walk away or delve deeper to work it out.5
The example of Crass reveals how popular modernism contains its own internal dynamic with an accelerated sense of progression offering a series of Year Zeros. Each subcultural cycle was, in part, a working-through of particular problems within that dynamic, but they were also structured by the wider socio-economic situation of the time.
Of course, situating punk within the crises of the 1970s is nothing new. In fact it’s a story that’s all too easily mobilised to justify the neoliberal turn: early punk is placed alongside images of the winter of discontent to symbolise a country in terminal collapse. Instead we find it more useful to overlay the notion of longer economic waves onto the pattern of popular modernism. The period of popular modernist sub-cultural cycles is co-extensive with the period of welfarist, social democratic capitalism and its effects – from the birth of Rock and Roll in the 1950s to the Acid House revolution in the late 1980s6 By 2002 the effects of neoliberal hegemony had altered everyday life too much for the cycle to continue.7 It’s evident from this that widespread creativity and innovation depends on a bedrock of material security.
The mid-1970s, far from being a low point of hardship for young people, were the highpoint of material equality in the UK and, by many measures, a time of unprecedented freedom for working and middle class youth.8 We should also remember that 1976, the year of The Sex Pistols’ emergence, saw the IMF impose austerity and neoliberal policies on Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. The turn towards neoliberalism was already under way by the time of Thatcher’s election. In this light punk can be freed from the tale of neoliberal inevitability and recast as a popular modernist expression of the first indications that the space of freedom was closing down.9
Buy Now Pay As You Go
The Conservative (monetarist) analysis of the 1970s crisis saw too much money in the economy, with inflation driven by high wage demands. To bring this under control interest rates were trebled in the early 1980s with the aim of provoking a recession and stimulating unemployment. The expansion of youth unemployment was the cutting edge of the neoliberal attack on working class confidence. Yet the welfare state, still at that time designed for an economy of nearly full employment, placed few conditions on unemployment and housing benefit. The anarcho-punk scene exploited this for its material infrastructure and played an important role in collectivising and politicising the experience of unemployment into a potential space of freedom. It acted as the cutting edge of a wider dole culture, building a lifestyle based on thrifty enjoyment. Crass introduced the practice of printing the words ‘pay no more than…’ on their record sleeves to hold down the price of records, and the scene revolved around cheap gigs in unconventional venues.10 The squatting scene was revitalised with an expansion of squatted houses in many cities and even squatted social centres in some. A youth dole-culture that sought to engineer the time of unemployment into a space of freedom undermined the unemployed’s economic role as a reserve army of labour. It was in this sense an effective means of resisting the attack on wages.
We might call this a strategy of exodus – one that, on its own, would never be sufficient to defeat the neoliberal offensive. The promise of anarcho-punk was for dole culture to also be the basis for wider political activism. It’s here that the influence of Crass became a mixed blessing. With their roots in hippy counter-culture they introduced elements of a New Age-inflected individualism that cut against the collectivism found in anarcho-punk’s reproductive practice. In Penny Rimbaud’s words, “Anarchists believe that if each individual can learn to act out of conscience, rather than greed the machinery of power will collapse.”11 This attempt to have a ‘revolution in your head’ not only underestimated the influence material circumstances have on the ideas in our head but its focus on individual conscience led away from the collective political strategies needed to effect material change.
While Crass set the initial flavour of anarchism in the scene, the general ‘structure of feeling’ of the times also influenced the direction of the politics. The threat of nuclear war loomed large and anti-nuclear protests and peace camps became the main political manifestation of anarcho-punk. Peace activism created a dynamic that led to the Stop the City demonstrations of 1983 and 1984 while a variety of other issues also became a focus for different elements of the scene, from animal rights to feminism. It was an admirable breadth of concerns but it also reflected the idea of politics as a personal, moral choice. At times the ideology of anarcho-punk fell into a kind of militant liberalism with increasingly stringent, although opaque, rules of moral conduct used for one-upmanship and policing of the scene. As the Bash Street Kids declared, “For most anarchism remained a ‘look’ and attitude first, and a set of political ideas second (if at all).”12 Of course, it was precisely the looseness with which the ideas were held that allowed them to spread so far; this in turn provided a larger pool from which political activists could be drawn. It’s another iteration of the popular modernist dynamic between popular identification and popular participation. This looseness, however, was a real hindrance to the ability to think strategically about what was changing and how to respond to it.
As the decade wore on, two transformations began to break up the anarcho-punk scene. The first was an intensification of class struggle and the defeat of the miners and printers. The miners’ strike, in particular, was an event that forced people to recompose their politics in relation to a battle where lines had been so clearly drawn. Most anarcho-punks recognised what side they were on and supported the miners, often practically, but this only increased the pressure on subculture-based politics. To effect the change they wanted to see, the punks needed the support of ‘ordinary people’ (“the very Mums and Dads you spiked your hair up to piss off in the first place”, as the Bash Street Kids put it). It produced a trajectory that was further boosted by the second transformation, the credit-fuelled boom of the second half of the 1980s and the availability of jobs that came with it. This, along with increased conditionality on benefits, undermined the material basis of the entire scene.
As a result, the trend within anarchism was towards its class struggle varieties. In particular, the group Class War used a punk aesthetic to lead the scene towards class politics. Often, however, those politics seemed based on a concept of class as a kind of socio-economic identity. The Beasts of Burden pamphlet offers a neat summary of the period:
Haircuts, clothes and diets changed rapidly as people rushed to adopt the dead end ‘working class identity’ that they had earlier tried so hard to escape from… With hindsight, the most that can be said about developments of the 1980s was that it represented a step sideways from one confused set of ideas to another. People were no more or less working class when they adopted their patronising ‘prolecult’ lifestyle than when they were punks. Being working class has got nothing to do with what you wear, eat or how you talk – it’s about being subjected to a life dominated by work (this applies not just to people in waged work, but the unemployed whose conditions of existence are determined by their relation to the labour market).13
Crass had already broken up as a group in 1984, and by the start of the 1990s the anarcho-punk scene they had helped spawn was defunct. If we can find fault with the way both Crass and the class struggle anarchists handled their inheritance from earlier generations, then what might a better mode of inheritance look like? To think this through we need to briefly consider what we mean by a generation.
When people talk about generations they usually have some sort of age cohort in mind – ‘Baby-boomers’, ‘Generation X’, ‘Millennials’ and so on. Sometimes these categorisations relate to a specific demographic change (the Baby-boomers, for instance, are named after the post-war growth in population) but this is not usually the case. In fact, political generations are formed through shared experience of disruptive events. Although these events affect people of any age, they tend to leave a disproportionate mark on those in their late teens to mid-twenties.
We need to make a distinction here between two different types of events. The first kind are those that are received passively, apparently coming from a realm beyond human control. The second kind of event are experienced as the product of the active participation of those involved. We’ve called these second types of events ‘moments of excess’, by which we mean moments which exceed the pre-existing sense of social, political and cultural possibility.14 These two types of events generate very different kinds of generations. Let’s look at some recent events to explore the distinction. The global economic crisis of 2008 is an example of the first kind of event. For most it felt like a natural disaster, as their lives were buffeted by forces they could neither understand nor control. That experience reconfigured people’s material circumstances and tended to undermine belief in the naturalness of the current system. But crucially it wasn’t able to offer a way out of the crisis. It took the active events of 2011, the moments of excess produced by the protests, movements and revolutions of that year, to form a ‘political’ generation that could move in a common direction.15
At this point we need to be clear about what happens in these moments of excess. Despite the claims of each pop-cultural revolution, there is no wiping out of the past: instead, moments of excess open up the future precisely by reconfiguring the past, unclogging history and opening up new lines of continuity.16 This recalibration draws new vectors which smash through the present and fly outwards to different futures. This is exactly what happened to Joe Strummer after the Sex Pistols gig: “Yesterday I thought I was a crud. Then I saw the Sex Pistols and I became a king and decided to move into the future.” And it seems clear that punk triggered the same affective response in the founder members of Crass.
Of course, punk is just one example of a particular subset of moments of excess. Indeed, each popular modernist sub-cultural cycle represents the working-through of the new possibilities revealed by a moment of excess. Just as we can distinguish different types of cycle (sub-cultural, socio-economic, etc.), so we can also distinguish between the different kinds of generations they produce, not least because each kind of cycle has its own temporality. In fact, we might reverse this and say that the concept of a generation is simply the way we talk about the collective experiential affects of cycles. There are, or have been, distinct political generations just as there have been generational distinctions in cultural tastes and attitudes. These different generational distinctions overlap and interfere with each other. Popular modernism, for instance, sped up innovations in culture so that it cycled faster than the formation of political generations. This is how we can understand the continuities between hippy and punk. The most powerful moments occur when socio-economic, political and cultural generational cycles fall into sync and amplify one another.
The production of generations by events also raises another prospect, that veterans of one generation can find themselves regenerated by participating in subsequent moments of excess. This is not an easy task to accomplish. It’s common for one political generation to experience new events as mere repetitions of the one they lived through (which is why generals always prepare to fight the last war). The mode of providing inheritance that we’ve been looking for is one that can bring past generational knowledge to bear upon subsequent events while retaining the ability to see what’s new in the new situation. In a sense, veterans must find a way to rediscover the openness of their youth. The older participants who joined Crass seemed able to do this: they were regenerated by punk, accepting its new problems and challenges without having to renounce all of their past. When that cycle came to a close, unfortunately they didn’t seem able to do it again.
Of course this task may have been easier in the accelerated generational flux of popular modernism: as Tony Wilson knew, you only had to wait a few years for the Next Big Thing to happen. If we’re right in suggesting that those cycles of pop-cultural revolution are no longer possible, then the longer economic waves present a more difficult problem. In the dark days of the mid-1990s Fredric Jameson talked of “one of the fundamental peculiarities of human history, namely that human time, individual time, is out of synch with socioeconomic time, and in particular with the rhythms or cycles – the so-called Kondratiev waves – of the capitalist mode of production itself, with its brief windows of opportunity that open onto collective praxis, and its incomprehensible inhuman periods of fatality and insurmountable misery.”17
Those of us who hope for future regeneration need to develop the means to survive the “inhuman periods of fatality” without losing our openness to the influence of events-to-come. As a hat tip to Steve Ignorant, we might call these mechanisms ‘lifeboats’. They are forms of organisation that can maintain collective political purpose while being buffeted by generational waves that might otherwise make us lose coherence. Dial House acted as a lifeboat. It allowed the participants a collective project of alternative living while its open door policy allowed new influences to filter in. Penny originally hoped that Dial House would act as an example and spur a network of open houses across the country. This didn’t come to pass: as the alternative culture they were a part of diminished and the outward-facing project of Crass broke up, Dial House found itself too far adrift from the shores of ‘ordinary’ life to dock at future events erupting there.
So what model can we find to allow those in their lifeboats to present their inheritance to future generations? What role can they play in subsequent moments of excess? Perhaps, to quote Pignarre and Stengers, it’s the role of the sounders of the depths, who “stay at the front of a ship, but… do not look into the distance. They cannot announce directions nor choose them. Their concern, their responsibility, the reason for the equipment they use is the rapids where one can be smashed to pieces, the rocks that one can hit, the sandbanks where one can run aground. Their knowledge stems from the experience of a past that tells of the dangers of rivers, of their deceptive currents, of their seductive eddying.”18
- Quoted in Jeremy Allen (2016) “Punk was Rubbish and it Changed Nothing”. Available at: http://noisey.vice.com/blog/punk-was-rubbish-and-it-didnt-change-anything-an-investigation ↩
- David Nolan, Tony Wilson – You’re Entitled to an Opinion…. (London: John Blake Publishing Ltd., 2010) ↩
- This certainly seemed to be the case in the mid-1980s when the expectation of a new pop-cultural event was so strong that it provoked several false starts. The band Sigue Sigue Sputnik, for instance, hyped themselves relentlessly as the pioneers of pop’s fifth generation. They were – thank fuck – quite wrong but just three years later the cycle was confirmed in a place no-one was looking. The rise of Acid House in 1989 took everyone by surprise and turned everything upside down. ↩
- The ‘Thatchergate’ tapes, an infamous faked conversation between Thatcher and Reagan cut together by the band and released to the press, were thought by MI5 to have been put together by the KGB. Crass also sneaked an anti-marriage song onto a flexidisc given away by the unsuspecting Loving magazine. ↩
- On the other hand it’s obvious that Crass weren’t ever part of popular culture in the way that, for example, The Jam were. The DIY ethic of the anarcho-punk scene reflected a wilful embrace of marginality that became a major problematic in 1980s anarchism. All the same, there’s something compelling about the way Crass melded avant-garde practices with mass communication techniques; it’s almost as if they had all the attributes to be huge but deliberately held back. ↩
- You could question our periodisation here because Acid House emerged several years into Thatcher’s reign. We argue that at that time there were still enough gaps in the neoliberal order, and indeed enough residual material support, to allow the cycle to continue. It was only as the 1990s wore on that neoliberal globalisation gained enough hegemony to eclipse other possibilities. ↩
- Of course, changes in the technology of music distribution have also played a role in this but neoliberalism’s effect on material conditions has been decisive. Material inequality has increased dramatically while wages have stagnated. The lack of affordable housing, alongside the crackdown on squatting and the day-to-day state interference that now goes along with claiming benefits, has eliminated the space of freedom upon which youth culture relied. ↩
- This claim should be tempered by an acknowledgment that other types of oppression were prevalent at the time. Expressions of sexism, racism and homophobia, for instance, were much more routine and explicit than now. ↩
- As Deleuze and Guattari remind us, music is the most deterritorialised and fluid of all art forms. This allows it a predictive role, anticipating and prefiguring trends that have yet to crystallise. ↩
- In many ways this focus on ‘the look’ and ‘the attitude’ still followed the model set by Mod, although now consumption had to be conspicuously thrifty. ↩
- Penny Rimbaud, ‘The Last of the Hippies’ in A Series of Shock Slogans and Mindless Token Tantrums (Essex: Exitstencil Press), 1982. ↩
- Bash Street Kids, ‘Nostalgia in the UK’, Smash Hits 3, October 1998. Available at: http://www.uncarved.org/music/apunk/nostalgia.html ↩
- Anonymous, Beasts of Burden: Capitalism-Animals-Communism (London: Antagonism, 1999). Available at: http://libcom.org/library/beasts-burden-antagonism-practical-history ↩
- The Free Association, Moments of Excess (Oakland: PM Press, 2011). ↩
- We are now seeing the effects of this combination of events in representational politics. There have been, for example, unexpected levels of youth support for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn – although the example of the Ukraine after Euromaidan shows that these kinds of events can also produce a far-right generation. ↩
- As Faulkner puts it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ↩
- Frederic Jameson, ‘Actually Existing Marxism’ in Casarino, Cesare et al (eds) Marxism Beyond Marxism (New York: Routledge, 1996) ↩
- Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) ↩