What A Situation! Punk Rock and the Situationist International
If it has been said once, it has been said a thousand times (1001 now) that punk is more than just the music- it’s a way of life and a philosophy. From its inception in the 1970s, through 80S American hardcore, Riot Grrrl and right up to the present day, punk is political. Not all of it- but a lot of it. The ethos and the messages of the music is incredibly important and bands like Crass, Dead Kennedys, Bikini Kill etc have all worn their politics like they wear their patches- right on their sleeve. This phenomenon of taking a stance, communicating a strong message, advocating for causes, and imploring fans to care about the world around them is a source of pride that the whole punk genre can share. Many punk fans and bands alike have acted and lived their ethics from day 1- raising awareness and funds for anti-racism causes, housing issues, striking workers, refugees and asylum seekers, people in destitution, community causes……anyone left behind by the power structures of governments and capitalism.
But behind any political or moral action there is a framework of philosophy and thought- a tradition of ideas and manifestos; of books and theories; of histories and revolutions that shape private political discourse without many even realising. And this is something that many punk musicians knew- from Joe Strummer to Ian MacKaye- exposing your self to ideas and arguments can sharpen your mind and influence your interpretation of, and interaction with the wider world.
Anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-capitalist ideas have long philosophical traditions and have found a new home in the mouths and minds of punk fans as they see those ideas espoused in the music of their favourite bands.
But what are the links between punk and philosophy? What ideas can we link to famous political theorists and thinkers? What influenced some of punk’s most provocative and topical songwriters?
This series will look for links between punk messages, bands, ideas and lyrics, and their intellectual origins and influences. What feminist thinkers are found echoing around the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s? Are there philosophical links to straight edge? Which famous punk musician used the ancient Chinese divination text the I Ching to guide his life decisions? This will all be revealed in this new blog series!
This first post is about a group called the Situationist International (SI) and their link to punk, in particular the bands in London in the 1970s such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash. This link between the two has been made numerous times before, so many times in fact, that there is likely to be a collective fatigued groan from many punk fans on finding out this is where we’re starting. ‘Not the Situationists again!’ I can hear many cry. For some, this is because the link is now considered a bit of an overstatement- that there was actual very little influence from the SI on punk. Whilst no more than a handful of punk players may have actually read and imbibed SI philosophy, there does seem to be a link between what the SI believed and some core punk tenets. And so, this is where we will start!
What is/who were the Situationist International?
Situationist International (SI) was an organisation of social revolutionaries across the world comprised of different artists, intellectuals, political writers/theorists. They formed in 1957 and became very prominent throughout Europe.
They were primarily a philosophical group- making observations on the world as they saw it and offering suggestions for activism that they believed would alter/mitigate the negative aspects of the modern world. They had their intellectual foundations in Libertarian Marxism (which emphasises the anti-authoritarian aspects of Marxism) and certain Avant Garde art movements of the early 20th Century such as Surrealism (amongst others). The approach was to combine various disciplines into a modern, up-to-date criticism of advanced capitalism.
What did they believe?
The SI core ideas and philosophies are complex and numerous, so this is not an exhaustive look through everything that they believe or every idea they have put forward. Instead, we will look at some of their most well-known.
One central concept in the SI discourse was that of the ‘spectacle’. This was explained by one SI member Guy Debord as capitalism’s instrument for distracting and pacifying the masses. Through institutions such as the media, people become distracted and alienated from real life and instead become consumers of messages surrounding them. For the SI, capitalism meant that individual life experiences (the pursuit of your own happiness and fulfilment via experiencing life first-hand) had shifted to suddenly be about individual expression through consumption. This had far reaching negative impacts on people both as individuals and on society as a whole. The SI posited that the primary means of counteracting this superficial and inauthentic life was to create situations or moments of life that are deliberate in their attempt to reawaken your authentic senses, desires, connections, adventure and ultimately liberation.
They considered many of their ideas to be a new, revised approach to Marxism bringing it up to date. For the SI, Marx was writing a long time ago (Das Kapital published in 1867) and although his fundamental ideas on modes of production and the like was something that they did agree with, they focused on some other parts of Marxism that they thought was particularly pertinent to life in post-war Europe. One of the concepts they were big on was the concept of alienation. For Marx, the concept of alienation is a process whereby the worker is made to feel foreign or disconnected to the product of their labour as it only goes to advance their bosses, not them. For Marx, workers feel helpless, demotivated, have low self- worth and alienated from their true selves (and humanity) as a result of the class system and their place within it. The working-class individual is able to make decisions for their own life but ultimately it is for the benefit of the bourgeoisie because that’s the nature of the system. Now- fast forward to the SI- they stuck with this concept but thought it needs to be expanded- it isn’t just work that makes people feel alienated in a capitalist system, the whole advanced capitalist consumerism system ultimately alienates and makes people miserable. For them, it had spread to every aspect of life, every single day.
They rejected the idea that advanced capitalism’s apparent successes—such as technological advancement, increased income, and increased leisure—could ever outweigh the social dysfunction and degradation of everyday life that it simultaneously inflicted on people.
The term ‘situationist’ refers to the construction of ‘situations’- one of their central concepts for beating the negative impacts of the system. By creating your own authentic situations, you can start to liberate yourself in everyday life and combat feelings of alienation. They argued that capitalism is good at manufacturing desires- telling people want they want, brainwashing the masses into believing certain things about themselves (they are imperfect and need to buy products to improve themselves) and about society (if you work hard you can be rich, the ruling class have people’s best interests at heart) and therefore you have to proactively create environments that gave space for people’s genuine wants to be expressed and pursued.
As a group, they gained momentum and esteem and published two texts that were a significant part of the movement- The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord and The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. Their texts, their pamphlets and their ideas became very influential.
After a fair bit of infighting, splinter groups and controversies, the SI disbanded in 1972.
Situationist think Guy Debord
What does this have to do with punk?
Well, that depends on who you ask! As mentioned before, some people say it had absolutely nothing tangible or significant to do with it. So, we could leave it there! In fact, Johnny Rotten was pretty explicit in his autobiography:
‘All the talk about the French Situationists being associated with punk is bollocks. It’s nonsense.”
But there is a reason that those links have been made and it seems to stem from Sex Pistols manager and all-round wannabe punk Svengali Malcolm Maclaren. Maclaren used to be a member of King Mob- a group of activists and provocateurs that were formed after a bit of a split in the SI. So, we pretty much know that Maclaren was on board with a lot of their philosophies, to at least a superficial level. This was noted in Greil Marcus’s book on music, art, and culture- Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. In the Village Voice Literary Supplement of 1982, Marcus said of the Situationists:
“[They] understood why…major events arise out of what are seemingly trivial provocations. People were bored, they were not free, they did not know how to say so. Given the chance they would say so.”
And perhaps punk was that event/chance for people to express the dissatisfaction and resentment they had felt already but did not have a suitable outlet.
One of the more overt connections between the SI and the punk scene is of an aesthetic nature- the artwork of Jamie Reid as a primary example. The London-based artist created many of the designs associated with The Sex Pistols including the cover of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols; and the covers of singles God Save The Queen, Anarchy In The UK and Pretty Vacant. His defining style of that era was different words and images being thrown together cut-and-paste style, evoking the look of a ransom note. The defacing of the portrait of the Queen (putting a safety pin through her nose and swastikas in her eyes) has been described as the single most iconic image of the punk era. This kind of photo montage/ decollage was a popular SI style found in their pamphlets and posters. In fact, Reid’s image of the two buses with ‘NOWEHERE’ and ‘BOREDOM’ as their destinations was used by an SI group in San Francisco called Point Blank, who used the image in one of their leaflets.
But beyond the look and the design, what other links can there be between these two groups- the punks and the Situationists?
We could make a case that other than Maclaren, Reid and some other art school/ Avant Garde types bouncing around the King’s Road, the complex philosophy of the SI was largely unknown/irrelevant/dismissed as pretentious nonsense. And whilst that may be true, the SI were talking about many concepts that incidentally ended up in the songs or ideologies of many punk bands.
The SI spoke about the Marxist concept of alienation- revising its meaning to go beyond alienation triggered by the workplace and instead, instilled via every mechanism within modern capitalism. Certainly, on an anecdotal level, fans and musicians alike agree that part of the reason punk was able to have the impact it did was because life for many in the 1970s in the UK was difficult- poverty, disenfranchisement, racism, homophobia, sexism, hopelessness all widespread and therefore punk presented a challenge to this. The Clash sang about the lack of fulfilment in low paying, monotonous jobs in Career Opportunities, the tyranny of the boss in Clampdown and the cultural hegemony of America, the world’s biggest superpower, in I’m So Bored With The USA. Those early songs capturing a sense of frustration and dejection that were directly linked to people’s economic and social circumstances.
The Sex Pistols took a staunch and unapologetic stance against authoritarianism (as did the SI) as evidenced in pretty much everything they said and did, but in particular songs like God Save The Queen and Anarchy In The UK. Bands like Crass promoted anarchist ideals and were involved in numerous incidences of direct-action including spray painting anti-war, feminist, or anti-consumerist messages and slogans over London’s underground. The Angelic Upstarts song Liddle Towers called out police brutality and hypocrisy and Warning by Discharge speaks to some unnamed malevolent force that keeps people trapped, lied to, brainwashed, and fed shit.
The SI were galvanised into action due to their distaste with rampant capitalism and the effects on society as a whole and the individual. Australian band The Saints released their song Know Your Product in 1977 which included the lyrics: Said advertising, you’re lying/Never gonna give me what I want. Along with Sham 69 (Rip Off) and The Slits (Spend, Spend, Spend) and X-Ray Spex (Oh Bondage Up Yours!) pretty much all punk bands rejected the vacuous consumerism and lifestyle aspirations that the media pushed.
So, whilst many punk musicians may not have been au fait with the texts of the SI directly, there are lots of similarities between some of those early punk messages- picking up on themes of alienation, of superficiality and how that impacts true creativity or true moments and general sneer for capitalism and mainstream consumption. Some say there was revolution in the air following the event that has come to be known as May 68- the widespread unrest, strikes, occupations and protests that rocked France for a period of 7 weeks and brought the economy to a standstill and the government fearing a full-blown revolution. Perhaps these explosions of anger over the Channel, coupled with the SI’s promotion of updated Marxist ideas had an insidious effect of priming the UK’s youth for the cultural revolution that was punk and all of its messages.
Of course, it is possible that without the SI punk still would have happened. With it being a rail against the injustices and stagnation of the era, that anger and passion would have found a route out anyway. Musically, bands like The Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls and The Ramones had a big influence on the formation of a punk scene in the UK and this again, is not really connected to the SI. But whilst we can say that one group (SI) did not cause the other group (punks) to come into existence, there are definitely parallels in the underpinning beliefs and convictions of both meaning that connection is likely to be stated for many years yet to come.