Chaos or Cooperation? Punk, Anarchism and Building a Better World

by | 26 Sep, 2021 | Punk Rock Philosophy | 0 comments

 There are some real key similarities between punk and anarchism and you don’t have to be an expert on anarcho-syndicalism or be familiar with the entire back catalogue of Crass in order to see them. Read on!

What do anarchists actually believe? Is it just about running about doing whatever you want, whenever you want? Well, not quite.

Anarchy in the P.U.N.K

Anarchism doesn’t often get the credit for being a fully rounded political theory- anarchy being often used as a synonym for chaos. Whilst anarchist principles undoubtedly favour personal freedom, that freedom is to be used for the good of the community- not just used for the individual to act like a div with no repercussions. Anarchism starts from a point of being sceptical about authority and political power- sceptical that it can be wielded in a benevolent way and still allow individuals a sufficient amount of personal freedom. The existence of a state is incompatible with human freedom. One of anarchism’s most famous political thinkers- Mikhail Bakunin- summed it up thus:

“If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable—and this is why we are the enemies of the State”

But if there was theoretically no ‘state’, surely the world would descend into primitive fighting, looting, Mad Max style lawlessness, mayhem and pain? People are too mean and selfish to organise themselves in such a way that would be beneficial for all. Not for anarchists! Anarchism is rooted in the idea that humans would thrive and flourish without the need for coercion- that our social instincts and fundamental propensity for cooperation would mean a better world could be built without the need for governments, police and the military etc. This does not necessarily mean no rule or structure whatsoever (as is commonly misunderstood to be the crux of anarchism), but that if people were able to reach a consensus on important issues then no one person or group is ‘ruling’- there is just agreement on how things should be distributed and managed. If everyone is ruling, then no one is ruling.

As well as taking a stance on how power structures are organised (or not organised) in society , there is a social aspect to anarchist thinking which embeds it within the left of the political spectrum. As well as the high-level governance issues, anarchists oppose all forms of discrimination and oppression and as such, take an opposition view to any structure or system that they see as colluding with it. This includes government, capitalism, imperialism, punitive justice etc…..any system whereby there is a power imbalance that can be utilised or leveraged against those who do not hold power. Instead, they call for cooperation, peace, equality, social aid, and dignity.

There are a few varieties of anarchism- where they have specifically merged with another area of political or social theory: Feminist-Anarchism; Queer-Anarchism and Eco-Anarchism. As most would accept that many of our current social norms and values are the result of state coercion and social indoctrination, it is common for those who subscribe to anarchist ideals to believe that individuals should determine their own ethics and standards for behaviour that aligns with their own sense of freedom, individuality and what is acceptable. People should dress, speak, work, behave as they see fit- not how society has told them they should.

But this idea of incredible personal and societal freedom has opened anarchism up to the critique that it is just an excuse to reject decent behaviour, not bother defining a common morality and not having to do as your told and be a productive member of society. Where have we seen those criticisms before?  The punk movement has faced the same accusations- that there is no real thought behind it, it is just an excuse for people to behave in a particular way.

Anarchism isn’t a modern thing necessarily- as long as there has been those in power (a power they can wield over others), there have been people arguing that this is probably not the best way of organising a society. After all,  what do you do when you have arseholes and despots in power? Power is a risk and the outcome for most of us ordinary people will be dependent on the whims of those who have it. The Epicureans (those who followed the philosophical teachings of Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher) and the Cynics (adherents to another ancient Greek school of thought)  advised not getting involved in politics and instead finding tranquillity (they obviously thought the two were mutually exclusive). Some figures such as Diogenes proactively made his disdain for authority known by doing things like defacing currency. Others advised just trying to separate one’s self from everything political and just doing your own thing.  

Ultimately, a true belief in, and commitment to, an ideology like anarchism can only really come about if you believe people are generally good and predisposed to work together. If you don’t believe that, then it would be difficult to justify having no state- it would come down to what you thought was worse? Living under an oppressive system or taking your chances in a post-state world filled with marauders and hazards? Of course many would agree that if a state is overtly despotic then we should of course overthrow that particular regime- many people support the idea of revolution in a very specific set of circumstances against a particular type of tyranny. But for anarchists- all states are oppressive, not just the ones that are overtly labelled so.

 

A lot of the above sounds like punk ideals……

Exactly. If we draw out general themes from anarchist thought, there are clear parallels with some of the core principles that underpin the ethics of the punk movement. Anti-oppression, pro-freedom, a distrust of authority, a respect for individual expression that may run counter to what is conventionally accepted behaviour- check, check and check.

Many punk figures have claimed that true punk is not about nihilistic destruction (a claim sometimes made) but instead about wanting the best for your fellow human beings. Johnny Ramone famously stated:

“For me, punk is about real feelings. It’s not about, ‘yeah I’m a punk and I’m angry. That’s a lot of crap. It’s about loving the things that really matter: passion, heart and soul.”

Joe Strummer was even more succinct:

“Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.”

I’m sure many Anarchists would agree.

Not all punks are anarchists though (despite how some people in society may pigeonhole punks as just that). But there is a branch of punk that explicitly endorses those ideals, funnily enough called anarcho-punk. It doesn’t necessarily denote the way the punk sounds, but more the lyrical content and band messaging. You could be a folk punk or Celtic punk band and still fall under the anarcho-punk label if your politics fits and that is how you identify.

Punk and politics were certainly entwined in many ways from the beginning and took inspiration and influence from political and cultural movements such as the Situationist International (can we get through one Punk Rock Philosophy instalment without mentioning them?); the Yippies (see my post on American Hardcore and the Anti-Regan movement for more on them); Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and various literary and arty groups who had radical messages.

In the 1970s, many punk followers developed an interest in anarchism (or anarchists developed an interest in punk rock). Bands like Crass were considered a band with anarchist principles and Subhumans and Conflict followed suit. Crass and Poison Girls supported the squatting scene, even donating money to the Wapping Autonomy Centre which acted as a hub for many anarcho-punk bands such as Anthrax, Hagar the Womb and Conflict and also for political actions against animal testing labs and against the policies of UK PM Margaret Thatcher.

In the US, many bands from the hardcore punk scene embraced principles that were certainly compatible with anarchist ones such as opposition to Ronald Reagan, opposing military interventions abroad and criticising the capitalist system, seeing it as the antithesis of fairness and justice. Bands like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Reagan Youth and Nausea were openly political. Straight Edge could be interpreted as part of this scene- citing drugs, alcohol and tobacco as acts of self-sabotage that make collective clarity and action less likely. Just what the powers that be want. To give them up is an act against the state and the economic system.

The DIY ethic espoused by almost all eras and corners of punk is a practical way of evading the financial, social and spiritual drain of having to work within corporate systems to produce or achieve what we need. It is like a modern interpretation of the Epicurean idea of just getting on with things yourself.

Back in the UK, in the 1980s, one of the most well-known anarcho-punk bands formed in Lancashire and would be active in spreading political messages via their music- Chumbawumba. There were several incidents involving the band that perhaps demonstrated their anarchist ideals. In a 1997 interview with Melody Maker, a member of the band made a comment about liking police officers being killed. Despite the controversy, the band did not issue an apology at the time and instead clarified their feelings on Police, stating “if you’re working class, they won’t protect you”. They also advised fans to steal their CDs if they could not afford to buy them; they threw water over UK Deputy PM John Prescott after accusing Labour of selling out the dockers who were striking in Liverpool in the late 1990s.

Chumbawumda were signed to major label EMI and had a huge hit with their song Tubthumping. The band later said that the money they made from their music career was largely donated to causes that they support including anti-corporate groups such as Indy Media and CorpWatch.

 

So, whilst not all punk bands make a statement about how they believe government should be organised or their views on agricultural planning and distribution, the way anarchists view the world has a big overlap with a lot of punk. In the two camps- anarchism and political, left-wing punk- there is an underlying love for people and a wish that their lives were easier and fairer and that maybe, that principle is worth fighting for. As John Lydon said about writing God Save The Queen:

 “You don’t write ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with them being mistreated”.

 

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