PUNK IS POLITICAL:
THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF
AN ACTIVIST COUNTERCULTURE
Sabrina Nicole Henderson
B.A., Point Park College, 1998
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
2002 by Sabrina Nicole Henderson
All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Master of Arts
has been approved
Henderson, Sabrina Nicole (M.A., Political Science)
Punk IS Political: The Misunderstanding of an Activist Counterculture
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Anthony Robinson
Since its inception in the mid-1970s, the Punk counterculture has
been misunderstood by mainstream society. Often depicting Punk as
degenerate, apathetic Gen Xers bent on shock value and epitomizing the
negative connotations of a sex, drugs and rocknroll lifestyle, the general
public fails to understand that Punk is inherently political, and thats why its
had such lasting endurance, unlike so many pop fads. Whether theyre
protesting globalization in Seattle in overt political action, or more discreetly
displaying political values by choosing to stand out in high school, the very
nature of Punk is political at its roots. Although most 15-year-old kids dont
consciously recognize the political nature of their newfound beliefs, and how
that shapes the way they dress, the music they listen to or the people they
associate with, politics is undoubtedly the foundation of this unique
counterculture that often starts in the teen years and creates a lifelong
devotion to a particular political ideology. By examining Punk bands lyrics,
the writing in Punk zines, the messages in Punk art and the Punk aesthetic,
one will find that the underlying foundation is an anti-authority, anti-
establishment political fervor. While it would be wrong to say that all Punks
subscribe to one strict ideology, it is clear that they all have a tremendous
dislike of authoritarian establishment, and thus tend to be extremely radical,
often anarchists. And while the means to that end vary from one individual to
another, and tend to be unique, Punks continue to work collectively not only
to question authority, but to resist it, even 25 years after Punk was first
recognized by the mainstream as a new musical genre. While most people
identify Punks by their funny haircuts and colors, ripped T-shirts, safety
pins, bondage pants, fishnet stockings, piercings and tattoos, there is more
to Punk than meets the eye. There is a Punk thats more than skin deep,
and it is found in a number of political causes, in which Punks have come to
the forefront, not to mention Punks connections to previous Left
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis.
I recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to the worldwide Punk community, to whom I owe my
inspiration, and to the unique individuals within that community who have
both questioned and supported my work in our common goal to make the
world a better place. I hope that I have been able to shed light on the true
nature of our community and the fire burning within each of us. While what I
say in these pages will undoubtedly be scrutinized, I look forward to these
challenges and expect them from a community that I would not be so
endeared to if it didnt continue to question the world. I couldnt have had
better friends and teachers, and I thank you for letting me share my life and
experiences with you.
I also dedicate this thesis to my partner, Brian DAgosta, who has had to
endure countless late nights listening to me banter on about this topic. Your
unfaltering patience and suggestions have contributed much needed insight
and helped me better understand why it was important for me to write this.
And to my family, who struggled for years to understand why such a pretty
girl would dye her hair blue and cut it into a mohawk, why an intelligent
teenager would have so many problems in school, what they must have
done wrong raising me, and yet continued to unconditionally love and
support me. I can only hope that other families might learn from this thesis
what I tried so hard to explain to you all those years, and that they to will
treat their little Punkers with as much respect as you have.
Special thanks to the chair of my thesis committee, Dr. Anthony Robinson,
and to my readers, Dr. Michael Cummings and Jana Everett, for agreeing to
take on an unusual topic for a political science thesis and for guiding me
along the way. Your expertise has been invaluable and I cannot thank you
enough for your support and encouragement.
I also wish to thank AK Press for supplying me with so much of my reading
material over the years and particularly while I was researching this subject.
AK Press is an invaluable resource for the Punk community, and yet another
testament to what Punks can do when they follow their ambitions.
And to my friends Jon Schoeffel and Sarah Kriedler, thanks for taking the
time to read this thesis and discuss it with me, keeping me true to a
community that will forever be a part of all of us, no matter how old we get.
1. INTRODUCTION SO WHAT?........................................1
Purpose of This Thesis..........................................2
The Misunderstanding of Punk....................................6
2. A HISTORY OF PUNK............................................11
Links to Countercultural Movements of the Past.................11
The American Left............................................12
The New Intellectuals, Lyrical Left and Anarchists...........16
Avant-Garde Art and Dadaism..................................19
The Old Left.................................................20
The New Left.................................................22
The Beats and the Hippies....................................24
RocknRoil, the Teddys and the Mods.........................28
Skinheads, Reggae and Ska....................................30
Glam Rock and Proto-Punk.....................................32
The Political Climate from Which Punk Emerged..................35
American Left Re-Emerged?....................................38
3. THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF PUNK.............................42
What is Punk?..................................................42
Anti-Authority, Anti-Establishment, Non-Conformists..........46
Do It Yourself Ethic.........................................57
Where Punks Stand on the Issues................................67
Violence vs. Pacifism........................................69
Capitalism and Consumerism...................................74
Class, Poverty and Homelessness..............................84
Race and Ethnicity...........................................89
Feminism, Gender Roles and Sexuality.........................95
Ecology, Environmentalism and Animal Rights.................103
Tradition of Dissent, Direct Action and Monkey Wrenching...108
4. THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF PUNK...............................117
Alternatives to Capitalism and Materialist Values.............117
Punk Rock vs. the Music Industry............................118
Squatting and Communal Living...............................133
5. CO-OPTATION NO FUTURE?....................................139
Co-optation and Evolution.....................................139
6. CONCLUSIONS SO WHAT?......................................149
The Political Significance of Punk............................149
A Ray of Hope in a Sea of Apathy............................149
Political Consciousness and Choice..........................150
Inspiring a New Generation..................................152
Working with Other Activists for Change.....................152
Diggins American Left Re-emerged.............................153
The Left as an Oppositional Force to the Right and Center...155
The Left as Negation........................................156
The Left as a Generational Experience.......................156
Forming the Future............................................157
Figure 1.1 Author Sabrina Henderson..................................3
Figure 2.1 Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.....................15
Figure 2.2 Anarchist Emma Goldman...................................17
Figure 2.3 Lyrical Left portrayal of Lenin..........................18
Figure 2.4 1920s Left poster art..................................20
Figure 2.5 1930s Left poster art..................................21
Figure 2.6 Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys.........................40
Figure 3.1 Dick Lucas of the Subhumans............................50
Figure 3.2 Anarchist clothing patch.................................51
Figure 3.3 Punk grrl shows off her anarchist graffiti...............52
Figure 3.4 Crass artwork by Gee Vaucher.............................53
Figure 3.5 Anarchist clothing patch.................................54
Figure 3.6 Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill............................56
Figure 3.7 Martin Sorrondeguy of Los Crudos.........................58
Figure 3.8 Punk youth...............................................61
Figure 3.9 Typical Punk aesthetic...................................63
Figure 3.10 Punk wearing gas mask and swinging bat..................71
Figure 3.11 Anti-capitalist clothing patch...........................75
Figure 3.12 Anti-capitalist Punk art................................77
Figure 3.13 Punks participating in a war protest....................79
Figure 3.14 Punk carrying sign with anti-war slogan used by Crass...80
Figure 3.15 Punk protesting war......................................81
Figure 3.16 Food Not Bombs feeds homeless...........................86
Figure 3.17 Punks gathering food for Food Not Bombs.................87
Figure 3.18 Los Crudos sing in Spanish at a Punk show...............92
Figure 3.19 Clothing patch expressing unity among
Figure 3.20 Punk grrls..............................................95
Figure 3.21 Punk grrls..............................................97
Figure 3.22 Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill...........................99
Figure 3.23 Jody Bleyle of Team Dresch.............................102
Figure 3.24 Punks dismantling Sunoco sign..........................109
Figure 3.25 Punks engaged in conflict with police at a peace march.... 112
Figure 3.26 Police brutality clothing patch........................114
Figure 4.1 Steve Albini of Big Black...............................120
Figure 4.2 Alabama Grrrl Issue 2....................................125
Figure 4.3 Phalanx Issue 2...........................................126
Figure 4.4 Phalanx Issue 2 inside page...............................126
Figure 4.5 I'm Johnny and I Don't Give a Fuck Issue 3................127
Figure 4.6 Profane Existence.........................................128
Figure 4.7 Profane Existence inside page.............................128
Figure 4.8 Punk Planet Issue 46......................................129
Figure 4.9 Collage of Punk Planet covers.............................129
Figure 4.10 Revolution Calling Issue 12..............................130
Figure 4.11 The World is Broken Issue 1..............................130
Figure 4.12 Book Your Own Fuckin' Life No. 5 1996....................131
Figure 4.13 Book Your Own Fuckin' Life No. 5 1996 inside page.......132
Figure 4.14 Punks collecting money at the door of a show space.......133
Figure 4.15 Punk squatters with their dog panhandle for change.......134
Figure 4.16 Show spaces often serve as places for bands to play
and for squatters to live in............................136
Figure 4.17 Squatters sometimes find themselves sleeping outside .... 137
Figure 5.1 A Punk show serves as a benefit for Mumia Abu-Jamal,
a political prisoner on death row........................142
Figure 6.1 Punk burning an American flag............................154
INTRODUCTION SO WHAT?
Since its inception in the mid-1970s, the Punk counterculture has
been highly misunderstood by mainstream society. Often depicted in the
media as degenerate, apathetic Gen Xers bent on shock value and
epitomizing the negative connotations of a sex, drugs and rocknroll
lifestyle, Punks face stereotypes on a daily basis that not only are personally
hurtful, but also present major obstacles to their political ideals.
What the general public fails to understand is that Punk is inherently
political, and thats why its had such lasting endurance, unlike so many pop
fads. Whether theyre protesting globalization in Seattle in overt political
action, or more discreetly displaying political values by choosing to stand out
in high school, the very nature of Punk is political at its roots. Although most
15-year-old kids dont consciously recognize the political nature of their
newfound beliefs, and how that shapes the way they dress, the music they
listen to or the people they associate with, politics is undoubtedly the
foundation of this unique counterculture that often starts in the teen years
and creates a lifelong devotion to a particular political ideology.
So what is the ideology? By examining Punk bands lyrics, the writing
in Punk zines, the messages in Punk art and the Punk aesthetic, one will
find that the underlying foundation of Punk is an anti-authority, anti-
establishment political fervor. While it would be wrong to say that all Punks
subscribe to one strict ideology, it is clear that they all have a tremendous
dislike of authoritarian establishment, and thus tend to be extremely radical,
often anarchists. And while the means to that end vary from one individual to
another, and tend to be unique, Punks continue to work collectively not only
to question authority, but to resist it, even 25 years after Punk was first
recognized by the mainstream as a new music genre.
Although there are armchair activists in many cultures, Punks tend to
get highly involved in the politics they preach. While most people identify
Punks by their funny haircuts and colors, ripped T-shirts, safety pins,
bondage pants, fish et stockings, piercings and tattoos, there is more to
Punk than meets the eye. There is a Punk thats more than skin deep, and it
is found in a number of political causes, in which Punks have come to the
Purpose of This Thesis
I first discovered Punk when I was about 12-years-old. It was 1990, I
was in sixth grade, and I didnt quite fit in with any of my peers. Like so
many others, the Punk community was a place where I could be myself
where the rules, standards and norms of society could safely be questioned
and resisted. Looking and acting different was no longer something of
shame to be hidden, but a badge of
honor to be worn proudly. The music I
was introduced to spoke to me on a
variety of levels, unlike the pop radio
garbage my schoolmates listened to. I
learned about tons of political ideas
and ideals that fit with my
understanding of the world and what I
thought the world should be like.
Figure 1.1 Author Sabrina Henderson
My parents and family thought it was a rebellious teenage phase I
would soon outgrow. A dozen years later, I can safely say that I have proven
them wrong (something Punks revel in). My teachers said I was disruptive in
class. But to this day I maintain that I learned more from Punk than any
school could have ever taught me. I managed to find my own ways to cope
through the monotony and mindlessness of the public school system, getting
my high school diploma in three years, mainly so I could get out and start
doing productive things in the real world.
I then went to college and earned my bachelors degree in journalism,
because I had learned from high school that sometimes you really can
change things from within the system. I became the singer for a Punk band,
I volunteered for numerous organizations, I started my own zine, I became
part of a collective, I worked at a co-op I became part of the Punk
community in as many ways as I could.
After graduating and becoming a reporter, I decided to broaden my
knowledge of the systems Ive so often been involved in protesting, and I
went back to college to get my masters degree in political science. When I
had to sit down and decide what to write my thesis on, I went through
dozens of different ideas. And then it occurred to me that all of the things I
was interested in researching and writing about were causes I was
introduced to through the Punk scene.
I did some research and found that there really werent any definitive
works on the politics of Punk. There are bookshelves full of books about
Punk music, and even fashion. I found one on Punk philosophy, and one on
Punk zines. While almost all of them address the underlying political
foundation of Punk, none examines it solely. And so it occurred to me that,
almost 25 years after Punk was first acknowledged, its about time someone
attempt to document what a powerful activist counterculture it really is.
After all, Ive been a Punk for half my life, and everyone I know, even
people who no longer actively participate in the scene, will tell you that Punk
is a lifestyle. Its like any other political philosophy once it grabs hold of
you, its engrained into your being. So why is it then, that after surviving a
quarter century, Punk is still considered just a teenage phase of rebellion
and angst? Why is it that we still arent taken seriously?
The purpose of this thesis is to describe how Punk is, in fact, a
political movement, and to define its significance. By going beyond its music
and aesthetics and examining Punks connection to earlier political
countercultures, and by explaining its political philosophy and economy, we
can discover the distinct political ideology of Punk and its significance.
Whether people agree with this ideology or not, its about time it be
recognized and respected as one of the most enduring countercultures of
modern times. Punk has contributed enormously to almost every
progressive cause and movement out there, and now has devotees
spanning the globe. Perhaps more impressive, Punk has done it all in the
face of media misrepresentation, public ignorance and censorship, while
maintaining its cohesion without structure or rulers. For all these reasons
and more, its time for academia and the rest of the world to learn the truth
Punk ]S political.
The Misunderstanding of Punk
Writing the introduction to Craig OHaras book The Philosophy of
Punk: More Than Noise!. Marc Bayard explains what compelled him to
teach a college course on Punk:
The major problem trying to explain Punk is that it is not
something that fits neatly into a box or categories. Not surprising
as Punk had made the explicit aim of trying to destroy all boxes
and labels. With that major hurdle, any project that tries to define
Punk or explain it must do so with very broad brush strokes. Punk
and Punk music cannot be pigeonholed to some spiked-haired
white male wearing a leather jacket with a thousand metal spikes
listening to music real loud...One of the main reasons for teaching
this course was to dispel the misrepresentation of Punk to
students with little or no knowledge of what the scene really
contains and has to offer. The stereotypes that parents, television
and the media fostered had to be countered.1
In that same book, OHara devotes an entire chapter to media
misrepresentation and the black eye Punk has been given as a result.
Television, films, comic strips and advertising have all misrepresented Punk
to the mainstream public. Punk has been characterized as a self-destructive,
violence-oriented fad.2 He cites mid-80s television shows like Donahue,
Alice, Silver Spoons, Chips, Quincy, Square Pegs, and 21 Jump Street, and
films like Class of 1984 and Repo Man as portraying Punks as violent,
1 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, introduction by
Marc Bayard, page 11.
2 Ibid., page 42.
nihilistic drug-abusers who constantly shout and spit on each other, terrorize
old ladies and are a direct cause of social problems.3
While such distortions didnt destroy the Punk scene, OHara says
that they did succeed in giving the movement a number of hurdles to jump.
For one, portraying Punks as violent attracted people who were really
violent to the scene...Punk suffered through a period of media created
violence and stupidity which threatened to make Punk a parody of itself.4
It would be remiss to say that Punk hasnt had its fair share of
problems. Early film documentaries about Punk reveal serious drug abuse,
self-mutilation and violence, among other things. Almost any Punk will tell
you theyve seen these problems first-hand, often having been through them
or having a close friend who has. OHara argues that the bulk of the
problems within the Punk scene are a direct result of media distortion.5 It is
true that many Punks are violent, fashionable, apathetic teenagers. It is also
true that Punks are not this way on the whole and the media
misrepresentations have harmed the movement by increasing its ignorance
factor, he says.6
3 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 44.
4 Ibid., page 45.
5 Ibid., page 44.
6 Ibid., page 46.
In addition to an unwanted influx of violence, OHara concludes that,
Perhaps the greatest damage the media has done to the American Punk
scene has been the linkage between Punks and skinheads.7 Because
Punks and skinheads both wore crew cut hair and had an interest in similar
sounding music, they were often portrayed as being one and the same,
despite their very different political views and the fighting that frequently took
place between the two groups. The Punk community is almost always
confused by the media with other sub-cultures, and members are frequently
mislabeled as Goths or Skinheads, portrayed as apathetic Generation-Xers,
Satanists, or acknowledged merely in a fashion sense. While there is
undoubtedly some overlap, punks feel these incorrect labels solidify
negative stereotypes among the general public.
According to an article by Mark Solotroff, Richard Hell is often
credited by music journalists for creating the defining punk aesthetic that
included torn T-shirts, coarsely cropped hair, and well-worn blue jeans; a
style that [punk band] Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren purportedly
observed and took back to England as the punk subculture was about to
surface there.8 Hell is also noted for coining the phrase "Blank Generation,"
which became the title of a song, an album, and a movie, as well as an
7 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 47.
8 Solotroff, Mark. Daily Dose. Blank Generation, 1999, page 1.
inspiration for numerous slogans and catchphrases that later penetrated as
far as the marketing and advertising world's heavily promoted and initially
disapproving catchphrase "Generation X." Of this phrase, Hell has been
quoted as saying that it was misread, and that he intended to express the
concept that "blank" was a positive idea that offered a person the possibility
of "making yourself anything you wantfilling in the blank."9 Punks are a
marketing favorite when it comes to portraying the angry and apathetic Gen-
X lifestyletheir Mohawk hairstyles and safety pinned clothing creating a
marketable image quite the contrary of its original intentions.
While punk means many things to many different people [in the
group], almost everyone of us would tell you our style is about debunking
social norms and expressing your individuality however you want to, said
Brian DAgosta, a 28-year-old punk. And while some punks have mohawks
and wear bondage pants and ripped T-shirts, I can almost guaranty that all
of us outgrow that fashion at some point, but you never lose being punk. Its
a lifestyle. And its a lifestyle that they hate to be confused with Goths or
Skinheads. Punks are really the antithesis of Skinheads, explains Jon
Schoeffel. But for some reason, the media thinks that if you shave your
head, you must be a Nazi. Punk-rock bassist Sarah Kriedler agrees,
sarcastically adding, Yeah, and if you wear black a lot, you must be Goth.
9 Solotroff, Mark. Daily Dose. Blank Generation, 1999, page 1.
So, whats the difference? Goths are really into old European Gothic
architecture and fashion and they generally listen to slow, ambient, kinda
depressing music. Punk rock came about out of a music genre that wanted
to kill the rock star and make it so that anyone could play music. So, we play
fast, simple four-chord progressions, and admittedly, were pretty
aggressive. But the thing that bugs me most is that the media fails to
recognize that most punks are also extremely politically active radicals.
Were not just about music or fashionjust listen to the lyrics.
Despite various inadequate and inaccurate depictions of Punk
throughout the years, the counterculture remains a significant political force.
In the coming chapters, one will see that Punk echoes many of the
philosophies and aesthetics of several leftist countercultures before it, and
that the political climate of the day has shaped the political response of the
Punk movement since its inception. By examining the basic political
philosophy of Punk and the issues that Punks champion, we can unveil the
historical and contemporary significance of this movement. Recognizing the
political economy at the center of the counterculture makes a concrete and
substantial community more realistic and tangible. With the mass media
having failed to keep Punk down with derogatory depictions, this thesis also
will assess current attempts to co-opt Punk into a sellable consumer
commodity, thereby destroying its capacity to threaten the status quo.
A HISTORY OF PUNK
Links to Countercultural
Movements of the Past
To some extent, all countercultures can be defined by and compared
to links with preceding countercultures, and this is also the case with Punk.
As we have seen, Punk is typically portrayed by the media, and therefore
thought of by the general public, as simply a musical genre that has
attracted a rather small group of rebellious, angry teenagers a pop fad
that most kids will easily (and hopefully quickly) outgrow. In fact, over the
past 25 years, Punk repeatedly has been pronounced dead a bygone
era. However, it can be argued that Punk is actually much more than a teen
fad in that its ideas, philosophies and political activism are combinations and
extensions of previous countercultures. And like so many countercultures
before it, Punk has incorporated itself into quite a few other political
In many ways, Punk is not so different from a number of
countercultural movements before it a generation of youth felt let down by
their parents and decided to do something about it, opposing what they
perceived as the corrupt establishment of the generation before them. As we
look back through the 20th century, it is easy to see the influence that earlier
countercultures had on Punk, and interesting to see how they were
combined and transformed to fit a new generation of discontent youth. Punk
used some of the more successful strategies of prior movements, as well as
learning from their failures.
In order to examine fairly whether Punk is in fact a politically
significant counterculture, we must understand a brief history of its
predecessors and determine whether it can be identified as an extension of
them. While the philosophy of Punk will be discussed in greater detail in the
next chapter, one can begin to understand the basic ideology and
philosophy behind it by understanding the revolutionary actors that came
before it and the ideas they contributed that were later incorporated into
The American Left
In The Rise and Fall of the American Left. John Patrick Diggins traces
the history of the left in the United States throughout the 20th century,
concluding that revolutionary political thought has retreated from the activity
of the streets into the safety of higher learning institutions.10 While Diggins
admits, The 1980s witnessed something of a counterrevolution when the
Reagan administration set out to dismantle the welfare state,11 he proclaims
that ...much of the youth of the 80s supported Reagan... and those who
didnt had lost all interest in political and civic responsibility or had become
liberal professors at colleges throughout the country.12 Diggins never
mentions Punk in his book; in making such blanket statements about the
late 1970s and 80s, he denies the existence of Punk in America and
neglects the importance of the political opposition that was at its core.
Instead Diggins asserts that the American Left is now in a state of decline
and fall.13 It is entirely feasible that Diggins, like so many others, missed the
political significance of the Punk movement because of the sweeping media
misrepresentation noted before. But an examination of the characteristics
Diggins uses to define the American Left makes it obvious that Punk wasnt
(and isnt) so different from the revolutionary thinkers that came before it,
and that what Diggins defines as the American Left may very well be alive
and well in the Punk movement.
10 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, pages 279-
11 Ibid., page 285.
12 Ibid., pages 287-285.
13 Ibid., page 16.
Here I must note that scholars have yet to agree upon whether Punk
began in the United States or in England, but it is generally accepted that
the movement was first overtly political in England. It wasnt until around
1980 and the election of President Ronald Reagan that Punk in the United
States became distinctly political. But as Diggins notes in his book,
countercultures often got their ideas and direction from similar revolutionary
movements abroad, as well as from their predecessors.
In identifying and explaining the American Left, Diggins aimed to
describe the sensibilities and styles of thought that a radical intellectual
movement assumes as a means of mobilizing its emotional energies; to
explain the philosophical posture that movement adopts as a means of
negating prevailing sentiments that sustain existing order; and to analyze
historical developments that account for the deradicalization of the Left as a
generation phenomenon.14 The same criteria can be used to show Punks
connections to and differences with the American Left.
14 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 19.
The American Left in Diggins survey originally rose out of the ideas
of Transcendental thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David
Thoreau who cursed the corpse-cold nature of institutions and protested a
society in which man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, and championed
instead civil disobedience as an escape from the mechanistic doom of
bureaucracy.15 Diggins argues that all of the American Left movements
have continued that legacy of dissent and assumed that true freedom
begins only when capitalism ends.16 And yet,
he admits that the Left has never, on a
national level, been a political party or an
effectively organized political movement. ...
Rather it has been something of a spontaneous
moral impulse...suspicious of power and
distrustful of politics.17
Figure 2.1 Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau
He says that the Left negates ideas of reform, seeking instead to
transcend and transform society by realizing revolutionary utopian ideals.18
Movements of the Left have also been identified as generational because
15 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 18.
16 Ibid., pages 34-35.
17 Ibid., page 40.
18 Ibid., page 41.
they are typically youth movements that form as a result of common
destabilizing experiences, [and] begin to feel, articulate and defend the
identity of certain values and ideals in a society that is indifferent or
hostile.19 Notably, Diggins says that the American Left has also always tried
to ally itself with the proletarian working classes, even though they often do
not themselves come from lower economic or social classes, and therefore
may not have corresponding ideas and values.20 All of these things can also
be said of Punk.
Before going into more specific American Left movements, I must
also caution the reader that many Punks consider themselves far more
revolutionary than the reformist Left that we commonly think of today.
However, even if Punks today think they are more radical than the American
Left has ever been, it is important to note that so too did the Lefts before
them. And while there are notable differences between previous American
Lefts and Punks, there are significant historical connections as well.
The New Intellectuals. Lyrical Left and Anarchists
In 1913, a colony of infidels and iconoclasts formed in Manhattans
Greenwich Village that synthesized cultural rebellion with social revolution,
19 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 44.
20 Ibid., page 45.
art and activism 21 The New intellectuals felt
estranged from the prevalent values of American
society," and sought to conquer the world armed
not with a systematic ideology but with a vague
strategy of class conflict and working-class
struggle.22 Many of its foremost thinkers,
including Max Eastman and Walter Lippman,
Figure 2.2 Anarchist Emma Goldman
were heavily influenced by doctrines of European socialism, and thus, the
Lyrical Left championed Marxism as a creative adventure as well as a
pragmatic science.23 Many among the Lyrical Left divided not over the
goal of socialism, but how to achieve it.24 One of those splits was over the
tactic of violence, which was usually (although perhaps incorrectly)
associated with anarchism.
On the sidelines of the Lyrical Left were anarchist revolutionaries like
Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who opposed all ideas of
authority and coercion, in favor of a stateless, classless society. New Letter
Max Nomad called anarchism a political daydream reflecting the utter
21 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, pages 56-
22 Ibid., pages 60-61.
23 Ibid., page 59.
24 Ibid., page 77.
hopelessness and desperation of the
disinherited, according to Diggins. The
violence that arose from such cynicism became
a sustained doctrine of class warfare among
the International Workers of the World, an
unorganized anarcho-syndicalist group of
Figure 2.3 Lyrical Left portrayal of Lenin
mostly lumbermen and miners, also known as the Wobblies, whose radical
folk songs are still well-known among the Left.25 While the groups violence
was exaggerated, the violent strikes the group participated in eventually got
it kicked out of the Socialist Party, making it more attractive to the Left in its
fight against respectability.26
Despite connections with groups like the Wobblies, the New
Intellectuals and the Lyrical Left were never able to reconcile their
intellectualism with that of the proletariat. While Punk ideology mirrors many
of the characteristics of the Lyrical Left, Punk hasnt been often been
portrayed as intellectualism. In fact, Punk is more reflective of the proletariat
than the New Intellectuals were in that sense, and Punks identify more
strongly with the radical anarchist ideology of the 1910s than they ever did
25 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 79.
26 Ibid., page 82.
with intellectual theorists like Marx. Several early Punk bands called socialist
and Marxist leaders fascists who just wanted to create another system of
power, rather than the peaceful anarchy they sought. In this way, modern
Punk is more similar to the more romantic, less intellectual, elements of the
Lyrical Left that Diggins describes. Both groups were full of young people
attacking genteel tradition, bourgeois tastes and the condescending
certainty that [society] had found ultimate truth and absolute value.27 The
Lyrical Lefts synthesis of art and activism can be seen as an obvious
foundational element of Punk, and so too can its elements of disorganization
and lack of cohesion. The Lyrical Left was named after its lyrical impulse to
integrate conflicting synergistic and entropic values,28 just as Punk sought to
bring the diverse voices of the oppressed to the publics attention, often
through shocking artistic displays.
Avant-Garde Art and Dadaism
Craig OHara said that while Punk is much more than an art form,
comparisons to early avant-garde art movements are helpful in
understanding some of the revolutionary tactics Punks unknowingly
mirrored. He cites the Futurist movement launched by Filippo Marinetti in
1909 as influential in its rejection of traditional art forms and audience
27 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 97.
28 Ibid., page 95.
participation, saying, This audience involvement is an important link
between the art and Punk movements as both have attempted to break
down barriers present in the performer/viewer relationship.29 OHara argues
that the Futurists anti-art message was expressed by wearing outrageous
clothes, earrings and make-up, something Punks obviously adopted.30 He
also says the Dada movement of 1916-22 in France was similar to Punks
vigorous rejection of all previous existing social and aesthetic values. While
he says most Punks would dislike Dadaist arts abstract (as opposed to
overt) subversiveness, the influence is notable.31 Like avant garde art,
modern dance and Dadaism, Punk has a similar spontaneous moral impulse
that characterizes the romantic, artistic Lyrical Left.
The Old Left
By the 1920s, communism had few
admirers among those who had been prewar
intellectual rebels of the bohemian Lyrical Left.
These Bohemians believed that the infantile
disorder Lenin often disparaged in his efforts
Arikfe tW Educational Bwrtu
Figure 2.4 1920s Left poster art
29 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 33.
30 Ibid., page 34.
31 Ibid., pages 32-33.
socialism was part
Figure 2.5 1930s Left poster art
But the advance of industrialism seemed to promise the expatriation
of capitalism, and therefore reinforced Lenins institutionalized Marxism.
When the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929, what we now call the Old
Left rose out of the anxieties and insecurities of the Depression,33 as well
as frustration with the apathy of the countrys working class. So too did Punk
rise out of the anxiety and insecurity of poverty in England, and the apathy
of America in the mid-1970s. But the Old Left was driven by a focused
desire to replace the oppressive systems of their day with specific new
systems, namely socialism. And as was noted before, Punk had more in
common with the Lyrical Left that sought to assault traditional structure and
32 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 113.
33 Ibid., page 164.
authority34 in a more widespread manner, and Punks had less interest in
replacing what they destroyed.
The New Left
The Old Left grew old, became jaded and disenchanted after the
possibility of revolution seemed quashed, and the New Left accused its
predecessors of committing the sins of its fathers by becoming
establishment liberals.35 The Old Left had grown out of an abundance of
poverty, much like British Punk, while the New Left grew out of a poverty of
abundance, much like American Punk. Jaded by affluence, estranged by
parents who so valued this affluence, young radicals began to sense that
their middle-class alienation had something in common with lower-class
exploitation, in the early 60s.36 The New Left began to grow, as early as
1958 in mid-Western universities, as a way to activate the apathetic.37 One
of the movements forerunners, Students for a Democratic Society had no
place for authority and leadership, much like Punk anarchists.38 They relied
more on feel than theory and found Old Left Marxism to be too intensely
34 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 164.
35 Ibid., page 232.
36 Ibid., page 220.
37 Ibid., page 230.
38 Ibid..page 230.
ideological and scientific.39 Perhaps because it started as a students
movement, the New Left was the first generation to proclaim never trust
anyone over 30.40 Punk is also primarily a youth movement, skeptical of
While the American Left has always had a healthy amount of strife
and violence, it was originally focused on industrial labor strikes. It was SDS
that introduced a novel form of radical violence: the campus confrontation,
that all but paralyzed the academic world from 1964 to the end of the
decade.41 The Modern Language Associations president Louis Kampf
advised students on how to behave at New Yorks Lincoln Center, saying,
Not a performance should go by without disruption. The fountains should be
dried with calcium chloride, the statuary pissed on, the walls smeared with
shit.42 The confrontational and shocking tactics used by the New Left
proved so effective, it should come as no surprise that Punks later utilized
the same confrontational and shocking behaviors as a foundation. It almost
seems comical that the grown children of the 60s were at all disturbed by
Punks using the very strategies they had created on campuses across the
country only a decade earlier. But having lived through the fear of violent
39 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 233.
40 Ibid., page 234.
41 Ibid., page 248.
42 Ibid., page 252.
campus confrontations exploding into student deaths, armed Black Panthers
and bombing Weathermen seemed to make Punk that much more of a
threat to the previous generation.
The Beats and the Hippies
It is important to differentiate the New Left from the Hippies.
Although both groups reflected youths frustration and powerlessness in the
60s, Diggins points out, Much of the New Left disdained Hippies, with their
childlike fascination with beads and flowers, exotic dress, mind-withdrawing
drugs and erotic freedom.43 Like New Left political activists, early Punks
made it clear that they found Hippies and everything they stood for to be
revolting. The Hippies were antipolitical, passive, indifferent, ethereal. They
embodied the co-optation and diluting of the New Left ideals they were
safe. Here is how Diggins describes the New Lefts disdain for the Hippie
If feeling determines reality, as the Hippies maintained, then the
poor and oppressed were merely those who felt poor and
oppressed. Salvation lay not in changing conditions but in
changing perceptions and the door to perception was not
politics but psychedelia (Imagination is revolution!). Moreover,
when the Hippies spoke of peace and love, they were talking
43 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 243.
about an ethic of passivity, a creative quietism that seemed
dangerously innocent to experienced activists,44
Although Punks would shudder in contempt at any comparison
between them and Hippies, some music historians have done just that. John
Street draws parallels in his book Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music,
but also notes the differences:
Once the Hippies trust in musics ability to set them free had been
established, musics political significance would always be
different but it would not necessarily disappear. Punk was proof of
this. Here was the semblance of a political movement, organized
around unemployment, whose voice was expressed almost
exclusively through a series of three-chord roars. Like Flower
Power, the politics were vague, being more concerned with
feelings than policies; and once again its vagueness was crucial
both to the movements popularity and to the role played by the
music. In terms of organization (or lack of it) and in terms of
political precision (or lack of it), Punk and Flower Power were very
similar, but the concerns of their politics and the quality of their
sounds were importantly different. The benign hopes of Flower
Power contrasted starkly with the disconsolate frustration of Punk,
a comparison that is reflected in the dreamy melodies and
pastoral sentiments of psychedelic music, and in the staccato roar
and defiant slogans of Punk No Fun, Pretty Vacant,
Anarchy. While Flower Power spoke of the alternatives to work,
Punk talked of the absence of work 45
Street notes that the same self-conscious politics of the 60s was revived in
Punk, but that the musical indulgences were rejected.46 Both Punks and
Hippies made an explicit connection between artistic and political life,
44 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 247-
45 Street, John. Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music, page 76,
parenthesis in original.
46 Ibid., page 175.
believing that music was not only art, but that writing a song was akin to
writing a manifesto.47
Diggins notes that Hippies were ethereal, spiritual and generally a happy
lot, and so Punk might mirror more of the attitudes of the Hippies
predecessors, the Beatniks, who were pagan, earthy and angry. Much of the
style of the Beats the smoke-filled, dark, underground rooms they
performed in, their dirty, tight, striped shirts, and the anger and discontent
they felt in a consumer society was carried on into the rocknroll era that
eventually spun out the Rolling Stones, Iggy and the Stooges and other
proto-Punk groups that flatly rejected hippie-folk and disco.
The Beats were also the first white youth movement to identify with and
adopt black culture, which, we will see, the Punks also did. The Beats
adored the Black communitys jazz, as it captured the freedoms of an
individual trapped in a cruel environment of mean streets and tenements,
[who had] by a curious inversion also emerged the ultimate victor.48 Writers
like Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac observed in black culture what could
serve for white youth as the model of freedom-in-bondage.49 Unlike their
contemporaries, the Hipsters, the Beatniks did not desire upward mobility,
but expressed a magical relation to a poverty which constituted in his
47 Street, John. Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music, page 127.
48 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 47.
49 Ibid., page 47-48.
imagination a divine essence, a state of grace, a sanctuary. In many ways,
Punks captured the Beatniks romanticism of poverty and expressed it in
more extreme style. Unlike the Hippies, who believed you could easily
override the oppression of poverty with a change in attitude, the Beatniks
and the Punks made it their game to express poverty rather than ignore it.
Instead of placidly accepting their oppression, they artistically shoved it in
the faces of their oppressors, and in doing so found their own kind of
freedom. It was the freedom of fighting back a stance too confrontational
for the Hippies.
Nevertheless, in an interview published in Punk Planet and reprinted
in We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews. Jello
Biafra, the singer of the legendary Punk band, the Dead Kennedys, states
that the heart and soul of Punk is the same as the heart and soul of the
Hippies when they were radical, the Beats, and many others throughout
history.50 While there are some differences in philosophy and overall goals,
Punks use of creativity and art to express disdain for mainstream culture
and politics clearly ties it to previous countercultural movements, including
the Beats, the Hippies, and the previous American Lefts, implying that it is
no more or less politically significant than its predecessors.
50 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 42.
RocknRoll. the Teddvs and the Mods
Craig OHara contends that the 1960s rock movement met the same
fate as others before it as it was diluted through commercialism, becoming
predictable and mainstream.51
A look back at the radicals of the 60s, and I dont mean the
Hippies who were content to wear flowers and beg for change in
San Francisco, shows their passion for rock music and the
integral link rocknroll played in their politics. From the Black
Panthers falling in love with Bob Dylan in Oakland, Calif., to White
Panther John Sinclair and his MC5 brothers calling for armed
revolution in Michigan, these folks all recognized and appreciated
the power of rock music as the peoples music. Prior to death and
sell-outs, 60s radicals Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman along with
countless others, channeled rocknroll to create an enormous
anti-government movement made up of young dissatisfied
As jazz combined with gospel and blues, country and western, and
eventually transformed into early rocknroll, the connection to the poverty of
Blacks was taken out of context and almost forgotten. The commodification
of rocknroll allowed youth rebellion to exist in a vacuum. Youth in England
were even further disconnected from the jazz roots in America, and from this
arose the Teddy Boys, a youth movement disconnected from the working
classes, and yet stuck with the drab reality of day-to-day routines school,
work, family. The history of rocknroll was concealed from the Teddys, and
51 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 24.
52 Ibid., page 24.
appeared to be merely the latest in a long chain of American novelties.53
While the Teddys were defiant and obtrusive, they often clashed with Black
immigrant populations in England.
But by the early 60s, West Indian immigrants had established
themselves among white working class communities in England and began
to reestablish some of the ties the Beatniks had with Blacks in America. The
Mods were working class youth who had been brought up around foreign
influences, identified with their struggles and sought to emulate their styles.
More like the Hipsters than the Beats before them, the Mods had a definitive
cleanness and conservatism about them. Unlike their macho counterpart,
the Rockers, the Mods were effeminate in their tidy fashion sense. The
Mods adopted an escapist tactic in their leisure activities while still toiling
under the system, they mastered the gentle arts of escape and subversion,"
bending the rules to suit their own purposes.54 Jim Curtis also establishes
Punks relationship with the Mods. In its stress on working-class..., on
personal entitlement, and on the symbolic role of clothing, Punk represented
a further development of Mod...55
53 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 50.
54 Ibid., page 54.
55 Curtis, Jim. Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music & Society. 1954-1984.
Skinheads. Reggae and Ska
By 1966, the Mods began to break apart, with the more fashion-
conscious of the group merging into the Hippie culture and the hard Mods
relinquishing their bourgeois black suits for an aggressive, working-class
look, including workmans boots, jeans, braces (thin suspenders) and short-
cropped hair. They were aggressively proletarian, puritanical and
chauvinist.56 Out of this group came the skinheads, who solidified their own
identity by 1970.
While Punks have always tried to distance themselves from racist
skinheads, part of the difficulty in doing so arose from a shared interest in
ska, rocksteady and reggae that originated with the early British (anti-racist)
skinheads. The skinheads identified with the Rude Boy subculture of young,
delinquent Blacks from working class families in England. Both the Rude
Boys and the Skinheads of the early 70s attempted to combine a clean-cut
delinquent look with the hard stereotypes of lumpen proletariat men.
(Eventually, the stress on lumpen" among skinheads led to their
identification with racist ideology, and the Nazi youth subculture that so
many Punks were misidentified with in the 80s and 90s.) Hebdidge argues,
Ironically, those values conventionally associated with white working class
culture which had been eroded by time, by relative affluence and by the
56 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 55.
disruption of the physical environment in which they had been rooted, were
rediscovered embedded in Black West Indian culture, by the skinheads.57
The Rude boys listened to ska, an outgrowth of reggae that had a rude
choppy meter. The religious tone of reggae was broken down, but the music
itself would reemerge again in Punk a decade later. Curtis cites The Clash
as having been the most recognizable Punk band to display their interest in
reggae and ska.58 As does Dick Hebdidge, saying, The Clash and the Slits
in particular wove reggae slogans and themes into their material, and in
1977 the reggae group Culture produced a song describing the impending
apocalypse entitled When the Two Sevens Clash, which became
something of a catchphrase in select Punk circles.59 He says that reggae
became the only tolerated alternative to Punk and was regularly played in
clubs between Punk bands sets.
It is generally accepted that Punk drew on influences from other
musical styles like reggae and ska that came from other oppressed groups
of youth with whom Punks felt an affinity. As unemployment, police
harassment and general poverty grew in England, the post-war working
57 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 57.
58 Curtis, Jim. Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music & Society. 1954-1984,
59 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 67.
class youth celebrated the individual status of revolt60 through the culture
of music, art and personal expression, much like the revolutionaries before
them and the Punks who would come next.
Glam Rock and Proto-Punk
As the Vietnam War drew to a close, both the New Left and the
Hippies had been relatively shut down in America. And as the working class
struggle continued in England, it had grown up and became tired in the
United States, to be replaced by consumerist pop-culture. Out of the free-
love drug culture of the Hippies emerged disco with its nightclub scenes,
one-night stands and cocaine addictions. And the progressive rock bands of
the 60s gave way to ballad rock, completely devoid of politics. From this
consumer vacuum sprang glam rock, attracting a cult-like massive youth
David Bowie was applauded for the Nietzschean spirit to be
detected in songs like Changes, Quicksands (from Hunky Dory) and
Starman (from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), says Street62
But while Bowies gender-bending costumes may have later influenced
some Punk aesthetic, he was generally despised and taunted by the Punk
60 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 67.
61 Ibid., page 60.
62 Street, John. Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music, page 53.
community for his widespread acceptance. Not only was Bowie patently
uninterested either in contemporary political and social issues or in working
class life in general, but his entire aesthetic was predicated upon a
deliberate avoidance of the real world...63 Like the Hippies before him,
Bowies basic message was escape, this time into a fantasy or science
fiction world rather than just psychedelics. And while many youth despised
glam rocks shift away from class-consciousness, it did question the
normative definitions of gender and sexuality.
By the mid-70s, teenyboppers were preoccupied with glitter bands
like Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust, and older, more self-
conscious teenagers were drawn to the more esoteric artists like Bowie, Lou
Reed, New York Dolls and Roxy Music. The latter are now considered the
beginnings of proto-punk.
According to Hebdidge, Punk can then be viewed partly as an
attempt to expose glam rocks implicit contradictions.64 Punk was down
and dirty in defiance of the elegance and verbosity of the glam rockers, and
was in fact designed to undercut the snobbishness of the pop superstars.
This reaction turned Punk back to the working class relevance of reggae,
which carried the necessary conviction, the political bite, so obviously
63 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 61.
64 Ibid., page 63.
missing in most contemporary white music.65 Ironically, the artistry and
genderbending of the glam rockers is everywhere in the Punk aesthetic,
albeit safety-pinned together with the tattered clothing of the working poor.
But it must be noted that Punk also drew on the influence of distinctly
proto-punk bands, like Iggy (Pop) and the Stooges, The Ramones, The
Who, Richard Hell, Patti Smyth and others. 66
Curtis says that Punk is often oversimplified by neglecting its
relationship with the past:
No Feelings [by the Sex Pistols] owes a debt to that great earlier
anthem of personal entitlement, Get Off My Cloud [by the Rolling
Stones], just as Get Off My Cloud itself owes a debt to Blue
Suede Shoes [performed by Elvis]. Similarly, the infamous
Anarchy in the U.K. [by the Sex Pistols], which went to #2 despite
being banned, owes a debt to Paint It Black [by the Rolling
Stones] as surely as Black Sabbaths Paranoid does.67
Curtis evidences this point by reference to the Punk band Generation Xs
self-titled response to The Whos song My Generation. He contends that
Punk took themes from The Who, and further simplified the music in the
name of populism and anti-elitism, with performers who knew only three
chords and made little or no distinction between performer and audience.68
65 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 63.
66 Ibid., page 25.
67 Curtis, Jim. Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music & Society. 1954-1984.
As we have seen thus far, Punk claimed a dubious parentage.69
Punk synthesized and melded elements going as far back as the turn of the
century with the working class creativity of the anarchists and Lyrical Left;
the artistry of the avant-garde movement; the confrontation tactics of the
New Left; the earthiness of the Beats; the oppression expressed and denied
simultaneously in jazz, reggae and ska; the narcissism, nihilism and
genderbending of glam rock; and the minimalism of proto-punk. Each of
these influences has had its own political dimension, if only musically,
allowing people to break away from societal norms and express their
discontent through emotion rather than reason. Punk inherited the unique
political approaches of each of its predecessors, and melded them into its
own. But before the birth of any group of revolutionaries can take place,
there must be a political environment that gives rise to it. By the mid-70s,
the environment would prove ripe for the plucking of a new political
counterculture taken from its predecessors but unlike any before it.
The Political Climate from Which Punk Emerged
As we have seen, all countercultural and revolutionary political
movements have their roots in history, but they are also born of the current
political climate in which they take shape. While some movements have
69 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 25.
taken shape on the heels of other international movements, like the Lyrical
Left, others have come about in the desperation of poverty, like the Old Left,
and others still from the void left by material plenty, like the New Left. What
is somewhat unique about Punk is that it grew up in two different countries,
the United States and England, at roughly the same time, but under different
circumstances. Craig OHara said:
The time and birthplace of the Punk movement is debatable.
Either the New York scene of the late 60s/early 70s or the British
Punk of 1975-76 can be given the honor. For our purposes,
neither one deserves a long investigation, as the specific politics
and genuine forming of a movement was not until the late 70s. In
general it is thought that the New Yorkers invented the musical
style while the British popularized the political attitude and the
colorful appearances. 0
Because it is widely agreed that Punk first became politically aware in
Britain, a look at the political environment there reveals the foundation on
which the counterculture was initially built. The summer of 1976 was a
record-breaking year of hot, dry weather in England. Initially hailed as a
badly needed break from the normally cloudy, dampness, by August the
heat wave was declared a drought, ...water was rationed, crops were
failing, and Hyde Parks grass burned into a delicate shade of raw sienna.
...the excessive heat was threatening the very structure of the nations
70 Street, John. Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music, page 24-25.
houses.71 The Notting Hill Carnival and the Caribbean Festival, usually
racially harmonious celebrations, both suddenly erupted with clashes
between Black youths and the police. Fear of the ghetto-culture began to
rise among the countrys whites, and the growing heat and poverty only
added to the hysteria. It was under these apocalyptic conditions and Prime
Minister Margaret Thatchers inability to deal with them that a new youth
counterculture began to emerge on Kings Row in London.72 Combining the
elements of a number of post-war working class youth cultures before it,
Punk made its debut in the music press that summer, and it remained a
highly photogenic phenomenon73 throughout 1978, providing the tabloid
press with sensational (although often distorted) stories epitomizing the
repercussions of poverty and uncertainty on the nations youth.
The widespread unemployment and poor social conditions in England
provoked angry feelings and rage that were expressed by working class
youth of the time in a general rejection of conformity and normative values
through their music and petty crime.74 Apocalypse was in the air and the
71 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 24.
72 Ibid., pages 24-25.
73 Ibid., page 26.
74 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, pages 26-27.
rhetoric of Punk was drenched in apocalypse: in the stock imagery of crisis
and sudden change.75 In Break All Rules!. Tricia Henry says:
To ignore the obvious connections between the Punk
phenomenon and economic and social inequalities in Great Britain
would be to deny the validity of the philosophical underpinnings of
the movement. Punk in Britain was essentially a movement
consisting of underprivileged working-class white youths. Many of
them felt their social situation deeply and used the medium of
Punk to express their dissatisfaction.76
American Left Re-Emerged?
While the general political philosophy of Punk was being worked out
on the streets of London, it cannot be overlooked that the American proto-
Punk bands were highly influential on the early British Punks. Many of these
proto-Punk bands Iggy (Pop) and the Stooges, the Ramones, Richard
Hell, Patti Smyth, etc. fused avant-garde literary, cinematic and artistic
influences with their music, their fashion, their scene.77 New York began to
fill with these youth, many of whom were art school dropouts or alienated
suburbanites. They congregated in places like CBGBs, an underground club
known for discovering the likes of the Talking Heads and the Ramones.
Where the British Punks were born out of poverty like the Old Left,
American Punk was born from the estrangement and disaffection youth felt
in the presence of the New Lefts selling out and becoming yuppies. They
75 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 27.
76 Henry, Tricia. Break All Rules!, page 67.
77 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 27.
had been let down by the generation before them, and now they were doing
the same to the next generation. While Punk politically solidified in England,
the political environment in the United States gave rise to the political
awareness of the proto-Punk bohemians. The post war pop culture and
consumerism had not made life better for young Americans. And while John
Patrick Diggins proclaims that the American Left died in the late 70s in The
Rise and Fall of the American Left, like so many others, he failed to
recognize the political significance of the Punk movement.78 While Diggins
asserts that most youth in the early 80s supported President Ronald
Reagan, it was at this same time that American Punk came of age and
began to question government policies. The massive apathy left in the wake
of the Vietnam War, the oil crisis and welfare reform were just the beginning
of American Punks awakening.
Called Hardcore, early American Punk was full of disaffected middle
class youth beginning around 1980, mainly in urban centers like
Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In American
Hardcore: A Tribal History. Steven Blush describes the scene:
Hardcore was more than music it became a political and social
movement as well. The participants constituted a tribe unto
themselves. Some of them were alienated or abused, and found
escape in the hard-edged music. Some saw a better world or a
78 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, pages 279-
tearing down of the status quo, and were angry. Most of them
simply wanted to raise hell. Stark and uncompromising, hardcore
generated a lifestyle stripped down to the bare bones. Its intensity
exposed raw nerves. Everyone was edgy and aggressive.79
The Dead Kennedys, symbolically named for the death of Americas
last hope in the Kennedy family, are arguably the most ideologically
important band in the history of
American Punk politics,
according to Daniel Sinker,80
because they injected
transformative political ideology
into the otherwise nihilistic
Hardcore scene of the early
1980s. The Dead Kennedys
singer, Jello Biafra, rejected leftist
dogma, embraced irony,
questioned cultural and political
orthodoxies and encouraged
Punks to think for
Figure 2.6 Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys
79 Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History, page 9.
80 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 33.
themselves, rather than falling to thoughtless leftist moral dicta.
To put it simply, the Dead Kennedys were responsible for injecting
real leftist politics into the American Punk culture, something that
has never been repeated with the same degree of urgency and
intelligence as the DKs attached to it.81
The American and British Punk scenes slowly became aware of their
counterparts, and the music, style and philosophies of each group were
adopted and incorporated by the other. Most notably, the very nature of the
Punk philosophy enabled (and perhaps demanded) the movements
adaptability, enabling it to evolve over time. Punk evolved to incorporate
new generations issues, making it a considerably enduring counterculture of
modern times, still appealing to disaffected youth the world over more than
25 years later. Its ability to maintain a sizable and devout following can be
largely credited to things characteristic of the leftist countercultures before it.
The centrality of art, music and personal expression, the foundational
population of youth, the endurance of anti-establishment fervor, the
underground origins, and the self-reflective tendency to draw on ideas and
inspirations of other leftist genres are integral, not only to Punks, but to all
leftist countercultures political philosophies and longevity.
81 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 33.
THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF PUNK
What is Punk?
The thing I really like about Punk is that anything anybody writes
about it is wrong.82
Writing the introduction to Craig OHaras book The Philosophy of
Punk: More Than Noise!. Marc Bayard similarly explains:
The major problem trying to explain Punk is that it is not
something that fits neatly into a box or categories. Not surprising
as Punk had made the explicit aim of trying to destroy all boxes
and labels. With that major hurdle, any project that tries to define
Punk or explain it must do so with very broad brush strokes.83
While Punk emerged in the late 1970s as a reaction to the political
environment of the time, it has remained elusive to academic explanations,
models and theories. Punk, it turns out, is just not that simple. Partly
because the counterculture synthesized aspects of so many of its
predecessors, and partly because of its emphasis on independent thinking
and subversion, Punk has always been characterized by a sort of lack of
82 Davies, Jude. The Future of No Future: Punk Rock and Postmodern
Theory. Journal of Popular Culture, page 3.
83 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, introduction by
Marc Bayard, page 11.
cohesion in its resistance to establish rules and stereotypes for itself. Many
Punks would argue that if it can be neatly explained, it isnt Punk an
obvious alignment with postmodern theory.
For both Punk and postmodern critical discourses, communication
and politics are similarly problematical through their grounding in notions of
constituency and consensus which have themselves become unstable,
says Davies.84 He explains that Punks can be seen as postmodernists
because they were always keenly aware of the danger of cooptation by a
following that fails to understand the political significance of the movement.
Many Punk activists feared that the moment the community became solidly
definable, it risked being swept up and co-opted by consumerism and its
pop fashion trends, which would ultimately destroy its subversion. Even
within the community, bands that became moderately successful and
accessible to the mainstream were ostracized and rejected as sell outs by
the counterculture. According to Davies, this is because of the Punks
strong sense of recuperation of message by the market, a view of the stars
as more or less problematically related to the real Punks, the unknowns
and the underground who sustain a politically active and subversive
84 Davies, Jude. The Future of No Future: Punk Rock and Postmodern
Theory. Journal of Popular Culture, page 5.
tendency to this day.85 Larry Zbach similarly wrote in the zine Maximum
Repeated media distortion, exaggeration, and stereotyping help to
create a type of Punk who has no idea of the conceptions,
political and social philosophies, and diversity of the Punk
movement. This type of Punk will join the Punk movement in
increasing numbers. As they join, the media frame will literally
come true. The moral authorities will be proved right and the
appropriate actions, which the societal control culture deems
necessary to deal with the problem, will be legitimized. The
potential for destroying or compromising the Punk movement will
It can be argued that this keen sense of self-consciousness is the
very thing that has allowed Punk to continuously evolve and adapt, making it
one of the most enduring countercultures of the century. Punk cut through
the commodity spectacle...its ability to escape recuperation depended on its
lack of content: its lack of analysis, program, polemic.87
The closeness of Punk to academic theories of the postmodern is
found in two main areas: its problematizing of community and its awareness
of recuperation even when articulating its most radical political message,88
says Davies. And it is because of these two very things that Punk is so
difficult to adequately or accurately describe. While Davies admits Punk
85 Davies, Jude. The Future of No Future: Punk Rock and Postmodern
Theory. Journal of Popular Culture, page 4.
86 Zbach, Larry. Untitled column. Maximum RocknRoll.
87 Davies, Jude. The Future of No Future: Punk Rock and Postmodern
Theory. Journal of Popular Culture, page 14.
88 Ibid., page 5.
presented itself as an oppositional tendency, with a network of resistances
to authority, to work, to conventional politics," he also acknowledges that it
was much more than that. Punk is a community that forced its participants to
think for themselves and to construct their own positions for the very survival
of the group. Because each individual carries the burden of defining how the
personal is political within the context of the Punk community, the answers
vary all over the spectrum.
Daniel Sinker puts it more plainly. When developing the concept for
his zine, Punk Planet (an independently written and published mini-
magazine of sorts), Sinker said he posted a message on an online Punk
chat room, posing the question, Why cant we do this? He says that
everyone interviewed in the zine has asked his or her own version of that
question countless times:
Because if you boil Punk down and remove all the hair dye, power
chords, typewriters, colored vinyl, leather jackets, glue sticks,
show fliers, and combat boots, that question is whats left at the
bottom of the pot. Punk has always been about asking why and
then doing something about it.89
Sinker said the question applies to every aspect of Punks lives, from asking
why they cant play guitar, to why their opinions dont count, to why the world
is such a mess, and most importantly, to looking inward and asking why they
89 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 10.
arent doing something about it. And he says, The answers to those
questions have created an entire culture, built by Punks from the ground
up.90 And while that culture has fantastically avoided sweeping
assumptions about its political stance, it does have some common themes.
The themes are generally adhered to as only broadly directional, a point
from which each person makes their own way, and from which there are
many exceptions to the rule because after all, thats what makes it Punk.
Anti-Authority, Anti-Establishment. Non-Conformists
On the most basic level, most Punks agree that the most unifying
principle adhered to as a group is a healthy distrust and/or dislike of
authority, establishment and conformity. This is generally true of all
countercultural movements, going back to the idea that countercultural
movements come about from a feeling of being let down by the generation
before them and the establishment theyve created. This is probably one of
the reasons that Punk has always been brushed off as teenage rebellion
and angst. And in all fairness, it usually starts out that way.
In listening to the lyrics of Punk music, reading Punk zines and talking
to Punks themselves, the overwhelming majority initially discovered Punk
because they were ostracized from their peer groups at an early age. Punks
90 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 10.
are the kids that got picked on in school for being different, for being poor,
for not wearing the fashionable clothing of the day, for not listening to the
latest music, for not believing in the normative values that surrounded them.
They are the kids who questioned their teachers and their parents, and
usually got in trouble for their independent thought. Many were labeled
nerds, geeks or freaks by their classmates, and many were angry and
resentful of it. Those who were lucky enough to find Punk took solace
listening to the lyrics of Punk singers who felt the same way, reading the
zines of other outcasts, and generally discovering a group of like-minded
individuals who were going through similar difficulties. The underlying
message was clear you shouldnt have to change your beliefs just to fit
into someone elses world.
Punks have built their platforms or messages with the advocacy and
admittance of nonconformity. Conformity is rejected on every front possible
in order to seek the truth, or sometime merely to shock people, says Craig
OHara91 Shock value seems to have been adopted by the Punks as a way
of getting back at the society that had rejected them, by forcing people to
see things from Punks perspective and thus question their normative values
and judgments. It is an outward and hostile rejection of conformity. In The
Social Animal, sociologist Elliot Aronson says that conformity is a change
91 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 27.
in a persons behavior or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure
from a person a group of people...that results from the observation of others
for the purpose of gaining information about proper behavior.92 It is
precisely this kind of normalizing of proper behavior that Punk philosophy
The fact that Punks look different is merely an exaggeration of what
they had already been told by society that they didnt fit in. The real
essence of their nonconformity, according to OHara, is projected in their
questioning the prevailing modes of thought. Questions about things that
others take for granted related to work, race, sex, and our own selves are
not asked by the conformist whose ideas are determined by those around
her. The nonconformist does not rely on others to determine her own
As a result of their questioning the status quo, OHara says that our
scapegoating doublethink society has labeled Punks as deviants, while
conformists are seen as team players, resulting in the negative portrayal
and media misrepresentations of the Punk movement.94
The questions raised by nonconformists challenge the socialization
process that is instituted to maintain power structures, which in turn raises
92 Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal, page 16.
93 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, pages 27-28.
94 Ibid., page 28.
questions about the legitimacy of authority and its establishment. Punks do
not have a great deal of respect for authority of any kind," OHara puts it
modestly. In general, forced authority has been looked at as a great evil
causing agent. From the German Nazis in World War II, to the subjects of
Stanley Milgrams shock experiments, to todays police force, it has been
proven that unjustified obedience to authority has resulted in mass
acceptance of harmful actions.95
Instead, Punks tend to see themselves as outsiders looking in on and
challenging society and its normative standards. A columnist for the zine,
Profane Existence, says:
We are the inheritors of the white supremacist, patriarchal,
capitalist world order. A prime position as defenders of the capital
of the ruling class and the overseers of the underclass has been
set aside for us by our parents, our upbringing, our culture, our
history, and yet we have the moral gumption to reject it. As Punks,
we reject our inherited race and class positions because we know
they are bullshit.96
Dick Lucas, the singer of the legendary Punk bands Subhumans and Citizen
Fish explains how he feels about conformity and authority:
95 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 28.
96 Joel. Untitled column. Profane Existence #13.
I have never come to terms
with the idea that i am part of
society and should construct
my actions to suit the
prevailing moods of
conformity, acceptance and
achievement. Closed by the
rigorous mind training of
school and media, the mass
mentality of Western culture
revolves around upholding the
past to attempt to secure the
future, whilst suffering the
present as beyond its control,
safe in the hands of
government who feed the
present to the masses as a
Figure 3.1 Dick Lucas of the Subhumans
This quote illustrates the interrelatedness of Punks line of questioning
that personal rebellion leads to political resistance, that the personal is
political, that questioning conformity leads to challenging the establishment
systems that promote it, and once one recognizes the authorities power-
maintenance structures, the next logical subject of attack becomes the
97 Sprouse, Martin. Threat By Example, page 13.
While many Punks are
content to question normative
values on a personal or social
level, it remains true that because
of its anti-authoritarian, anti-
establishment stance, its only
natural for many Punks to go on
to question the government.
Figure 3.2 Anarchist clothing patch
And while some Punks contain their questioning to particular governmental
policies and practices, still others find themselves questioning the legitimacy
of and/or the need for government at all. In a letter to Profane Existence.
Punks of the Anarchist Youth Federation said:
All government is undesirable and unnecessary. There are no
services provided by the state that the community could not
provide itself. We dont need anyone telling us what to do, trying
to run our lives, harassing us with taxes, rules, regulations, and
living high on the hog off our labor.98
Like the anarchists of the early 1900s, most Punks see anarchism as
an alternative to failed existing systems, an alternative that would provide
98 Anarchist Youth Federation. Untitled column. Profane Existence #5.
true freedom, value nonconformity and diversity, and promote communal
peace. In his book The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!. Craig OHara
devotes an entire chapter to anarchism:
Punks are primarily anarchists. There are few who promote the
continuation of any form of capitalism or communism. This is not
to say that all Punks are
well read in the history and
theory of anarchism, but
most do share a belief
around the anarchist
principles of having no
official government rulers,
and valuing individual
freedom and responsibility
(who doesnt).99 100
Figure 3.3 Punk grrl shows off her anarchist graffiti
As noted here, Punks are not generally supportive of the Old American
Lefts support of communism and/ or socialism. Unlike other youth or
bourgeois countercultures, Punks reject communism and the left wing of the
traditional democratic governments as well as capitalism," says OHara.100
However, he also admits that Punks have cooperated with communist and
other leftist groups on a regular basis when their goals supported similar
99 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 71.
100 Ibid., page 72.
interests, such as womens rights, working class interests and a general
distaste for capitalism.101 102
To understand Punks anarchist beginnings, one only needs to open
up any number of the records released by the English band Crass. Crass
was a group of 12
people who lived
a band, created
posters, and formed
a record label.
Figure 3.4 Crass artwork by Gee Vaucher
The band formed in 1978 as a reaction to the increasing acceptance and
fashionableness of Punk in England. Only with respect to their views on
pacifism have some anarchist Punks renounced them as a major reference
point for the Punk anarchist ideal, says OHara.102
Punks do not believe that anarchy simply means no laws and
accepting the ensuing mass chaos that would result. Rather, many Punks
101 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 72.
102 Ibid., page 83.
would replace the need for laws.
change in the personal
believe that over time a gradual
responsibility of each individual
Figure 3.5 Anarchist clothing patch
Anarchy could only be achieved gradually through people changing
themselves and then others by persuasion [not coercion]. You cannot
force anarchy on people, Scottish Punk band Oi Polloi said. Anarchy could
only be reality if people controlled themselves its about responsibility,
being a law unto yourself. Anarchy can only exist when people begin to act
responsibly.103 Punks acknowledge that if all governments disappeared or
were suddenly forcibly removed, people today would riot, murder and
destroy each other, probably more than they already do. But the possibility
that we can all learn to become more responsible and live together
peacefully drives the continued belief in anarchism. When individuals can
live in peace without authorities to compel or punish them, when people
have enough courage to speak honestly and equally with each other, then
103 Oi Polloi. Untitled interview. Maximum RocknRoll #25.
and only then will anarchy be possible, says OHara, outlining the need for
Punks to live by example without becoming elitist leaders.104
Other early Punk bands like Political Asylum and Chumbawamba
have injected anarchist philosophy into their lyrics, but Punks also look to
anarchist writers like Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin and Noam Chomsky
for inspiration. In order to believe that anarchism could actually exist
peacefully, without having to force it on others, Punks must assume that
humans are capable of and want change in the form of relief of oppression.
If the case were otherwise, the anarchist would be forcing the very same
manner of conditioning he despises, says OHara.105
Going back again to the challenging of normative values and power
structures, New York Punk band APPLE says people are conditioned by
society to exploit one another and this is necessary for the system to
operate. But if that conditioning was removed, Surely, if a child was
exposed to good pacifists, humanitarian ideas as opposed to those the child
now encounters on a daily basis, it would have a totally different attitude
towards society and the world as a whole," enabling anarchism to become a
valid, widespread reality.106
104 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 97.
105 Ibid., page 84.
106 APPLE, Untitled interview. Maximum RocknRoll #48.
Still, the reality exists that many Punk anarchists are content to stay
within their own circle and have rejected the possibility of widespread
anarchy. This attitude can be interpreted as a personal or lifestyle
anarchy.107 While many anarchists would say this resignation to the belief
that other people are not capable of ruling themselves is the height of
bourgeois thinking, it does exist among the Punk nihilists. And there are
other Punks who have adopted a more reformist approach, supporting the
Green Party, socialist movements and indigenous peoples governing
structures. Some Punk anarchists have
even cried out that if the revolution isnt
coming tomorrow, they should move
toward something better (i.e., less
oppressive) today. Among all these Punk
factions, little has been agreed to in terms
of means, and the violence versus
pacifism debate still rages on in the Punk
community, as we will see later. What
unites all of them is the search for a world
in which people can coexist without
Figure 3.6 Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill
107 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 87.
oppressing one another. In the words of Punk band Bikini Kills singer,
Kathleen Hanna, I think its a joyous thing to fight back against oppression. I
think its all about saying, I love life.108
Do It Yourself Ethic
Owing a large debt to the anarchist credo of personal responsibility,
Punks driving force is its Do It Yourself ethic. More commonly just called
DIY, it is an underlying theme throughout the community. The ethos of
Punk business has been do it yourself. This is an extension of the anarchist
principles requiring responsibility and cooperation in order to build a more
productive, creative and enjoyable future, says OHara. The DIY ethic is the
empowering belief held by Punks that they can do whatever it is they set out
to achieve, and moreover that they should do it on their own, rather than
relying on the system to supply it for them.
[DIY is] taken as a given in Punk rock, but its the foundation the
entire culture is built upon. Punk writers arent sitting at home
hoping theyll get published, theyre publishing it themselves; fans
arent waiting around hoping for someone to put out a record by
their favorite band, theyre releasing it themselves; were not
waiting for a club to open up that will book shows that cater to the
under-21 set, were opening them ourselves. Punk has never
waited for the OK from anyone to step out on its own.109
108 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 69.
169 Ibid., page 11.
The DIY ethic is personally empowering in its ability to take the power
back from the authoritarian establishment and put it in the hands of the
people. Martin Sorrondeguy, the singer of Chicago Punk band Los Crudos,
explains what DIY meant for him and his band:
I think out of everything
most significant is proving
that you can do things
independently: you dont
have to sit around at home
waiting for that million
dollar call to take you
somewhere or tell you
youre OK now. We said,
Fuck you, we dont need
anybody to tell us were
OK, and we did what we
wanted to do. I think a lot
of young people see us as
an example now. ... I think
everything we do revolves
around a hands-on, totally
involved DIY thing...We
are basically saying that
we want to have total
control over what we do.110
Figure 3.7 Martin Sorrondeguy of Los Crudos
110Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, pages 209-210.
Furthermore, in an interview with Punk Planet, Dead Kennedys
singer Jello Biafra explained that the DIY philosophy is about finding out
who you really are, what you stand for and what you can do to change
Writing the name of a British Punk band that broke up 15 years
ago on the back of the jacket you bought at the mall does not
make you radical...! think that being radical means interacting with
a lot of different kinds of people and making up your own mind
about where you fit in and what you want to do...You have to
identify what you as an individual can do: What are your skills?
How do they fit in?111
The DIY ethic also promotes the political idea that if you dont like
something, you have the power to change it. In this way, it encourages
activism and has led to the creation of an entire political-economic network
within the Punk scene, which will be described in more detail later. The
important thing to note here is that the DIY ethic has empowered Punks to
go forward and do things they are constantly being told by society that they
cannot do on their own.
The driving ethic behind most sincere Punk efforts is DIY Do It
Yourself. We dont need to rely on rich businessmen to organize
our fun for their profit we can do it ourselves for no profit. We
Punks can organize gigs, organize and attend demonstrations, put
out records, publish books and fanzines, set up mail order
distributions for our products, run record stores, distribute
literature, encourage boycotts and participate in political activities.
111 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 45.
We do all of these things and we do them well. Can any other
youth-based counterculture...claim so much?112
The discussion of youth involvement is conspicuously missing from
most writing on the Punk movement. Either because it is taken for granted
or because the authors have since grown up, the youth element of Punk
isnt discussed much in the literature available on the subject. And yet it
remains an integral component, both in the population of the community and
in the values that youth embody. It is roundly agreed upon that Punk was
and is primarily a youth movement. And as I discussed before, most Punks
discover the community in their teenage years and find comfort in knowing
there are other people who share their nonconformist values. This is partially
because it is essential to the political philosophy of Punk that youth be
respected and treated as complete human beings. Unlike the ageist
establishments most youth encounter in their homes and schools, Punks
take kids seriously. Punks recognize that many revolutionary and radical
ideas come from youth because they havent yet been completely socialized
to accept oppression. It is this spirit that is so commonly misidentified as
mere teen angst and rebelliousness.
112 Joel. Untitled column. Profane Existence #11/12. page 10.
As a community, Punk gives
youth a voice that they are denied
elsewhere. They learn the DIY ethic that
teaches them they can, as opposed to
societys constantly telling them they
cant. Of the hundreds of Punk zines and
bands that exist, a great majority of them
are created by youth. Where a 16-year-
old would have a hard time getting
published in a local newspaper or
magazine, Punk tells them that they can create their own zine, and
moreover, say whatever they want in it. While in recent years, the Internet
has afforded youth the opportunity to voice their opinions, publishing their
own zine still continues to give them legitimacy. It is also the DIY ethic that
teaches youth they can start their own bands, even if their musicianship isnt
developed enough for radio play. Again, the Internet has broadened the
ability of amateurs to post their MP3s online, circumventing major record
labels. But it cannot be denied that Punks political-philosophy has provided
many youth with the encouragement and empowerment needed at this self-
One such contribution of youth to the Punk scene is the all ages
credo. Tired of being left out of shows because they werent old enough to
get into the bars their favorite bands were playing at, Punk youth began to
demand that Punk bands stick to their ideal of accessibility and extend the
idea to people under the drinking age of 21. Many bands and even
independent record labels rallied around the idea that the under 21 crowd
shouldnt be shut out of shows. As a result, many Punk bands today make it
a point to play all ages shows, so that their biggest fans can see them.
Local Punk scenes quickly became more youth oriented and took their
shows away from clubs and bars, which depended on alcohol sales, to
rented out fire halls and V.F.W. posts, OHara says.113 Carrie Brownstein,
singer of Sleater-Kinney, says, All ages shows are important to us. When
we play 18-and-over shows, its usually not as fun as all ages shows. We
really like to have the energy of the younger kids...114 Youth have continued
to redefine Punk in terms of its aesthetic, its sound and its values over the
past 25 years, and with each new teenager comes a reinvigoration of the
Punk community with new energy, ideas and ideals.
113 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, pages 142-
114 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 102.
Like so many other things in
Punk, the aesthetic most people
commonly attribute to the counterculture
is too narrowly defined to be accurate.
The spiky-haired, pimple-faced teenage
Caucasian male with a ripped T-shirt,
leather jacket, studded belt, bondage
pants and dog chain around his neck
isnt totally off base, but it also isnt representative. In fact, because Punk
reproduced the entire sartorial history of post-war working-class youth
cultures in cut up form, combining elements which had originally belonged
to completely different epochs,115 it would be extremely difficult to nail down
just one representative aesthetic. Additionally, the varied values and politics
of Punks also contribute to the difficulty in pinning down a single aesthetic,
as different individuals with varying backgrounds and degrees of political
interest would likely use fashion to voice their divergent concerns in
Figure 3.9 Typical Punk aesthetic
115 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 26.
particularly unique ways. As Dick Hebdidge puts it, Style in subculture
is...pregnant with significance.116
In his hugely successful book Subculture: The Meaning of Style.
Hebdidge says, The Punk aesthetic, formulated in the widening gap
between artist and audience, can be read as an attempt to expose glam
rocks implicit contradictions.117 When Punk emerged in the late 1970s, it
was intent on dethroning the rock superstars of the day, and subsequently
tearing down the huge gap between the artist or performer and the
massive crowd of alienated onlookers. The working classness, the
scruffiness and earthiness of Punk ran directly counter to the arrogance,
elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstars, Hebdidge said, adding
that this didnt prevent Punk from picking up on certain aspects of the glam
Punk claimed to speak for the neglected constituency of white
lumpen youth, but it did so typically in the stilted language of glam
and glitter rock rendering working classness metaphorically in
chains and hollow cheeks, dirty clothing (stained jackets, tarty
see-through blouses) and rough and ready diction. Resorting to
parody, the blank generation...described itself in bondage through
an assortment of darkly comic signifiers straps and chains,
strait jackets and rigid postures. Despite its proletarian accents,
Punks rhetoric was steeped in irony...[its] guttersnipe rhetoric, its
obsession with class and relevance were expressly designed to
116 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 18.
117 Ibid., page 63.
undercut the intellectual posturing of the previous generation of
With Hebdidges analysis in mind, it is easy to see why the aesthetic of
Punk has changed so much over the years, remaining constant only in its
challenging the norms of the day. If a particular style or hairdo is shocking to
the masses, its probably Punk, and if it challenges the status quo in a
symbolic way, all the better. Punks have evolved to embrace a number of
styles over the past 25 years, and here are just a few of them:
> Hair. Spiky, mohawks, fins, liberty spikes, horns; dyed brilliant colors
or black; floppy and unkempt; dreadlocks; braids; shaved; devil lock
(similar to a mohawk plastered forward over the forehead into a point
between the eyes, popularized by the band the Misfits); etc.
> Clothing: Anything ripped, torn, tattered, or otherwise dirty and
unkempt looking; patches (not necessarily to cover up holes, and
often decorated with political and/or band slogans); bondage attire
with zippers and straps, often found in fetish shops; leather jackets;
band T-shirts; military uniforms; mismatched patterns and/or colors,
such as stripes with plaids; anything black (but not too Goth); stretch
jeans; fishnets (shirts or tights); skinny ties; etc.
118 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 63.
> Shoes: Doc Martens, workmans or military combat boots; Vans or
Converse tennis shoes; creepers (pointy-toed, witch- or elf-like
shoes, often with very thick soles); oxfords (preferably two toned);
mary janes (girls shoes with buckles); etc.
> Accessories: Studded and spiked leather or plastic jewelry and
belts, often found in fetish shops; chains; safety pins; zippers; straps;
piercings; tattoos; black makeup and nail polish; anything animal
print, striped or plaid; anything leather, pleather (man made
plastic/leather), net, mesh, or other odd textures; etc.
Ironically, as the Punks-of-yesterdays aesthetic is recuperated and co-
opted by the mainstream, new Punks have often reverted to previous styles
to maintain their assaulting appearances. Examples would include the
adoption of the greaser look with leather jackets, white T-shirts and blue
jeans; the adoption of the 70s rockers look (mostly among Punk offshoots
Indie and Emo) with tight polyester clothing in earth tones, floppy hairdos
and black thick-rimmed glasses; and the most recent return to the early 70s
Punks bondage pants, only this time instead of skin tight, they have been
combined with the baggy pants look of Skaters, Hip-hop and Rappers.
Again, the important element of Punk style is its subversion and how that
is rendered is entirely up to the unique individual.
Where Punks Stand on the Issues
Like other countercultures before it, Punk has also been full of efforts
to organize (or in some cases disorganize) to create change. Known
primarily for its power-chord driven, fast and aggressive music, Punk
effectively utilizes song lyrics as one of many vehicles that help spread the
political message, generating new interest and new ideas, as well as
mobilizing the community behind a multitude of causes. Zines and artwork
also serve as vehicles of communication and make up Punks own political-
economic network, which will be discussed in the next chapter. But while the
mainstream has written Punk off as merely a teen fad or a musical genre, it
is revealing to look into the causes those vehicles champion. Whether you
believe that the music, zines and art generate Punks politics, or that they
are a reflection of them, they serve as a window into the causes that are the
spirit of this vibrant counterculture.
Punks have created their own political groups among the community
who have supported a number of important radical causes, organized their
own rallies, protests and benefits, as well as joined with other radical
communities. And while there are Punks who dont participate in political
activism, as individuals Punks are usually quite politically aware because
they are constantly surrounded by the political discourse and activism of
The political philosophies discussed earlier usually direct the stance
Punks take on any number of political issues usually aimed at destroying
the oppression caused by the establishment but as was also discussed,
independent thought is highly valued and celebrated in the Punk community,
and thus, Punks interpret the issues in a variety of unique ways. Like any
activist community, Punks often argue over what are the most important
issues, over what the proposed solution(s) should be, over which other
groups to work with, and have often been criticized for their lack of cohesion.
But it is this pluralism that keeps Punk from becoming recuperated and co-
opted into a pop fad Punks diversity of thought has helped make it
difficult to package and sell as a consumer trend. While the 90s introduced
political correctness, which was adopted by many politically active Punks, in
its extreme self-righteousness, it caused other Punks to backlash with a
slew of anti-P.C. politics, while others remained content to be armchair
activists. On the whole, Punks recognize the necessity of not only allowing
or tolerating dissenting views, but of respecting them. This is readily
evidenced in the variety of opinions and views shared in Punks song lyrics
or writings in zines. Creating any sort of moral dicta for all Punks to follow
would be contributing to the very oppression Punks try so hard to fight.
Probably the most unifying aspect of Punks political action is The
support of action over lobbying attempts [which] has a strong tradition in the
Punk movement. While Punks may not have the connections or resources to
work with lawmakers, they often will try to change things themselves as
directly as possible, says OHara. Rhetoric...has inspired many Punks to
not only act on their own, but to form their own groups...and educate
others.119 Here are some of the causes Punks have taken on, and the
various interpretations and actions Punks have contributed to them.
Violence vs. Pacifism
Every counterculture has had to ask itself whether violence should be
a means to achieving its goals, or if it should instead pursue a pacifist
course. In examining the American Left throughout the 1900s, it is easy to
see that this issue has always been divisive to radical communities, and that
remains the case for the Punk community. It has long been assumed that
the aggressive nature of the Punk counterculture necessitated an
acceptance or even desire for violent conflict, especially in light of the
anarchist goal of overthrowing the government.
Punk has had its share of Quincy Punks, named after the
fashionable, violent characters portrayed on the 80s television show, who
OHara argues joined the scene without any knowledge of its politics
primarily due to media distortions and threatened to make Punk a parody of
119 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 139.
itself.120 These kids were primarily attracted to the Punk scene because of
the violent images they saw in the press, and most quickly left when they
discovered that wasnt what Punk was about.
From its inception, many Punk anarchists argued that violent
revolution only led to the establishment of another oppressive regime. Along
the same lines of Emma Goldmans saying Its not my revolution if I cant
dance to it, British Punk band Crass said, I dont want your revolution, I
want anarchy and peace. And thus began the development of peace
Punk. Anarchist Punks insisted With the goals of no government or outside
oppression, anarchist violence seems to be more out of tune with the stated
objectives than any other political violence.121 Some Punks advanced
pacifism as a valid strategy to resist the United States invasion of Iraq. Then
defunct British Punk band Crass singer Steve Ignorant said, As a pacifist I
stand against organized militarism, believing that the use of power to control
people is a violation of human dignity. However, even among the peace
Punks, there was an exception to this rule. If I were to find myself in a
position where that power threatened to directly violate me, I would stand
120 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 45.
121 Masson, Todd. Untitled column. Profane Existence #5. page 11.
against it in whatever way was
necessary to prevent it. In that
situation, I do not rule out the
possibility of force.122
Peace Punks have found it
overwhelmingly difficult to spread
their views because it is so often
used in resistance to what
mainstream society sees as
patriotic. On the Subhumans EP
Rats, singer Dick Lucas says:
Figure 3.10 Punk wearing gas mask and swinging bat
The majority of people have such set beliefs that any open and
determined pacifism is hysterically conceived as enemy
infiltration, rather than as an extension of the obvious fact that
War is Death is Wrong. Such basic fundamental logic is generally
accepted as true but unrealistic in a world of greed and paranoia
where patriotism is second nature and survival is taken for
But there are also those Punks who look to the confrontational
approach of the 60s student movement, and the violent gun-toting, bomb-
throwing of groups like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen for
122 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, pages 87-88.
123 Subhumans. Rats EP. Bluurg Records, 1983.
inspiration. The resurgence of material about the Red Army Faction, the
Angry Brigade, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and other groups of
people who chose armed struggle is continually reviewed in fanzines, says
OHara. With the spread of this literature, coupled with the popularity of the
EZLN [Zapatista] struggle, more Punks are going against the ideology of
pacifism. Hopefully those who choose other means of support in the
worldwide struggle for freedom will be well prepared.124
But OHara says that the great difference in numbers and power the
Punks and other counterculture freaks have to their respective
governments is an obvious reason for supporting non-violent resistance.
There is little good that can be done if imprisoned or dead.125 Or as IN*CIT
editor Todd Masson noted in a column in Profane Existence. Playing with
romantic notions of revolutionary violence tends to put people in the ground
before their time, or at least in jail...even if most violence is self-defense.
What do you hear from well armed, defensive Black Panthers as of late?126
Still, a number of Punk anarchists, even those who initially supported
pacifism, have come to see pacifism as naive and violence as necessary.
Unfortunately, the real world isnt based on moral premises. If politics and
revolutionary change was just about morals, wed have won centuries ago!
124 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 92.
125 Ibid., page 89.
126 Masson, Todd. Untitled column. Profane Existence #5, page 11.
because in certain times and certain places we need to use violence,
said Political Asylums singer, Ramsey Kanaan.127 The Profane Existence
collective has often published preparedness information in their zine, and
member Felix Havoc contributed a firearm primer called Turn Up the Heat
in the collectives book Making Punk a Threat Again.128 Profane Existences
editor, Dan, said:
I believe in the pacifist philosophy, but I can also say that I believe
in a God but in real life Id have a hard time proving that one
exists! This is real life and there is very real violence in our
society. By not being prepared to deal with it, mentally or
physically, is a great risk to take.129
The idea that violent means are the only ones that get results is as
dangerous as the might makes right argument that anarchists so
vehemently oppose, argues OHara, and he reminds Punks that, To hold
pacifism as an admirable ideal, but useless because of its impracticality, is
equivalent to the charges often leveled at anarchy.130 Put simply, There
are no set criteria given to determine when and to what ends violence would
be acceptable, among the Punk movement, OHara says.131 What is
obvious is that by partaking in a detailed debate over violence versus
127 Kanaan, Ramsey. Political Asylum interview. Maximum Rockn'Roll
128 Havoc, Felix. Turn Up the Heat. Making Punk a Threat Again.
129 Dan. untitled column. Profane Existence #5.
130 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 92.
131 Ibid., page 90.
pacifism as a means to achieving change, Punk is clearly an oppositional
political movement. By discussing how to affect change or oppose the status
quo, Punks have cemented their overt activism.
Capitalism and Consumerism
In the past, the American Left assumed that true freedom begins
only when capitalism ends. Hence the Left was nothing if not anti-capitalist,
explains Diggins. Like its American Left predecessors, Punks have been
unified behind the goal of eliminating capitalism and the evils it causes.
However the new social order was envisioned, competitive individualism
would be replaced by some version of the cooperative ideal in which human
beings, freed from the economic necessity of engaging in coerced labor,
would realize their full nature in creative work.132 While Punk anarchists
would not promote a new social order as part of the solution, most Punks
(especially anarchists) support the ideal of destroying the bondage of
capitalism. And while critiques of capitalism have not been unique to the
Left, Punk has adopted much of its discourse on capitalism from the early
132 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 34.
The American Left
originally rose out of the ideas of
Transcendental thinkers like
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry
David Thoreau who cursed the
corpse-cold nature of institutions
and protested a society in which
man is thus metamorphosed into
a thing. The Old Left had grown
out of an abundance of poverty
during the Depression, much like
British Punk, and the New Left grew out of a poverty of abundance and
consumerism, much like American Punk. Diggins says, Jaded by affluence,
estranged by parents who so valued this affluence, young radicals began to
sense that their middle-class alienation had something in common with
lower-class exploitation, in the early 60s.133 Growing out of extreme
poverty in England, and extreme consumerism in the United States, Punks
on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean condemned capitalism as oppressive
133 Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left, page 220.
Punks initial attack on glam rock was largely based on disgust with
masses of youth consumers pouring into arenas like zombies, utterly
dependent on the gap between them and their superstar idols. In the book
Working Class Youth Culture. Ian Taylor and Dave Wall describe the
perception of glam rock by working class kids:
Bowie has in effect colluded in consumer capitalisms attempt to
recreate a dependent adolescent class, involved as passive
teenage consumers in the purchase of leisure prior to the
assumption of adulthood rather than being a youth culture of
persons who question (from whatever class or cultural
perspective) the value and meaning of adolescence and the
transition to the adult world of work.134
Glam rock reproduced capitalist tendencies with its high priced albums,
concerts and aesthetic. Punk, on the other hand, provided a critique of the
capitalist forces that had so many kids ignoring the lurking reality that
awaited them upon entering adulthood a life of work for someone elses
benefit. Moreover, Punks in England saw capitalism as the cause of their
poverty, and Punks in America saw it as the cause of their alienation. Going
back again to anarchist ideals, most Punks believed that the removal of the
capitalist state would ensure cooperative equality for all people, not just the
few at the top.
134 Taylor, Ian, and Dave Wall. Beyond the Skinheads. Working Class
Punks have achieved this subversion of
capitalism in their own communities by hosting
small, affordable shows, by dissolving the
boundaries between the audience and the
performer, by limiting the sale price of their
albums, and other political economic networks
described in more detail later.
In a Punk Planet interview, Bikini Kills
singer Kathleen Hanna asks:
Figure 3.12 Anti-capitalist Punk art
Why are we allowing capitalist thought to define everything? Why
does that get to decide how everything goes down? And why is it
about being legitimate in the eyes of the people who own the
majority of the wealth? Why do they get to decide these things?
Its like everybodys still trying to be accepted in the eyes of their
fathers. Were all fighting for the crumbs on The Mans table and
people always get pitted in opposition to each other...We need to
realize that while were squabbling, shit is going down. The U.S.
government is going to all these other countries and fucking over
peoples governments and peoples lives and jobs and stealing
Punks have sought to escape what they see as the inevitable slavery
of work to instead pursue more creative (and productive) endeavors. They
have sought to escape the alienation of consumerism by engaging in
135 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, page 70.
cooperative activities that would develop synergistic bonds between people,
rather than competition. Punks have demanded through their symbolic
aesthetic and their overt actions that blind consumers open their eyes to the
oppression and bondage their superfluous lifestyles create for working class
people everywhere. Punks have attempted to reveal the injustices and
atrocities committed throughout the world in the name of capitalist
development and advancement. Punks have rejected capitalisms
definitions of success and achievement, and created their own meanings.
Anti-capitalism isnt just an underlying theme in Punk its overarching.
These anti-capitalist goals are evidenced in the music, writings and
aesthetic of Punks, but also in the political economy theyve created in its
stead (to be discussed in the next chapter) and in their involvement with
protests of NAFTA and World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and
Washington, D.C. Punks have consistently voiced their opposition to the
oppression caused by global capitalist endeavors, as well as opposing the
wrongs of capitalism on a local basis, within the context of class, poverty
and homelessness, as I will discuss later.
A number of the philosophies already discussed contribute to Punks
opposition to war. Punk anarchists disagree with the imperialist goals of war,
and also see it as the illegitimate use of force to control someone else. Punk
pacifists see it as violent coercion. And the reality that many (if not most)
wars are fought over resources doesnt gel well with Punks hatred of
capitalism, either. Punks reasons for opposing war are many and diverse,
as they are among most people. But they do correlate with the basic political
philosophies most Punks adhere to, such as anti-authority, anti-
establishment, anarchist, anti-capitalism and pacifist.
Figure 3.13 Punks participating in a war protest
Punks have contributed
significantly to opposition efforts
through a discourse on the
economic aspects of war. From
popularizing the no blood for oil
slogan to (former Dead Kennedys
singer) Jello Biafras spoken word
critique Die for oil, sucker,
Punks acknowledge that much of
what drives war is profits. Craig
OHara says that Operation
Figure 3.14 Punk carrying sign with anti-war slogan used by Crass
Desert Storm and the Gulf War not only protected the interests and profits of
oil companies, but they also generated economic results by cashing in on
the consumption of T-shirts, videos, television specials and bumper stickers;
and the rebuilding efforts after the war promised corporate construction
companies profitable contracts as well.136
Punks also have made their opposition to war well known by
participating in anti-war protests the world over. The anti-war sentiment is
heard in lyrics, such as Crass chanting Fight war, not wars, as well as in 136
136 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 77.
Punk zines. Dozens of Punk bands have played in anti-war concerts that
often serve as benefits to raise funds for anti-war organizations.
Punk Planet scrapped its planned cover story in December of 1998 to
run an interview with Chicago-area Punks Jeff Guntzel, Kathy Kelly and
Michael Bremer about their involvement with a group called Voices in the
Wilderness. The group, a humanitarian organization, defied U.S. embargoes
by taking medicine and supplies to Iraq during the Gulf War in an effort to
end sanctions. The U.S. Justice Department threatened to fine the group
$100,000. Though Punk Planet
had begun as a music review
zine, this story, The Murder of
Iraq, generated more mail than
any story the zine had ever run.
It sparked movement within the
Punk scene to work towards
ending the sanctions, said editor
Daniel Sinker. To this day,
benefit shows and fanzine articles
continue to support the cause.137
Earlier that same year, in February 1998, a Punk by the name of Jon
Strange had dressed up in a suit and tie to get into a CNN town meeting at
Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where Secretary of State Madeline
Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Advisor
Sandy Berger would answer questions about the brewing war with Iraq. The
town meeting was televised live, and from the beginning, groups of
protestors could be heard shouting jeers at Albright, Cohen and Berger from
the back of the second floor the group who had not been handpicked to
ask questions. In order to quiet and pacify the dissenters, CNN decides to
allow one of them to ask a question. Enter Punk Jon Strange.
Strange: Yes. I have a question for Secretary Albright. Why bomb
Iraq when other countries have committed similar violations?
Turkey, for example, has bombed Kurdish citizens. Saudi Arabia
has tortured political and religious dissidents. Why does the U.S.
apply different standards of justice to these countries?
Albright: Let me say that when there are problems such as you
have described, we point them out and make very clear our
opposition to them. But there is no one that has done to his
people or to his neighbors what Saddam Hussein has done or
what he is thinking about doing. I think that the record will show
that Saddam Hussein has produced weapons of mass
destruction, which he is clearly not collecting for his own personal
pleasure, but in order to use. And therefore, he is qualitatively and
quantitatively different from every brutal dictator that has
137 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, pages 267-268.
appeared recently and we are very concerned about him
specifically and what his plans might be.
Strange: What do you have to say about dictators in countries
like Indonesia, whom we sell weapons to, yet they are
slaughtering people in East Timor? What do you have to say
about Israel, who is slaughtering Palestinians and has imposed
martial law? What do you have to say about that? Those are our
allies. Why do we sell weapons to these countries? Why do we
support them? Why do we bomb Iraq when they commit similar
Albright, attempting to answer a room erupting with cheers: There
are various examples of things that are not right in this world and
the United States is trying...
Drowned out by cheers, Albright stops, then continues: I really
am surprised that people feel it is necessary to defend the rights
of Saddam Hussein when what we ought to be thinking about is
how to make sure that he does not make weapons of mass
Strange: Im not defending Saddam Hussein. I am not defending
him in the least. What I am saying is that there needs to be
consistent application of U.S. foreign policy. We cannot support
people who are committing the same violations because they are
political allies that is not acceptable. We cannot violate U.N.
resolutions when it is convenient to us! You are not answering my
question, Madame Albright!
Albright: I suggest to you, sir, that you study carefully what
American foreign policy is, what we have said exactly about the
cases you have mentioned. Every one of them has been pointed
out, every one of them we have clearly stated our policy on. If you
would like, as a former professor, I would be delighted to spend
50 minutes with you describing exactly what we are doing on
Introduced as the gentleman in the white shirt, Jon Strange, a self-
described Punk activist had upset the situation that had been so carefully
orchestrated to limit dissent and opposition to war. Albright sat there, looking
deflated, having never expected to be confronted in such a way.138
Reflecting in an interview with Punk Planet. Strange said that a ton of
Punks around the country were gathering around war protests. I think its
much more possible in the Punk scene because we are already politically
conscious, if not necessarily politically active, Strange said. I dont think
you have to convince Punk people that there are issues...A lot of Punk kids
are already really active.139
And Punks have continued to oppose war in the same vein since.
Using confrontation tactics similar to those employed by the New Left in the
60s, using pacifist strategies in protests, by joining and forming anti-war
organizations, Punks have made it clear that war is not acceptable.
Class. Poverty and Homelessness
The Punk movement was originally formed in nations holding
capitalist, pseudo-democratic policies. Because of this, capitalism and its
problems became the first target of political Punks, explains OHara.
Homelessness, classism and work-place exploitation seem to be some of
the results of a system built on greed. While it is true that a capitalist system
138 Sinker, Daniel. We Owe You Nothing Punk Planet: The Collected
Interviews, pages 293-295.
139 Ibid., page 301.
affords great luxuries to many members of its society, this seems to have a
direct link to the exploitation of those who do not have these luxuries.140 As
was explained before, Punks are generally anti-capitalists for these very
reasons. Punks see class, poverty and homelessness as problems directly
created by capitalism. Capitalist societies base their definitions of success
on the acquisition of wealth and its subsequent commodities. This system
creates a middle class that is well off enough to sustain complacency and
resistance to radical change for fear of becoming poor. And it also
generates an envy among the materially poor who desire to have the
luxuries afforded to the middle classes. The fact that people loot stereos
and televisions instead of food shows that they have been convinced that a
better life is more money and more goods, says OHara.141
Although, like previous countercultural movements, many Punks
(especially in the United States) come from suburban, middle class
backgrounds, this seems to have only made them more aware of the
alienation that consumerism breeds. Perhaps because many Punks grew up
in the suburbs and were then introduced to the poverty of urban areas, they
are acutely aware of the entropic values of capitalism, and that the middle
and upper classes gains are directly related to the suffering of the lower
140 OHara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, page 74.
141 Ibid., pages 74-75.
class. Punks from middle class backgrounds usually reject the comfort of
material luxuries and embrace synergistic values that alleviate, if not
destroy, the oppression of the lower class in favor of equality. To solve the
problems of class, poverty and homelessness, Punks address the problem
by attacking the entire corrupt system of capitalism, seeing them as
inextricably entwined. The political economy of Punk surfaced as an
alternative to participating in such a corrupt system and will be described in
more detail in the next chapter. But Punks have also organized to help
alleviate poverty, hunger and homelessness in the broader society they are
One such organization is Food Not Bombs. Founded in San
have organized and
operated Food Not
Bombs chapters in
cities across the
country. Food Not
Bombs is an
Figure 3.16 Food Not Bombs feeds homeless
meals wherever they can, whenever they can to hungry and homeless
people. We as one are saying fuck your bombs, feed starving people,
reads a T-shirt printed by an east coast Food Not Bombs group. The idea is
that the country should be using the money it spends on armaments to feed
its poor. Food Not Bombs groups generally create partnerships with local
businesses who donate food items that would otherwise be thrown away
(bagel shops day old bagels, items that are still good but the sell buy date
has passed, products that dont sell, etc.) and many members purchase
food items that are cooperatively cooked by the group and served in public
areas (such as parks, public squares, etc.). Food Not Bombs groups
throughout the country, especially in San Francisco, have been ticketed,
fined and even
arrested for serving
in public places
without obtaining a
license or permit
Because of this,
Figure 3.17 Punks gathering food for Food Not Bombs
many Food Not Bombs groups have had to result to covert operations of a
sort, sometimes pulling up a truck, throwing out a bunch of bagged or boxed
meals and leaving the scene before police arrive.
Punks also volunteer at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and other
outreach organizations to help the poor and homeless. In fact, many Punks
themselves are poor and homeless, many live collectively to alleviate
financial pressures, and the great majority champion values that challenge
the idea that theres something wrong with being materially poor. Punks kids
are regularly seen displaying patches on their clothing or T-shirts that have
slogans like Keep warm, burn the rich," Capitalism is cannibalism and
Class war not race war. Bands lyrics and writing in zines challenge the
normative material and capitalist values that contribute to poverty and
homelessness. And bands frequently play benefit shows from which the
proceeds are donated to causes and organizations like Food Not Bombs.
Most importantly, Punks try to live their lives outside of the capitalist values
that contribute to problems of poverty and homelessness, actively choosing
to be part of the solution instead of furthering the problem. Punks dont
accept that there is nothing they can do to change the inequalities of the
society they live in, and they understand that those changes have to come
from carrying them out in their own lives first.
Race and Ethnicity
While Punk has been traditionally portrayed as a white youth
rebellion, Hebdidge asserts that Punk adopted much of its style and
philosophy from the black working classes in England, namely from West
Indian immigrants, who Punks allied themselves with. Or as Punk musician
Richard Hell put it, Punks are niggers.142 From its inception, Punk allied
itself with anti-racist causes. Punk groups for instance, figured prominently
in the rock Against Racism campaign set up to combat the growing influence
of the National Front in working class areas, says Hebdidge. Some Punks
wore Ethiopian colours and the Rasta rhetoric began to work its way into the
repertoires of some Punk groups.143 The early Punk identification with West
Indian immigrant culture in England antagonized the racist Teddy Boys, and
the tension led to Ted/Punk battles becoming commonplace on Kings Road
in the summer of 1977.144
Yet even today, Punks often find it necessary to distinguish
themselves as anti-racist to combat the media misrepresentation that has
led the mainstream to think of them as white supremacists. OHara says that
in the early days of American Punk, there were few substantial differences
between the skinheads and Punks. Skinheads were definitely more
142 Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style, page 62.
143 Ibid., pages 66-67.
144 Ibid., page 67.