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When Identity Politics Meets the Punk Scene

(Mike Maguire/Flickr)

“But to me, an observer with intimate knowledge of punk’s radical history, much of today’s woke rhetoric feels like a throwback.”

“Punk ain’t no religious cult

Punk means thinking for yourself”

—Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (1979)

Punk has taught me a great deal about independent thought and action. But, in recent years, I have seen large segments of the scene fall prey to the same divisive identity politics, crippling political correctness, and self-righteous social bullying that have increasingly come to dominate mainstream culture. In fact, many of the underlying ideas and attitudes—subsumed under the term “wokeness”—existed in punk long before they entered the mainstream. That punk culture is still around and functioning suggests a resilience to ideological usurpation which is urgently needed today. 

Punk, it is safe to say, has always been ahead of the curve on progressive issues. Veganism, for example, has been discussed and practiced in pockets of the punk scene since the 1980’s. Similarly, many of the issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality prevalent in society today have been staples of punk’s political discourse for decades, as demonstrated in songs such as Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” (1981)—“You blame me for slavery a hundred years before I was born”—and Propagandhi’s“Refusing to Be a Man” (1996)—“I’m a hetero-sexist tragedy/And potential rapists all are we.” 

It makes sense, though, that fringe ideas would first take hold in fringe subcultures.

It may be surprising to some readers that punk bands addressed such issues decades ago. After all, it has only been in recent years that concepts such as white guilt, rape culture, and toxic masculinity have taken center stage in our public discourse. It makes sense, though, that fringe ideas would first take hold in fringe subcultures. Under the correct conditions, these ideas can find their way into the mainstream, often in tandem with countercultural aesthetics. It is likely not a coincidence that many of today’s young woke activists don a punk style: brightly colored hair, facial piercings, punk attire. Many of their ideas, too, have precedents in punk.

Published at the turn of the millennium, the anarchist compendium Days of War, Nights of Love quickly became one of the most widely distributed radical texts in the punk underground. It calls for the dismantling of capitalism, the nuclear family, and Western civilization itself. History and the scientific method, the authors suggest, ought to be replaced by myth and “folk science.” Gender, too, is painted as a social construct created “in the interest of Power.” Theft and “revolutionary” violence are endorsed as means of “resistance.”

Anyone who has been paying attention the claims and demands of the woke will, by now, be familiar with such ideas. But to me, an observer with intimate knowledge of punk’s radical history, much of today’s woke rhetoric feels like a throwback.

Punk began in the mid-1970’s as a rebellious, anti-establishment movement designed to shock and provoke. Seeking meaning in chaos, it was both subversive and disruptive to the social order. But what started as an uncontrolled explosion of aggressive music, obscene lyrics, and outrageous fashion soon developed into a distinct—if diverse—counterculture. 

Since punk implies a rejection of the status quo, radical ideologies that seek to dismantle established structures of society have always appealed to punks, making it relatively easy for radical ideologues to infiltrate the scene. As a result, punk communities have tended to become increasingly dogmatic, intolerant, and authoritarian in their political outlook. The good news is that punk’s defiant nature offers a potent antidote to such tendencies. 

Question Authority

Punks tend to support political movements that cast themselves as defenders of the downtrodden, usually in conjunction with ideologies based in conflict theory. A recent example has been punks’ overwhelming support for Black Lives Matter, whose view of society is based on the presumption of systemic “white supremacy.” There is a danger, however, that the narratives pushed and controlled by such movements are inaccurate, misleading, or downright false (not to mention, self-serving). To accept them without question may, therefore, lead to the opposite of the desired effect. 

In the case of Black Lives Matter, the prevailing narrative—that there is an epidemic of racist police killings best solved by defunding law enforcement—is not only false but a slap in the face to crime-ridden black communities in need of better—and often more—policing. If implemented, such a policy would likely cause an increase, rather than a decrease, in black lives lost.

One strategy to protect against false narratives of this sort is to apply the maxim “question authority.” To quote science popularizer Carl Sagan: “Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else.” This principle is central to critical thinking and a key element of punk’s broadly humanistic philosophy. “Punk rock, at its best,” writes Greg Graffin in his book Anarchy Evolution, “embraces an openness to experience, a reliance on reason and evidence, and a questioning of received wisdom.” The Bad Religion singer and evolutionary biologist argues that his pertains to punk as well as to science, which “also is about questioning and not settling for dogma.” 

The reality, however, is that punks who think for themselves and reach conclusions different from the prevailing orthodoxy risk being ostracized. Still worse, there is a tendency to suppress such voices. I should know, having been on the receiving end of punk “cancel culture.” 

An anarchist publisher with longstanding ties to the punk scene had agreed to release a collection of my articles on how woke culture and political correctness impede critical thinking (previously published here, here, here, and here). A plea for free speech, the resulting short book was to be titled Thoughtcrimes, in reference to George Orwell’s 1984, where the term denotes politically unorthodox thoughts. However, not everyone involved in the publishing process had been consulted. So, when the book came back from the printer, those in charge of distribution refused to handle it, and the decision was made to shelve it. Thoughtcrimes had been deemed “problematic” due to its criticism of transgender ideology and its inclusion of centrist, classically liberal, and conservative voices. “Ironic” may not be strong enough a word to describe this experience.

Anti-authoritarianism often manifests as iconoclasm. Punk is no exception. Formed in 1975, British punk originators the Sex Pistols famously displayed a torn-up Union Jack and defaced images of the Queen on their posters and record sleeves. In light of this tradition, it is not surprising that punks overwhelmingly support the defacing and toppling of statues in the name of Black Lives Matter. However, a self-righteous mob forcefully imposing its will on the public hardly qualifies as anti-authoritarian.

There is a general tendency in punk to romanticize vandalism as an expression of righteous anger, protest, and resistance. Punks tend to look at society through a Rousseauian lens: “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” In their eyes, the laws and institutions governing democratic society negate human freedom and equality. However, it is these laws and institutions that safeguard our rights and liberties. Society, after all, depends on the peaceful coexistence of vastly different—and often conflicting—interests, convictions, and lifestyles. 

Punk communities, by contrast, are relatively homogenous in these regards (and much smaller), which may explain why many punks consider anarchy to be a workable social arrangement. While society’s institutions are hierarchically structured, punk emphasizes non-hierarchical forms of organizing. But it is a fallacy to assume that what works in microcosm can be applied to society at large, especially considering the darker aspects of human nature. 

Most punks hate the police. The slogan “all cops are bastards” (ACAB), which has—of late—come to be associated with BLM protest culture has a long tradition in punk. Released in 1981, the songACAB” by Slime is one of the earliest examples. The lyrics accuse law enforcement of “Working for a fascist machinery.” This sentiment is echoed by the modern Antifa chant “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” The chant is a twist on lyrics of another early 1980’s punk band called Millions of Dead Cops: “No war, no KKK, no fascist USA!” 

The radical view, common among anarchist-leaning punks, that all hierarchical structures are inherently oppressive (hence the conflation of fascism and democracy) disregards the immense social value of competence hierarchies, that is, hierarchies based on merit rather than dominance. This can lead to an unhealthy distrust—quite literally when it comes to medicine—of experts and professionals who are considered authorities in their respective fields. The anarcho-punk motto “there is no authority but yourself” reflects this mindset. The slogan derives from the final lines of the 1983 Crass album Yes Sir, I Will: “You must learn to live with your own conscience, your own morality, your own decision, your own self. You alone can do it. There is no authority but yourself.” 

What appears, prima facie, to be an anti-authoritarian statement, in fact, expresses a self-righteous attitude. Driven by an almost religious sense of moral certainty, nominally anti-authoritarian punks routinely assume the authority to monitor and censor the conduct and speech of others. But, as I have mentioned, woven into the fabric of punk culture is a corrective to this attitude: “Question authority.” 

Moreover, since punk is, in the words of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, “all one big zitty-face imperfection,” the impulse to call out and cancel others just seems presumptuous. Genuine anti-authoritarianism begins with humility. This is where humor comes in. Humor is a powerful weapon against authoritarian tendencies and hubris. Luckily, punk has a tradition of not taking itself too seriously. Overly virtuous punks who act on authoritarian impulses in an effort to control others are often met with ridicule. They are mockingly referred to as the “scene police.” This disarming attitude goes a long way toward keeping self-righteous ideologues in check. 

Punk Identity

“I wasn’t brought here, I was born
Circumcised, categorized, allegiance sworn
Does this mean I have to take such shit
For being fair skinned? No!

I ain’t a part of no conspiracy, I’m just you’re average Joe 

…I can accept responsibility for what I’ve done

But not for who I am

Don’t call me white”

—NOFX, “Don’t Call Me White” (1994)

To self-identify as punk—an identity that is largely self-defined to begin with (there are probably as many definitions of punk as there are punks)—implies a refusal to be defined by immutable characteristics such as race or sex. Yet, in recent years, the opposite approach, known as identity politics, has spread like wildfire in the punk scene. 

As a result, the notion that punk is a place for misfits, outcasts, and nonconformists has increasingly morphed into the belief that it ought to be a safe space for those high up in the intersectional hierarchy of oppression.

This hierarchy assumes that when different “oppressed identities” intersect, they reinforce one another. For example, a gay black woman is more oppressed than a gay black man, according to this theory. While he is a victim of “systemic” racism and homophobia, she is, additionally, a victim of patriarchy. 

Arguably, however, male homosexuality has historically carried a greater stigma than lesbianism—not to mention that a person’s identity is more than just the sum of their immutable characteristics. Nor is it reasonable to assume that the individual life experiences of those who share these characteristics are even remotely similar.

Straight, white men, at any rate, rank at the bottom of list: They are the least oppressed. In fact, to be a member of this identity group is to be assumed guilty of oppression until proven innocent. How can one prove one’s innocence? By becoming an “ally.” To this end, one must acknowledge one’s “privilege,” admit to one’s “complicity” in “systemic oppression,” and enforce compliance with the underlying ideology. 

The concept of “cultural appropriation” lends itself particularly well to this approach. For example, dreadlocks, for decades a popular hairstyle in the punk scene, have fallen into disrepute. White punks are thus discouraged from wearing dreads, sometimes to the point of being banned from concerts. 

The underlying theory can be summed up as follows: Dreadlocks are the cultural property of black people. To wear them while white is to perpetuate a history of colonial theft and racist oppression. (For some reason, though, the same does not seem to apply to mohawks, a traditional punk hairstyle whose very name suggests “cultural appropriation.”) 

Posing as progressive, “cultural appropriation” is a deeply regressive concept. Not only does it conflate race and culture in a way that verges on racial essentialism, it also has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and cultural cross-pollination, key prerequisites for cultural development and progress. 

Evidence for the benefits of cross-cultural fertilization can be found in punk’s own history. Shortly after the movement’s inception, white punks began to collaborate with black musicians from the equally rebellious reggae scene, developing new forms of countercultural expression (which partly explains white punks in dreadlocks). This fruitful collaboration—commemorated in the Bob Marley song “Punky Reggae Party”promoted racial-cultural desegregation. 

Concerns about “cultural appropriation” notwithstanding, it is often lamented that straight, white men “dominate” punk. While it is true that the majority of active participants fit that description, the word “dominate” connotes something much more sinister, namely that women and minorities are effectively denied full participation. Why else would they be underrepresented? This view—a foregone conclusion—has been the rationale behind countless initiatives to increase female and minority participation in the punk scene. 

As of late, however, I have increasingly come across punk promoters unwilling to book bands that do not meet “diversity and inclusion” criteria. 

In the 1990’s, when I initially became involved with punk, such efforts mostly focused on encouragement, equal treatment, and making people outside the “dominant” group feel welcome. As of late, however, I have increasingly come across punk promoters unwilling to book bands that do not meet “diversity and inclusion” criteria. 

Consequently, bands that do meet these criteria often get booked ahead of other groups, even though they might not be as good. This anti-meritocratic, anti-individualistic approach is meant to “empower” women and minorities. But the fact of the matter is that they are held to a different standard. This patronizing attitude, known as “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” hardly seems empowering.

This is in no way to suggest that such groups are never as good as their “competitors.” However, if the desired percentage of female/minority musicians on, say, a festival bill is substantially above their actual percentage in the scene as a whole, it is virtually impossible to apply the same standards of quality and still achieve the demographic outcome sought. 

Why are ethnic minorities underrepresented in punk? “Maybe it’s just not their music,” surmises Ian MacKaye, best known for his bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. The punk veteran finds “the notion that you should ‘reach out’ and try to get these people involved not very convincing.” In fact, he finds it “disrespectful.” In MacKaye’s opinion, “these kids are certainly capable of making up their own minds of whether this is something they want to get involved with or not. [It is not] a matter of access.”

Similarly, the reason men are more likely than women to assume active roles in punk may just be that they are, on average, more interested in this outlet. Whatever the reason, it is a fallacy to assume, a priori, that unequal representation implies unequal access. This is evident from the fact that, despite decades of “affirmative action” in the punk scene, female and minority participation has not significantly increased. 

In the summer of 2019, I presented my book Punk Matters: Interviews with Punk Artists and Activists at a punk festival in the Czech Republic. The motto of the festival was “Social, racial, gender justice now!” At the end of my talk, a predictable question was raised: Why were my interviewees overwhelmingly male? In other words, why had I not gone out of my way to include more female voices? My answer was, simply, that I was not all that interested in gender identity politics.

The following day, I was approached by several people telling me that I had screwed up: I had failed—no, refused—to address punk’s glaring “gender injustice.” I argued that I was not obliged to do so. Freedom of speech, after all, includes the right not to speak. In their eyes, however, my not addressing one of their central concerns made me part of the problem. 

Gender is a minefield which punk has tried to navigate since the beginning. Gender ideology has not been helpful. In fact, it has further complicated the situation. Gender ideology insists that everything be looked at through the lens of gender, while, at the same time, denying that gender is based in objective reality. 

Recently, while on tour with my band, I noticed that several venues had replaced their male and female bathrooms with gender-neutral ones, based on the view that gender—in particular, the gender binary—is a social construct designed to oppress women and sexual minorities. I seriously doubt, however, that this trend is in the interest of women. Sexual harassment, after all, has been known to occur in even the most progressive punk communities. And this is not to mention that the underlying ideology outright denies one of the most fundamental facts about the human race: that we are a sexually dimorphic species. 

Gender non-conformity has always been part of punk’s subversive repertoire. So, it makes sense—on some level, at least—that gender ideology would resonate in the community. Quite the same can be said with regard to intersectional victimology: There has always been a tendency in punk to fetishize marginality. Punk identity, however, transcends the group identity categories on which the intersectional hierarchy of oppression is based and is, in this sense, inherently antithetical to identity politics. 

Do It Yourself

According to Greg Graffin, punk began as a “musical and philosophical statement of independence.” This independent spirit has manifested itself structurally as well. A global underground network based on do-it-yourself principles and fueled by idealism has made it possible for punk bands largely to bypass the corporate music industry. This approach, known simply as DIY, has a number of advantages, as Good Clean Fun put it in their 2006 song “What Corporate Rock Can’t Say”

“When you’re DIY, you don’t have to apologize 
You can cut the ties
When you’re DIY, there’s no need for compromise 
You can be yourself

Hey, they can’t take it away
Punk will scream what corporate rock can’t say”

Ian MacKaye, known for his commitment to the DIY ethos, gives the following account of the 1980’s DIY underground: “[W]e didn’t ask, we didn’t get permission, we didn’t get licenses, we didn’t get copyrights, we didn’t get trademarks, we didn’t fill out any forms, we didn’t get lawyers…We just rented rooms and put on shows, and we never formalized anything with the government whatsoever.” 

While this account suggests a libertarian attitude, it should be noted that DIY punk is steeped in anti-capitalist thinking. In my interview with MacKaye (see Punk Matters), he defined punk as “a free space…a place where new ideas can be presented without bowing to—or being pushed along by—profit motives,” implying that the free exchange of ideas requires the absence of such motives. To again quote Good Clean Fun: 

“When money’s involved morals are pliable
You can’t be punk and commercially viable
No message survives once it becomes buyable”

The DIY punk scene thus operates on a largely not-for-profit basis. There are even those who claim that this model, if applied throughout society, could replace the capitalist market system. What they overlook, however, is that, for society to function, it must be able to accommodate widely disparate interests on a scale vastly greater and infinitely more complex than the underground punk scene. 

The best solution—thus far discovered—to meet this challenge is relatively free, competitive market, which uses the language of price to communicate and coordinate supply and demand. Since it is necessary to meet a significant demand in order to turn a profit, the profit motive provides a powerful incentive to serve the needs and wants of vast numbers of people, which benefits society as a whole. The 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith referred to this phenomenon as “the invisible hand”: the unintended social benefits of an individual’s self-interested actions. (For a more detailed analysis, see my articles on capitalism and Marxism.)

There are, of course, things of immense value that remain exempt from the laws of the capitalist marketplace. Most people agree, for instance, that friendship, love, and community are among those things. Nature, too, is increasingly regarded as a value in-and-of-itself. DIY punk has added music to this list. The notion that commercialism cheapens artistic expression is an article of faith in the community. Artists who venture outside the confines of DIY—by “selling out”—tend to incur the wrath of their punker-than-thou peers. 

Ideology aside, what is remarkable about the DIY punk scene is its entrepreneurial spirit, which combines self-reliance, perseverance, and resourcefulness. Being the backbone of punk communities around the globe, DIY has been a source of meaning, connection, and empowerment for generations of punks. Underlying it is a profound sense of defiance and solidarity, one much needed in today’s climate of indoctrination and intimidation.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies.

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