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What Punk Rock Has Taught Me about the Radical Left

(Lindsay Beaumont)

The question, of course, is why an underground counterculture known for its outspoken, contrarian, and anti-authoritarian attitude would toe the woke party line, disavow empiricism, and do the bidding of elite ideologues rather than admit that the emperor is naked.”

As a teenager, I discovered punk rock culture and was immediately enthralled by the raw power of the music, the outrageous fashion, and the socially conscious lyrics. It was also through punk that I was first introduced to far-left ideologies, many of which I subsequently adopted but later required years to shed. This experience has taught me a lot about the radical left. 

As a counterculture, punk defines itself in opposition to the established social order, which it seeks to disrupt. A majority of those involved regard Western capitalist society as an oppressive power structure ripe for revolution. Thus, almost anything that subverts or destabilizes the status quo is viewed favorably. Riots and vandalism, for example, tend to be seen as catalysts for transformational change. A new and better society is expected to emerge once the existing system has been laid to waste.  

This view assumes, against all historical evidence, that the potential benefits of dismantling the liberal democratic system outweigh the risks, ignoring both the ever-present danger of retrogression and the unprecedented improvements in human well-being that have been achieved under that system: We live freer, longer, and more prosperous lives than ever before. 

Despite unparalleled advances in almost every field of human endeavor—from medicine to technology to peacebuilding—punks tend to associate modernity with decline. As is often the case with self-styled progressives and revolutionaries, they downplay the progress that has been made, envisioning a world that is radically different. In fact, many take the view that social peace and prosperity drain the populace of their revolutionary potential and thus prevent “real” change. 

Steeped in rebellion, punk culture emphasizes communal sharing and non-hierarchical cooperation while also promoting autonomy and self-determination. It makes sense, therefore, that the far-left’s vision of a world in which capitalism, social hierarchies, and the state have been abolished would resonate with those involved in punk counterculture. But unlike society, punk communities consist entirely of like-minded people. Yet they rarely live up to their own values and ideals. (It certainly does not help that the majority of those involved are young, have limited life experience, and are generally not educated in the fields in which they feign expertise.)

The punk scene is riddled with ideological turf wars and intolerance. Over the years, I have seen many of the same dynamics that fuel today’s culture wars play out in microcosm. There are those who are convinced that theirs is the path to a liberated future in which all conflicts of interest have been resolved—provided that everyone agrees with them. Those who fail to comply with the rules set by punk’s self-appointed arbiters of virtue are accused of moral wrongdoing and risk being ostracized. The result has been increasing self-censorship. 

The rules, however, keep changing. Many of the ideas that dominate today’s punk discourse would have been anathema only a decade ago. For example, the notion that individuals be classified by race, divided into oppressed and oppressor groups, and treated differently based on that categorization would have rightly been condemned as racist. But many contemporary punks support this approach, believing it to be a remedy for racial disparities in society, while colorblindness, once a progressive ideal, has fallen into disrepute: The ideal of equal treatment has turned into a demand for equal outcomes.

This demand is intrinsic to far-left politics. It implies a radical redistribution of wealth and perceived power based on the view that existing social disparities are invariably the result of oppression, exploitation, or discrimination, which overlooks a whole host of other important factors. Differences in skills, attitudes, and behavior, for example, go a long way toward explaining alleged social injustices. Nor has the concept of even distribution—assumed to be the yardstick for a just society—ever existed anywhere in the world.

There is not much wealth or power to redistribute in the punk counterculture; there is, however, a strong push to equalize group outcomes in terms of representation. This is reflected in numerous, largely futile efforts to get more women and ethnic minorities involved in the underground music scene, an endeavor that increasingly takes the form of identity preferences, for instance when it comes to putting together a concert bill. Some bookers have even gone so far as to establish identity requirements: No all-white-male bands need apply. 

Such policies usually presume that, were it not for patriarchy and white supremacy, all relevant demographics would be evenly represented in the scene. But evidence for this hypothesis is lacking. In fact, as the economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell points out in his book on affirmative action, “the uneven representation that is regarded as a special deviation to be corrected is pervasive across the most disparate societies.” 

The misperception that disparities in group outcomes necessarily imply oppression, exploitation, or discrimination frequently leads to scapegoating. While the traditional far-left has tended to focus on wealthy capitalists, blaming them for poverty (which ignores that the human race began in poverty), the modern social justice movement has selected Caucasian males as the source of patriarchy and racism. This trend is also prevalent in avowedly progressive punk communities. There is, of course, nothing remotely progressive about judging people by their sex or the color of their skin. 

Nor should an individual’s freedom of expression be contingent on such characteristics. Until relatively recently, this principle was almost universally accepted in the punk scene. But today, white male participants often are told to “shut up and listen” to “marginalized voices.” The former are presumed incapable of contributing anything of value to the conversation due to their “white male privilege.”  In fact, unless they offer atonement and pledge allyship to the alleged victims of patriarchy and white supremacy, they are likely to be accused of upholding “systems of oppression,” which are assumed to be inherent to Western civilization.

From communism to fascism, deindividuation, scapegoating, and a with-us-or-against-us attitude have always been typical of fanatic collectivist ideologies. What is striking is that punk, supposedly a movement of freethinkers and nonconformists, has also succumbed to this cult mentality. However, once an illiberal ideology takes root in a community or culture, it spreads like wildfire. Compliance is achieved through social pressure as radical activists and ideologues seize control of the narrative and set the discursive agenda, usually with the help of “useful idiots” propagandizing for a seemingly good cause without fully comprehending its ultimate direction.

Radical, revolutionary movements, by definition, cannot coexist with their opposition. Revolution, after all, implies a complete and total restructuring of society in the image of the ideology that inspires it. The concept of pluralism, so adequately defined by the journalist Andrew Sullivan as “the maximization of intellectual diversity so we maximize our chances of finding the truth,” is, thus, not viewed by the zealous as an ideal to aspire to but as an obstacle to be overcome in the name of the greater good. This largely explains the impulse to suppress dissenting voices. 

It also helps explain why radicals insist that everything is political: In order to bring society under their control, every last aspect of human life must be politicized; only then can their ideology become all-pervasive and begin fundamentally to transform society. Similarly, their notion that virtually all human differences are the product of socialization serves as a rationale for egalitarian social engineering aimed at correcting unequal outcomes. Both positions figure prominently in punk politics. The revolutionary promise of “total liberation” has blinded many to the totalitarian implications. 

A particularly insidious way to exert ideological control that has become commonplace in contemporary discourse is to gaslight the public into accepting truth claims that not only lack evidence but are patently at odds with observable reality and common sense. In today’s woke culture, one such tenet is that the binary categories of male and female are mere social conventions with no basis in biological fact. Disagreement with this bold assertion is pathologized as “transphobia.” 

Punk has not been immune to this tendency. In fact, its politics are in near-perfect alignment with woke ideology, a modern variant of far-leftism that also increasingly determines mainstream mores. The question, of course, is why an underground counterculture known for its outspoken, contrarian, and anti-authoritarian attitude would toe the woke party line, disavow empiricism, and do the bidding of elite ideologues rather than admit that the emperor is naked. Why the lack of pushback? 

One explanation is that many of the ideas associated with wokeism today—such as that modern society is defined by oppression—have, in one form or another, been circulating in the punk scene for decades, long before gaining wider acceptance. Early punk rock bands such as the Sex Pistols, whose artistic approach may be best described as iconoclastic deconstruction, launched an all-out attack on the status quo, seeking social transformation through cultural revolution. The woke seem to pursue a similar strategy—minus the free creative spirit and mischievous sense of irony that characterized the original punk movement. 

There is also an overlap between the punk scene and Antifa, the self-proclaimed anti-fascist group known for its violence. To overlook this connection is to miss a piece of the puzzle. Historically, punks would frequently clash with fascist skinheads, causing them to set up or join local Antifa chapters. In Europe in particular, punks and Antifa have been sharing the same underground infrastructure for decades. Their definition of fascism has become so broad, however, as to include almost any position that deviates from far-left ideology. 

Those whose ideas can prevail only if all competing ideas are perceived as akin to fascism must remain ever vigilant, ready to pounce on and discredit dissenters by any and every means. Thus, punk has morphed from being a free space for daring artists and independent thinkers into a space where everyone is constantly on guard not to offend the “scene police”: trigger-happy holier-than-thous who denounce others for the smallest infractions. While this mentality is not exactly new, social media and woke culture have certainly aggravated the situation.

Not all is lost, however. There are still those who live by the 1981 Dead Kennedys lyric, “Punk ain’t no religious cult/Punk means thinking for yourself.” Many are frustrated by far-left extremists attempting to monopolize and ideologically homogenize their culture. While open criticism can be difficult, objectors who value truth can at least heed Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s sentiment that we must “[n]ever knowingly support lies…and we will be amazed how swiftly and helplessly the lies will fall away, and that which is destined to be naked will be exposed as such to the world.”.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch

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