Guest Columnist #63 - Urban Punk

It’s an unacknowledged problem in punk rock today; the zines don't write about it, the bands don't sing about it, and the email lists don't mention it.  But there it is, preventing punk from making a serious contribution toward the struggle for ecology and anarchism in this country: the urban punk.  As long as the urban punk exists, punk will forever be stuck in a countercultural ghetto that screams about the ghetto and then refuses to leave because the squat is real close to the liquor store.  What all cool punks must do, then, is abolish the urban punk.
Definition of an urban punk
What is an urban punk?  A punk rocker who lives in the city, of course.  But why would anyone want to live in a city?  There's too many people, too much noise, too much ugliness, too many cops, too many laws, not enough housing and not enough work.  It's concentrated inhumanity.  How did it come to be this way?  To make a long story short, cities are the consequence and exemplar of those twin enemies of anarchism, private property and government.
     As humanity made the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, what should have been an equitable distribution of nature's bounty foundered on human greed and patriarchy.  From the time the first fence appeared, human freedom was doomed.  The practices of free-hold tenure and primogeniture created a new class of full owners with rights of inheritance and sale, while millions of people with traditional rights of access and use lost everything.  Feudalism finished the process, creating a landless population in perpetual bondage. 
     The power of the landed gentry was finally broken by the rise of the central government, which for ordinary people meant the difference between the frying pan and the fire.  Without land reform, the poor were displaced from country to town, which soon swelled to city, forming a surplus population exploited as necessary during  industrialization.  And the central government, situated in the cities, while perhaps less arbitrary than the nobility, was more pervasive in its control. 
     Cities allow the machinery of the state to function.  Cities are the home of standing armies, of police, of bureaucrats.  From here, the state tries to extend its power, to wage war on the unruliness of the countryside.  Fueled by the commerce of the urban centers, colonialism advances on the open land of native populations, bringing them to heel, and subduing nature to its economic desires.
     Cities mean the end of self-sufficiency.  The yeoman farmer is reduced to mere wage-slavery.  Labor specialization proceeds apace, as we become caught in massive webs of complexity and our alienation grows.  We become increasingly reliant on technologies that shape our behavior and limit our freedom.  No wonder outlaws from Robin Hood to Che Guevara have always sought refuge in the countryside.  Only in the illegible wilderness of the frontier are we safe from the reach of the central state.
     Cities are the hubs that keep the wheel of American capitalism turning.  By surrendering to this centralization, the urban population guarantees the continued accumulation of wealth for the capitalists and the smooth functioning of the state.  The urban population participates in its own coercion and in the perpetuation of this unjust society.  It also receives some lovely parting gifts in the form of easily available consumer goods, which keep it coming back for more punishment and blind it to the larger picture.
     The urban punk, then, is a person who a) listens to loud fast music and participates in a unique youth subculture and b) accepts the privileges and perks of being a member of the urban population.  The urban punk lives a contradictory existence.  He or she identifies with the rebellious spirit of punk rock and wants to rebel against the system.  But at the same time, he/she does not rebel against the urban structure which keeps the whole rotten system together.  Challenging urbanism means rejecting the privileges the urban punk has come to expect.
     The urban punk's embrace of urban hegemony is usually not conscious.  In fact, he/she often rails against the worst aspects of cities - - slums, pollution, consumerism, development, car culture.  But the urban punk fails to follow the logic of the critique to the ultimate conclusion: the city must be destroyed.
     This reluctance is understandable.  The urban punk has accommodated himself to the system to such an extent that he has become a parasite that needs its host, rather than the independent organism of the anarchist ideal.  It's a lot easier to occupy a vacant building than to squat a North Dakota cornfield in January.  It's easier to dumpster dive than to grow one's own food in an ecological manner.  Shoplifting is easier than home-made crafts.  It's reassuring to be a punk in a metropolitan area with hundreds of other punks, less so to be the only one in your county with a green mohawk and a Crass T-shirt.  Living as an urban punk means continued dependence on the industrial-technological capitalism which wrings excess goods from the labor of the proletariat, goods you seize in the name of a revolution that would leave you starving and naked if it ever arrived.
Proof of the urban punk
Don't believe the urban punk exists?  Then answer this simple question: where are the rural punks?  Oh, I know there are a few here and there.  There's the Old Barn Punk Fest in Wisconsin, and some similar gatherings from time to time in state and national parks.  But are there any rural punk scenes?  We've got queer punk, grrrl punk, Christian punk, straight-edge, and even Mexican punk scenes.  Why are there no rural punk scenes?  Why was Future Farmers of Anarchy practically the only all-rural hardcore punk band?  Where are the rural punks?  Is it because country folk hate the music?  Do bondage pants get in the way of chores?  Or is it because they are not made to feel welcome in the urban punk scene?
     How could country folk not feel comfortable in the punk scene, you might ask.  Well, try this simple test.  Go through your record collection and count how many songs are about rednecks, or rag on country music and people in cowboy hats.  There's oftentimes a "Deliverance" theme in punk music that treats anyone outside the city as some kind of subhuman threat to progressive culture.  To see and hear such stereotypical images in punk products is insulting to many folks.  "Redneck" is a class-based pejorative first applied to those who do manual labor (out in the sun, hence the red neck) by those who don't need to (i.e., the rich).  There's also an insistence, quite contrary to the spirit of punk, that you must look like a punk to be a punk.  But cowboy boots, hat, and kerchief are functional articles of clothing for the rural working class, and should not be disparaged by those who have the luxury to dress for personal expression rather than life's demands.  Now, can you see how punk's reliance on this elitist imagery might turn rural people off from punk?
     Another example of the urbanity of punk is it's (mis)understanding of hippies.  The best Hippies fuse a countercultural lifestyle with radical politics in much the same way the best punks do.  So why is there so much animosity between the two groups?  Hippies are criticized by punks for their flakiness, drug use, and pacifism, for a certain laid-back tendency seen as mere apathy.  This view of hippies is myopic at best.  I've seen drunk punks whose craziness exceeds that of any acidhead.  And I've seen lots of mindless punk aggression that could only benefit from an infusion of hippie peace and love. 
     Rather than slag them off, punks should be learning from hippies.  After the failure of urban insurrection in the 1960s, hippies left for the countryside in a widespread "Back to the Land" movement reminiscent of the revolutionary Russian narodniki.  Hundreds of small communes were formed, run on egalitarian principles.  People built their own homes, grew their own food, played music, learned useful crafts, explored alternative energy sources.  This is D.I.Y. on a much more meaningful scale than touring with your band.  This is the oppositional infrastructure needed to survive the destruction of the present society.  Without these hippies, there would be no environmental movement, no sustainable agriculture, no organic food.  The next time you buy your vegan food at the inner-city co-op, thank the hippies in the countryside who make your continued existence possible.

Three tasks
We know that the urban punk exists and that he must be destroyed.  The next question is how to do it.  I believe there are three primary tasks for abolishing the urban punk.
     1) Learn about rural history.  If punk is committed to destroying society so that we can be free, then we have to learn from those who have the most experience fighting state supremacy:  the peasantry.  From earliest times to the present day, peasant rebellions have offered heroic examples of resistance to the powers that be.  Slave revolts in our own country should be seen as part of this continuum.  And if anarchism is our ideal, then we must remember that Anarchism's strongest base has always been in the rural areas, whether it's England's Diggers, Andalusian Spain, Zapata's Mexico, or Makhno's Ukraine.
     Urban punks know about famous revolutionaries like Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Joe Hill, but how many of us have taken the time to learn about agrarian radicalism in this country? How many of us know that when the banks and the railroads pushed Hispanics off common land in the mid-1800s, that they fought back through social banditry?  How many know of the contributions of migrant farm workers to the IWW? 
     Punks who are serious about social revolution in America need to read up on rural people's struggles against state and capital.  For starters, there's the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.  The War of Independence had hardly ended when the new government began to mimic the tyranny of the British, with a tax on liquor.  Pennsylvanian farmers rose up in revolt, their defeat revealing government "of, by and for the people" to be merely the latest oxymoron used to justify oppression.
      There's the Farmers' Alliance, which in the 1880s demanded fair prices for crops, forged alliances with Blacks, promoted socialist economic cooperation, and had wide participation by women.  There's Mary Elizabeth Lease, who said "raise less corn and more hell!"  From there move on to the Green Corn Rebellion of 1917, which pitted Oklahoma farmers against the Selective Service system.  Another inspiring example is the Cooperative Central Exchange of  Duluth/Superior in the 1920s, which ran dozens of its own stores and schools in a productive socialist enterprise.  This history will make you taste oppression in your teeth.  But you'll also find hope, and lessons on how to struggle, lessons that apply much more directly to the American situation than Kibbutzim or even Subcommandante Marcos and the peasants of Chiapas.
     2) Learn about rural culture, specifically country music.  Too few punks have taken the time to do this.  There are several reasons why punks resist the country music scene, most of them have to do with urban punk's rejectionist aesthetics than country's actual flaws.
     Generally we hear two criticisms of country from urban punks.  First, they say country is bland and contains no message; if politics are broached at all, they are culturally conservative, of the mom-flag-apple pie variety, white, sexist, and mainstream.
     This is true of what passes for today's country on your mass-market radio stations.  But what passes for punk is oftentimes an equally shallow version of the real thing we know and love, selling vague apolitical rebellion alongside every other commodity in the marketplace, neither threatening nor serious, punctuated by the wailing guitars and macho posturing formerly reserved for Van Halen aficionados.  Let us be clear - there is an authentic country behind what the media presents.
     Country is rural working-class music, with one foot in folk and one foot in the blues.  Country emerged in the early part of the century as a commercial expression of this "people's music."  Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, is a good example of the type.  He sang about love, about home, about working hard, and about run-ins with the law.  He played the blues and toured with some of the finest early blues musicians.  This emphasis on the basics of life, from a working-class perspective, are apparent in all country artists since, whether it's Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, or Willie Nelson.  While not outright revolutionary, they tend to be informed by a basic populism that the urban punk blithely ignores in his derision.  They are for the underdog, pro-working class, pro-social outlaw, pro-union.  Johnny Cash, for instance, has sung about drug use ("Cocaine Blues"), Native American pride ("Ballad of Ira Hayes"), and has done albums and tours in sympathy with that most oppressed of Americans, the prisoner ("Folsom Prison," "San Quentin")
     And at least country is willing to honestly examine relationships between men and women - - something punk absolutely refuses to do.  Tons of country songs touch on relations between men and women: sex, infidelity, equality, infidelity, responsibility, infidelity, love, infidelity, commitment, lack of commitment, etc.  (And by the way, for every "Stand By Your Man," there's a half-dozen male songwriters lamenting and pleading for love and faithfulness.  Indeed, a survey of male country music might lead you to believe it's the women who run things out there in the sticks.)  Despite the overwhelming sentimentality of some of these songs, it's still clear that punk has as much to learn from country about gender relations and sexuality as it does to teach.  Swedish hardcore ain't romantic, George Jones is.
     The second criticism of country I often hear from urban punks is that it's too commercial.  Now, there is definitely truth to this, but there's also cause for hope.  There is a burgeoning alternative-country scene which has emerged in opposition to the slick sounds of the Nashville record-moguls.  Alternative country is the sound at the center of rural punk culture.  It combines punk-rock energy and the DIY ethic with folk's progressive consciousness and country's down-home flavor.  It has its own zines, its own labels, its own network, just like urban punk does.
     Although the roots can be traced back to the early 1970s hippie-influenced country-rock of Gram Parsons, Neil Young, and the Grateful Dead, modern alternative country truly burst on the scene with Uncle Tupelo's "No Depression," a 13-song blast of twanging working-class rage.  It's title track resurrected the Carter Family's homage to the Dustbowl of the 30s, its last tune sang the praises of social bandit John Hardy.  Later albums had songs against nuclear power, against capitalism, and calls for union organizing.
     Other alt-country bands with social themes include the Bottle Rockets, who have songs against the Confederate Flag and right-wing talk radio, and Slobberbone, with its cautionary tale about homophobia ("Billy Prichard").  Blue Mountain sings a sentiment all punks can identify with: "shopping malls and prison walls all look the same to me", and Billy Bragg joined up with Wilco to put out a whole album last year of righteous Woody Guthrie songs.  Perhaps the best example is the Waco Brothers, led by Mekon Jon Langford.  Their explicitly revolutionary "insurgent country" on the Bloodshot label is made for the mosh pit and should thrill the hearts of political punks everywhere.
     On the more traditional side, country-folk singer Nanci Griffith sings about racism, the farm crisis, immigration laws, and other social issues.  Long-time outlaw Willie Nelson organizes the Farm Aid benefit each year to help the family farmers being driven out of business by factory farms and industrial agriculture.  His emphasis on organic food and minority farming stands as a shining example of rural musical activism.  And let's not forget Steve Earle, who has done songs against the death penalty ("Ellis Unit One"), the drug war ("Copperhead Road"), and even managed to connect with anarchism on "Christmas in Washington," his recent call to arms: "So come back Emma Goldman/Rise up old Joe Hill/The barricades are going up/They cannot break our will/Come back to us Malcolm X/And Martin Luther King/We're marching into Selma as the bells of freedom ring."  Even Johnny Cash has gotten into the act, taking out a full-page ad in the leading industry magazine, giving Nashville the middle finger for failing to support real country.
     We must learn from this, build on this, take advantage of this rather than turning away from this.  Our task is to make country as punk as possible.  We have to transform punk from an urban thing to a rural thing.  But before we can do that, we have to learn to respect rural culture.
     3) Make the struggle against the city central to punk's political activism.  As the Unabomber has so clearly explained, real human freedom is incompatible with the industrial complexity and productive efficiency of modern society.  This snare of technological control finds its fullest expression in the city, a vast cancer on the landscape organized around the needs of the economic and political hierarchy and the rape of the environment.  We must be clear-headed about that which supports real liberation, and that which only supports the urban punk ghetto.  Things like Critical Mass are only useful if you assume that cities are useful.  When you're 50 miles from the nearest town, believe me, you're going to want a pick-up truck.  Subhumans sang "The city won't stop till attitudes change."  And that's true.  The city won't stop until we move far away and refuse to have any more to do with it.
     Anarcho-syndicalists have long supported the idea of "One Big Union," of factories run by and for the worker.  But industrialized urban areas necessarily require regimentation for efficient production and distribution.  We are controlled by technology as much as we control it, whether the tools are in our hands or our bosses'.  The syndicalists cannot see that the single major force pushing society toward the brink are the very machines they hope to run, housed in the very cities they hope to live.  This failure to see the city as an enemy of freedom has blinded the American left for at least a hundred years after the Civil War.  Will it blind the punks, too?

The Choice
     The punk scene needs to make a choice.  It can go on as before, nurturing and coddling the urban punk.  If it does, the scene will remain safe and put out lots of kick ass music, but it will continue to be a subcultural ghetto that the bosses of this society only snicker at.  Or punks can throw down with rural people against oppression and for justice, and fight as if their struggles were the punks' struggles as well.  Because after all, they are.  
     We don't need another zine, another record label, another band, another political organization.  We need countercultural structures capable of supplying the necessities of life.  We don't need more punk consumer goods which can only be purchased by wages earned working at straight jobs.  We need punk cooperatives producing items of real value, not fashion accessories.  Outside the cities, we need punks with life skills and a work ethic.  We need punks who can grow food.  We need punks who can brew beer.  We need punks who can build houses.  We need punks who can use firearms.  We need punks who can build solar cells and windmills and wood stoves.  We need punks who can dig wells.  We need punk farmers, punk doctors, punk engineers, punk home-schoolers.  We need to escape from the prying eyes of government, from the tentacles of capitalism.  We need land and liberty.  In the words of Neil Young, the godfather of country punk: "Are you ready for the country?  Because it's time to go!"
—Jon George/ Impulse/ 1457 Wildcat Court #305/ River Falls WI 54022
Originally printed as Impluse #11