The Punk Connection

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So how does punk rock fit in with all of this? By the late 1970s, Zerzan had left union organizing. He was affiliated with Fredy Perlman, one of the key anarchists of Detroit, who was partially responsible for introducing English-speaking audiences to Situationist ideas; Perlman was one of the translators of the initial English translation of Debord’s Society of  the Spectacle.* But Zerzan took his history as a union organizer to heart in critical research on the history of unionism, and work, or alienated labor, more generally. At the same time, as I hinted above, the so-called “revolt against work” of the 1970s was spreading, with absenteeism and sabotage increasing around the globe. I argue that it is in this context that the emergence of punk must be understood. Due in part to conflation of the class of 76 with the class of 79, as well as the failure to distinguish—while noting the continuities—between the decline of the Labor Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the US from the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism, respectively, punk’s historiography has stumbled when situating punk in the context of the global transformations of the 1970s. Of course the caveat that punks did not articulate a monolithic position is necessary, but what energized many first-wave punks in Italy, France, the US, and the UK was not so much the rampant unemployment among young people that characterized the late 1970s and early 1980s (ie, after the initial wave[s]) as the realization that even if one got a job, it was going to suck.

Technological and organizational transformations that made work so unappealing were part of the tendency of deskilling in the workplace that punk answered in the streets. What is punk if not a de-monopolization of the skills ideologized as necessary to create art, to rock? The quirk of history was that many punks, in their pre-punk lives, already possessed musical skills. The process of becoming punk was thus a process of unlearning, of shedding, and of redeploying. Therefore, UK DIY was able to explode because of the abundance of instruments other than guitars, basses, and drums that now filled junk shops, whereas so many punk riffs and song structures were constructed negatively, through the stripping away of the ornaments that characterized the music of the preceding decade. Punk was therefore an affirmative deskilling, willingly chosen, as a revolt against what 60s radicals intuited as an increasingly untenable plenitude marked by banality (in Lefebvre’s felicitous phrase, the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption). It was the moment when plenitude receded—the economic collapse of the 1970s—that enabled this spark, carried through from the 60s, to become the punk conflagration.

And, as you may have guessed, I believe that punk rock was a concrete example of autogestion. It may not have had the ambition of autogestion in Lefebvre’s conceptualization, but punk must be defined provisionally as, on the one hand, a path-dependent set of musical or sonic figures and approaches that tendentially coalesce into a flexible and porous constellation relationally constituted against given historical musical and sonic figures and approaches, and, on the other hand, a process of and apparatus for the self-managed production and dissemination of this music.** If punk thought of the music industry as analogous to the state in Lefebvre’s conceptualization (ie, with self-management radically contesting the existing order, including the power of the industry), the stakes of its attempt at autogestion become more clear. It may be true that the music industry outlived punk’s attack on it, but it was far from unscathed, just as unions and official left parties did not emerge from 1968 unscathed.

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* I should note that Zerzan would likely have learned a bit about autogestion from Perlman (ie, not the SI or Lefebvre directly), who wrote a definitive English-language account of the tendencies toward autogestion manifest in May 68, Worker-Student Action Committees: France, May '68. Perlman and a comrade experienced factory takeovers in France and were among the first to publish accounts of them in English, which were soon collected, along with a critique of the experience, in that book. Thus, Perlman's account, and its potential influence on Zerzan, was based on empirical evidence, whereas the Lefebvre quotations above on autogestion were theoretical in orientation. I feel that Perlman's keen narration and unsentimental critique of the failures of the May revolution makes it even more baffling that Zerzan would be so unwilling to take his attack on the punk-miner alliance down that path.

** Yeah, I just defined punk in the least punk terms possible. If you don’t like it, fuck off. I'll save unpacking what this definition means for another day.