Bind Me, Tie Me, Chain Me to the Wall

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Punk rock certainly deserves critical appraisal. But whether it’s the peculiar criticism on display here or the more common criticisms that we encounter, about its failures at inclusiveness or even its failure to overthrow capitalism, for example, I find that these criticisms revolve much more around the subjective experiences of those mounting them than about punk rock as it has existed. These subjective experiences are valid and important but they should not be mistaken for generalizable features of history. Punk is too heterogeneous and wide-ranging for such narrow but general critiques to succeed. With the availability of archives today, from zine and mp3 blogs to encyclopedic reference works, there is no excuse for failing to confront punk’s history with more care and less caprice than its critics and historians have done in the past, even as it was developing, as Zerzan did here.

Some last quirks of history: Ordway was affiliated with the Dils, one of the most iridescent examples of the mixture of radical left politics and three-chord punk rock the US scene offered. He wrote the classic song “Class War.” (In September 1978, the Dils would play another benefit for striking workers, this time, from the railroad union.) Through his columns in Search & Destroy and his zine NO News, he was able to describe and analyze the politics of punk, and punk’s relationship to broader political trends, as they were unfolding. Today, Ordway, whose real name is Stephen Schwartz, is a Muslim-convert neoconservative pundit. Yeah. Ouch. Even more odd is that Schwartz’s father was a friend of the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who featured in a book Schwartz penned about, and against, the left in California (available used on Amazon for 2¢), and Ken Knabb, of Contradiction, is today one of the writers most associated with documenting Rexroth’s work. Schwartz is one of many Trotskyists who became a neocon in recent years. But he is probably the only one who was a punk rocker and wrote lyrics to a classic punk song. In a way, he is still a Trotskyist, finding Stalinism everywhere.

I have contemplated whether his current politics invalidate what I perceive to be the accuracy of what he wrote in the 1970s, and I can say only that I must take what I see at face value. I cannot perceive any inkling of what was to come decades later in his articles on punk rock. I do not know what instigated his move to the right—Jeff Bale, Maximum Rocknroll cofounder and another active Bay Area punk rocker who extolled this very benefit gig in a newspaper op-ed, also ended up as a neocon—but Schwartz’s Trotskyist phase followed his punk phase. It was obviously a good primer for the petty idiocy that characterizes neocon (and mainstream) discourse today. Although Zerzan has stayed true to his anarchist principles, from the long view we are now afforded, it becomes clear that his holier-than-thou critique of the punks, who in the end raised over $3000 for the striking miners (make of that what you will), echoes the highly masculinist and macho factional left arguments of the twentieth century. His present anti-civilization line is another variation of the "who is the most radical" one-upmanship of the flyer. To be clear, capitalism is the problem—that is the foundation of my politics—but oppression on the axis of gender—another concern of my politics—predates capitalism; primitivist anarchism, from my point of view, fails to historicize this distinction and naturalizes most of the oppressions of capitalism as precapitalist.

If the right, as capital’s self-proclaimed adjunct, is today united in its determination to maintain a system bloated on self-satisfaction to the point that it cannot but fiddle as the edifice crumbles around it, we can note with some pride that the right’s internal unity is based not on equanimity and solidarity, as the San Fran punks’ unity with striking miners was. Rather it is premised on exclusion, on expulsion of those whose views differ. For many, that ethos entails basic white supremacist heteronormativity; for some, like Schwartz, it entails constructing catch-all phrases like “neofascist” to describe those with whom they disagree. Today, I do not believe the left need tolerate bigots no matter what their guise, but I am certain that political radicalization is happening regardless because conditions are so intolerable around the world. Whether broadly anticapitalist radicals, including today’s punk rockers, can be humble enough to realize that the answer is often dictated by how the question is asked remains to be seen. I can only hope that the allure of Zerzan’s moralistic method of asking the question, on display in this flyer, will wither.


January 19, 2010