Columns

MRR #436 • September 2019

No More Bad Future

I saw Bikini Kill play at Brixton Academy last week. The former music hall has a sloping floor, I had the distinct impression of nearly falling but not quite, tripped up by strangely apt gradients. I was too young to be an OG riot grrrl and way too into the Cro-Mags to ever find my way into its many reincarnations, so I can’t claim to have been as excited to see the reformed BKs as those for whom it meant the world, but it was invigorating. The novelty of seeing friends lit up against cavernous black sails was heart-warming.

Child’s Pose opened and they were well-practiced and poised, somehow their clatter-natter worked perfect on the huge stage. I always want pop blasted but they were contractually muted. I learnt all huge venues do this slow increase of volume, so as you creep up the bill, someone behind the desk cranks up the fader. Ridiculous. Maybe this is why I like radically quiet sounds like Young Marble Giants so much, how they transcend the requisite of volume as status. Sop’s yell sits like a low throat murmur between chords, playing with volume too, composed yet always contorted.

A two-hour set would be a real test of both concept and contract for any band, let alone this group so predicated on impact, the fast burn, the fury-as-weapon. Yet somehow Bikini Kill approached this gargantuan room and made it feel small, making accidental theatre out of their own unrehearsed banter and fallibility They came over like a sort of exquisite corpse variety act, dropping in anecdotes and chatting with us like excited but slightly scattered pals. There were a bunch of half charming half confusing monologues including garbled nods to the progress (or at least current norms) of gender politics since they last played London, some of which landed in my chest, some of which fluttered to the floor, namely “turning the woman sign sideways because times are changing.”

There were no neat one-liners from the band who once birthed some of feminist punks’ most enduring ones, perhaps intentionally. Our times do not require any further sloganeering! It looked like cool grown women chipping into something bigger, kicking back at pedestals they didn’t ask for. Women well-acquainted with thirst, just a shame the pints in here cost like six quid.

The alienating experience of crowds is almost a cliché to bring in, but I was left with the feeling that a punk gig’s best aspects just don’t scale well, that our mass is best left imagined. The fizzing in the air at this show is a testament to the fact that punk’s best ideas do, otherwise why would five thousand people feel so lifted watching a group made in basements long (mostly) before their time?

Herstories and theystories let us transmute linear time. Maybe it’s the punk part of punk that is a bad idea? Something shifted for me during Tobi’s songs. Through sheer force, I still felt the same chest-rending energy transfer as I still do watching every group where an enraged gal just lets her throat open and tears the roof off the room. When she shouted out “everyone from DIY Space for London” this escalated to looking at the ceiling and crying a bit because I am not immune to the power of having my work recognized.

Later, a song got undone by a technical glitch and instead of ignoring, smoothing it out, or otherwise frowning, Tobi calmly launched into a ten-directions-at-once band practice soapbox-style chat. There is a wild level of cool-girl confidence inherent in addressing five thousand people this way, even if in practice it was maybe only darkness. She spoke about Brechtian imperfections, stating how it’s totally okay that she “can’t really play the bass” and (crucially, cuz no one needs a humble genius) how she knows she is really, really, good at drums.

I’d have doubted that low-key sharing in the radical possibilities of making mistakes (and acknowledging your own skill) could translate to a room this large and dark, but they did it. All Cool Girls Break Down the Fourth Wall Now. Right at the end, for a nearly imperceptible moment, Kathleen fluffed the lyrics to Rebel Girl, carried away from the songs of the past to the energy of the now. Call it trite ‘n’ cheesy, but this felt like a full circle, squared. No, a hundred young teens will not form their own bands after this evening in the mobile network-branded palace, but only cuz those bands have already started through other more twenty nineteen impetuses. Everything can be fuel.

*

There was a healthy sort of fake secrecy for writing for Maximum in print and this is all a bit too bloody immediate by comparison. The slow unraveling of side-eyes and shit talk that is my stock in trade is, it’s entirely fair to say, not what the internet needs any more of! But here I am, far too close to the eyes and fickle minds of the ten thousand or so networked individuals claiming to be part of some type of imagined global “punk community” that has an entirely different scope, shape, and scale depending on where you are and who you ask. It was safer being fodder for your leaky bathroom floor, a dependable hate-read at best. But, hey. Let me get you comfortable and we can pretend like we’ve known each other for ten years or like we’re total strangers. Neither is true, babes, so it’s all the same to me.

*

I spent a lucid run of warm Spring days in Berlin on some strange self-reconnaissance mission, perhaps my first time in a semi-familiar city with no plan, beyond checking out an exhibition at the Gay Museum I’d been commissioned to write something about. This initiative called Objects of Desire is a sex-worker led project to preserve sex workers’ stories through archiving and exhibiting their artifacts and
narratives.

I borrowed a bike and rode around solo-slow-slow. Sticking my toes into hot grass, pleasing myself, playing with the line between invisible and invincible, romancing myself for fun. I rode the wrong way down Karl Marx Allee and no one stopped me and I laughed by myself in the rain. Trying to get right with feeling unseen in our age of hyper-visibility whilst savoring it, and feeling slightly guilty of the strange novelty of being able to move freely, no harassment, no language, no noise.

I marched through Schoneberg alongside sex workers protesting the “Prostitute’s Protection Act” that has forced STI testing and registration cards onto this already targeted and harassed community. Someone explained patiently to me why the march had chosen to avoid the well-known working street, symbolism taking second place to safety. At the event I watched a French performer piss into a tray of dry ice, letting it bloom onto my shoes as they spoke about the art of turning “the abject” into money. Piss into gold.

I bought a Petticoats single from Iffi at Static Shock who fed me the most deliciously delicate fragrant curry from a hob out the back. I remembered how I first learned about the Petticoats in Maximum via an interview Jess Scott did with Stef Petticoat. This reminded me that one of her other bands was called Fucked with Candles.

Later, I would miss my flight, lost in text messages instead of the time. I came back to the city and got back on my loanercycle, circling the monument to dead communist soldiers in Treptower park, playing chicken with the fried battery on my phone, letting the Photoautomat flash on my boobs for kicks, jangling a key in my pocket. Alive and unseen. No one is watching me, she hoped. No one is watching me, she feared.

Later that evening I wobbled off my bike under sharpening concrete right where a new jigsaw piece of spiralized Autobahn was being ever so efficiently built. I realized I’d wandered onto a closed construction site, the end of somewhere. I was lost, near dark, with 1%. Tasting hard fear and dust, I was scared for a second. I drank it in, taking the sudden onset of panic as a bittersweet reminder; perhaps I wasn’t invisible after all.

What’s Left?

If you can’t tell the difference between glorification and ridicule—does it matter?
—Spencer Sunshine

I read recently that San Francisco’s Financial District, called “Wall Street West,” is being downgraded. The district is both downsizing economically and shrinking physically. Financial services are moving online and it’s just too damned expensive for employees in downtown banking and financial companies to live in the city anymore, thanks to the booming tech industry’s gentrifying impact on San Francisco. I remember back fondly to Sunday, February 16, 2003, when a quarter of a million people protesting Junior Bush’s invasion of Iraq shut down the Financial District and briefly the Bay Bridge. Mass anti-war protests continued to disrupt “business as usual” in Wall Street West for weeks to come.

I’d forged my leftist politics and love for street action during the ’70s, but America’s steady rightward reaction and the sudden international collapse of the Soviet bloc over the next two decades depressed the hell out of me. The resurgence of Left activism with the Iraq War was quite heartening. I wanted to be in the thick of those demonstrations despite having fractured the big toe and one of the sesamoid bones in my right foot in an accident several months before.

I was hobbling around in great pain but elated to be experiencing popular street politics once again, exhilarated to be roaming the city with a small group of friends demonstrating, blockading traffic, participating in impromptu sit-ins, engaging in general vandalism and mayhem, etc. I had my black bloc gear in hand, but I was in no shape to take part in those tactics.

Then, out of the swirling chaos, an odd vision materialized. Tony marched along Market Street at the head of a one-man parade. I’d known Tony from San Diego where he’d played in hardcore punk bands and belonged to an infamous Maoist communist party. We met again when we both moved to the Bay Area. Tony was a postmodern Leftist studying at UC Berkeley and in post-hardcore bands. Now, he was dressed in a pure black Army combat uniform, shouting anti-war slogans.

Black combat boots, black trousers with black tactical belt, black jacket over black t-shirt, black patrol cap, black megaphone. “1, 2, 3, 4; We Don’t Want Your Fucking War! 5, 6, 7, 8; Organize To Smash The State!” So why the all-black getup? Was it parody or was Tony serious? Had Tony gone full anarchist and was this a militarized black bloc outfit? Was it some homage to Third World socialist revolution, paying tribute to the VietCong and the EZLN? Had Tony joined the Army or the police? Was he now a Special Forces or SWAT recruit? Had Tony perhaps gone right-wing fascist and was he aping the Falange or SS wardrobes? Or was this all camp, an elaborate, theatrical performance piece? My signals were getting crossed.

I was simultaneously intrigued and bewildered, befuddled by the semiotic mixed messages. I’m in the middle of a three-part series on Third Positionism, a type of “red/brown” politics that claims to “go beyond Left and Right.” This politics is dead serious about mixing far-left and far-right elements into a confusing new type of Fascism that, in the case of Perónism, for instance, attempted to fuse extreme nationalism with pro-working class initiatives. Third Positionism might prove as baffling as my reaction to Tony, but it’s genuine.

Let’s talk instead of deliberate obfuscation by the far-right in throwing up ambiguous slogans, symbols, memes, texts, ideas, etc., calculated to muddy any political or social discourse. In Spencer Sunshine’s unpublished piece “Industrial Nazi Camouflage,”* he discusses the evolution of the industrial music scene, noted for its fascination with the taboo and transgressive.

Warning that it’s never a good idea to play with Nazi imagery because you can’t control how such imagery is interpreted, Sunshine is intent on figuring out who in the industrial music scene was innocently flirting and who loved Nazism, who was being ironic and who was offering a sophisticated critique, who was obsessed and who was willing to commit, who believed in fascism theoretically and who was engaged in fascist activism.

He periodizes that scene into a time when individuals and bands were fascinated with but not yet committed to Nazism, to active Nazi participation between 1986 to 1996, and finally to lying profusely about those involvements back in the day and their current fascist commitments. Ultimately, Sunshine suggests that if you can’t tell whether something is genuine or a joke, or someone is being upfront or engaged in camouflage, does it really matter?

Treat it all as fascism or fascist adjacent is what I say. The otherwise insipid, reactionary, ahistorical critique of the alt-right offered by Angela Nagel in Kill All Normies asserts that the far-right uses intentional obfuscation and ironic misdirection as deliberate tactics, as ways to maintain plausible deniability and camouflage their true intentions. They want normies to be confused about their true message, unable to know when to take them seriously and when to shrug them off.

Gavin McInnes loves to distinguish between a liar and a bullshitter in his sad career, which includes a lackluster stint as a comedian. His internet “talk shows” often featured calls to violence as in “I want violence. I want punching in the face.” But when his critics lambasted him for promoting violence he invariably deflected such criticisms by demanding “Can’t you take a joke?” In one motion, McInnes and his ilk throw out threats of violence while simultaneously denying they are being threatening or violent, masking their intentions with crude humor or irony that they then claim their viewers simply don’t get. It’s the perfect ploy for the far right to seed confusion among people trying to suss them out. The antifascist Left is neither confused nor amused, however.

What then to make of some supposedly unique, if bewildering aspects of the far right in the US? Both antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine (“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right”*) and Matthew Lyons (“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment”) imply there’s an American fascist exceptionalism in the far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism.

George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party pioneered the shift from white supremacy to white nationalism, allowing American fascists to parry Leftist calls for “Black Power/Black Separatism” with “White Power/White Separatism,” encouraging white nationalists to work with black nationalists along pro-segregation/anti-miscegenation lines, and developing the strategy of a white ethnostate that portended scenarios of side-by-side racialist nationalism.

Drawing inspiration from American history, two ultra-patriotic movements arose opposed to the power of the federal government; the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1960s (from posse comitatus common law traditions) and the Militia Movement of the 1990s (from the colonial/Revolutionary War institution of the independent local militia). Both took the States’ Rights Movement further right. Deeply distrustful of government beyond the county level, Posse Comitatus proposed the county sheriff as the highest lawful authority whereas the Militia Movement insisted that any armed citizenry organized into decentralized militia groups was the highest civil authority.

Given the various failures of the States’ Rights Movement, elements of these two movements within the Patriot Movement now propose extending white ethnonationalism down to county, municipal and individual levels, implying the possibility of an ethno-pluralism where decentralized racial nationalist enclaves can reside concurrently. Finally, there’s leaderless resistance as put forward by KKK member Louis Beam, which uses a decentralized, horizontal structure of small, independent cells to resist what they consider a tyrannical Federal government.

“[T]hese ethno-pluralist views can facilitate a politics that, on the surface at least, is not in conflict with the demands of oppressed groups,” according to Spencer Sunshine, who acknowledges it’s an “ethnic or racial pluralism that is opposed to multicultural and cosmopolitan societies.” Matthew Lyons argues that “[m]any of today’s fascists actually advocate breaking up political entities into smaller units, and exercising totalizing control [authoritarianism] through small-scale institutions such as local government, church congregations, or the patriarchal family.” Before declaring the US far right a unique American “wild west” Third Positionism however, consider that the alt-right’s flirtations with decentralization might be at the very least a purely defensive reaction to the exigencies of battling the Federal government. At most, it may be an outright deception designed to confuse and obfuscate. That the American far right on every level is enamored with the Führerprinzip leadership principle—from their own charismatic cult leaders to a president who governs by executive decree and routinely violates the Constitution—makes it likely in any case that the far right’s much vaunted decentralism will be the first thing abandoned come their fascist revolution. I’ve talked about the libertarian-to-fascism/alt-right pipeline before, a process as disingenuous as the industrial music scene. For me, the far right’s appropriation of the Left’s aspirations for freedom and self-determination is the sly semiotic joke here. And thus our differences with them do matter.

* Spencer says: Both essays are available as special items for Patron who give at least $2 a month to my Patreon. However, if you’re broke (and boy have I been there), drop me a line and I’ll send you copies: www.spencersunshine.com/contact.