restricted access DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of U.S. Punk Collectives
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DIY Democracy:
The Direct Action Politics of U.S. Punk Collectives

Somewhere between the distanced slogans and abstract calls to arms, we . . . discovered through Gilman a way to give our politics some application in our actual lives.

Mike K., 924 Gilman Street

One of the ideas behind ABC is breaking down the barriers between bands and people and making everyone equal. There is no Us and Them.

Chris Boarts-Larson, ABC No Rio

Kurt Cobain once told an interviewer, “punk rock should mean freedom.”1 The Nirvana singer was arguing that punk, as an idea, had the potential to transcend the boundaries of any particular sound or style, allowing musicians an enormous degree of artistic autonomy. But while punk music has often served as a platform for creative expression and symbolic protest, its libratory potential stems from a more fundamental source. Punk, at its core, is a form of direct action. Instead of petitioning the powerful for inclusion, the punk movement has built its own elaborate network of counter-institutions, including music venues, media, record labels, and distributors. These structures have operated most notably as cultural and economic alternatives to the corporate entertainment industry, and, as such, they should also be understood as sites of resistance to the privatizing [End Page 23] agenda of neo-liberalism. For although certain elements of punk have occasionally proven marketable on a large scale, the movement itself has been an intense thirty-year struggle to maintain autonomous cultural spaces.2

When punk emerged in the mid-1970s, it quickly became a subject of interest to activists and scholars who saw in it the potential seeds of a new social movement. While the former, including both the neo-fascist National Front and the Socialist Workers Party, sought inroads for youth recruitment, the latter struggled to explain what, exactly, they thought punk was. Punk-related studies have varied widely in both method and focus, but the bulk of this research has sought to clarify punk’s political nature. The most popular approaches have framed punk in the language of either a musical genre or a youth subculture. Yet despite the rationale for each, and the evidence of both, neither categorization places punk in an appropriate historical context or relates its radical ethos to the broader political Left.3

The music-centered approach to studying punk revolves around the careers of prominent bands and individuals. But while many influential musicians have helped shape punk’s trajectory, a top-down perspective distorts punk’s essentially horizontal structure by presenting iconic figures as movement spokespersons. Advocates of this approach assume, incorrectly, that performer/audience relationships within punk parallel the producer/consumer relationships of the corporate music industry. Widespread discussion about the co-optation of the movement has not only inflated the music industry’s power but also greatly exaggerated the significance of individual bands (and hairstyles!). Punk’s representation in popular culture—most notably in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s—raises a number of interesting questions about the relationships between consumerism, identity, and resistance, but they are questions about the dynamics of popular culture, not the punk movement. The movement itself has offered no established leadership to be co-opted, either by big business or by political parties. Attempts by the entertainment industry to market punk as a commodity have transposed punk practices with style in the public view, but the effects on the movement itself have been negligible.4

Cultural analyses of punk, beginning as early as the mid-1970s with theorists such as Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige, have generally presented a more or less grassroots perspective of the movement, for example by dissecting punk’s visual representations or surveying participants. However, these studies frequently present the false premise that punk rock politics are merely symbolic, confining punk agency to only the most superficial forms of political expression. Assuming that punk resistance is limited to what James C. Scott calls the “weapons of the weak,” they emphasize topics of minor significance (i.e., Mohawks and safety pins), while neglecting the movement’s overtly political components. Furthermore, given punk’s longevity and organizational accomplishments, comparisons between punks, mods, and teddy boys...


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