Rebels without a cause

Posted on December 6, 2010 by

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Listening to a BBC podcast about Malcolm McLaren recently made me think about the connection between punk and Thatcherism. You may be thinking it’s absurd to tie these two seemingly disparate movements together, but underneath their obvious aesthetic differences and their claim to lie on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they channeled many similar currents of thought popular at the time. Punk was famously a nihilistic fuck you to the British establishment; the anguished cry of a desperate generation with ‘no future’ and, therefore, no need for a past. In both its music and fashion, punk celebrated a radical DIY aesthetic and a no-nonsense brand of individualism. Gone was the wooly sharing and caring of the hippy movement, the love-ins, the folksy protest songs and an idealistic, if somewhat naive, universalism. Punk was about survival, noise and chaos. Even musical talent was sacrificed as a middle-class affectation, an unnecessary barrier to self-advancement through hype and sheer gusto. McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, did not believe they had any musical talent, but rather picked the band members because they projected the zeitgeist, embodying what the kids thought protest ought to look like.

Thatcherism too, at least in its most radical form, saw itself as a rupture with anything that had come before it. 1979 was to be a Year Zero in British public life, when the ‘wets’ of One-Nation Toryism would be swept aside, giving way to the can-dooers, the self-empowered and the grittily determined. Although Thatcher fought vicious battles with the working classes, it was always the soul of that demographic that was at stake. Thatcher saw herself as one of them, but the good kind, with the steely determination that her ideological bent believed necessary to get ahead. Diametrically opposed to a Labour working class ethos based on solidarity and gradual class improvement, Thatcherism posited an individualist get-rich-quick class consciousness. People were encouraged to claw their way up the ladder and then kick out the rungs beneath them. The self-consciousness of this endeavour created a Janus-like hatred; hatred for those born into comfort and contempt for those who didn’t sufficiently claw. Like punk, Thatcher was no friend of the establishment, seeing decorum and tradition as obstacles to prosperity and unfettered capitalistic achievement. Her relationship with the Queen was famously frosty and one can only imagine that when she sang ‘God Save the Queen’ she felt as ironically as the Sex Pistols.

Ultimately, what both movements shared in common is their shared legacy to us today. Punk and Thatcherism extolled the virtues of a childish rebellion based on self-delusion and impatience. They preached the importance of image, hype and self- aggrandisement to a fearful, angry and adolescent nation. Thatcher was impatient to achieve her revolution, even when what stood in her way was reality or basic facts. Punk, in its own way, sought rebellion for its own sake, music in order to shout. As an angry cry, punk was a legitimate expression of its generation, yet it failed to formulate words to articulate its ideas, and eventually drowned in its own contradictions. Its longest lasting legacy, appropriately enough in a Thatcherite nation, is a host of celebrities, movers and shakers, who profit handsomely packaging and selling the aesthetics of revolution. Think Dame Vivienne Westwood, doyenne of punk chic, happy to accept royal honours and sit on the throne of ‘alternative’ fashion. Thatcher’s revolution too, was finally absorbed into the establishment, no longer a cry of reform, but a cry of justification for the rich to get even richer as the state she so despised prostitutes itself to ever-larger, ever-more state dependent corporations.

Punk and Thatcherism were ultimately amoral movements and their legacy to us has been an amoral attitude to our politics and business. The individual rules supreme if he can flash in a pan or storm in a teacup; anything that sells. It doesn’t matter if the government is corrupt, the music industry is bombastic, or wealthy individuals abuse their power, because society doesn’t exist and there is no future.

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Posted in: Politics