The Culture of Resistance
Fancy a bite to eat? We won’t have a burger, there’s a McLibel demo outside the shop. We certainly won’t buy veal–RIP Jill Phipps. Can’t really go for a spin, since we’re boycotting petrol stations and motorway extensions. People are living in trees at the end of the road. Head for a train, past the patchwork of travellers’ buses and trucks parked up on waste ground by the station. Give them a wave. Have a laugh at the slogans on the defaced billboards. Catch sight of a TV shop showing the news of the Home Secretary’s country house invaded by the homeless. Britain’s changing. Great, isn’t it?
The agents of this change are those typically categorized as creatures of the social wildlife: travellers, ravers, squatters, crusties, hunt saboteurs, animal liberationists; or, more overtly pejoratively, rioters, trespassers, or just plain good-for-nothing layabouts.
These people form the subject of this book. In the 1990s in Britain there are an increasing number and variety of cultures of resistance, living what one road protestor calls ‘the DIY lifestyle’. New agendas are being set, often outside the traditional framework of British constitutional politics, and employing strategies of direct action old and new. Can we say that these new groups constitute a politics of the disenfranchised, wherein the youth and marginals left out of Thatcher’s revolution find their voices and use them to express their resentment and opposition? To an extent this is so, though I’m wary of negating a sense of agency on the part of activists and others involved. Also, I’m more concerned with tracing the links and sometimes tensions between present cultures of resistance and those of the recent past; the direct action politics of eco-radicalism, animal rights, anti-Criminal Justice Act and so on have not just sprung from nowhere to fill some post-Thatcherite vacuum. Interestingly, the scenario of the significant politics of the time taking place outside the standard political arena was itself being talked about over 25 years ago, as Theodore Roszak illustrates in his sixties classic The Making of a Counter Culture. Published in 1968, Roszak describes the political stalemate in Britain in perhaps surprisingly familiar terms, with the parliamentary parties left behind, reacting to events after the event: ‘the Labour Party, angling always for the now decisive middle-class vote, is little more than Tweedledum to the Tories’ Tweedledee’.
So, in the 1990s we see the largely single-issue, direct action phenomenon of the New protest, or for those less materialist, New Age politics. The dangers of single-issue political action are that it diverts from class analysis, from economic challenge, or simply from having any wider perspective. These same dangers have been seen as its strength, too: it does indeed operate outside the traditional framework of left and right. New spaces have been opening up, which isn’t always a comfortable situation, even for other political activists: what might be embraced with exhilaration is distanced with suspicion. (As Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques admit in their book on the New Times, ‘[t]he Left does not much like venturing into uncharted territory. It is filled with suspicion’.) On the other hand, single-issue politics at their best move beyond their central focus to include larger concerns anyway. Consider the single-issue politics of Hunt Saboteurs: both an extreme and simplistic animal rights direct action coalition, and a brilliantly-chosen territory on which to fight, one that aims at fundamental aspects of Britishness–land ownership, class privilege, the display of wealth, even (especially) the very image of rural England itself (all those pubs called the Horse and Hounds, all those biscuit tin lids). Where did the single-issue explosion come from? Whether the environment, road protest more specifically, the range of animal rights protests, the anti-Criminal Justice Act coalition–what are there origins? Where do the radical youth cultures of hippy, punk, rave fit in? (Is rave radical?)
Any analysis of recent youth movements and cultures that seek to challenge majority culture has the touchstone of the 1960s. There are many 1960s, but the version I particularly have in mind is the one of student demonstrations, anti-Vietnam protest, the Women’s Movement, May 1968 in Paris, Woodstock and the later Isle of Wight, International Times and Oz. That decade is important not only from the perspective of the mid-1990s, a time when the 1960s is constantly being referred to and even rewritten (though often enough minus the politics), but for the periods in between too, when punk happened in the 1970s, when the Peace Convoy roamed the land in the 1980s. In fact, one of my arguments is to take issue with what might be an accepted view of the sixties–whether by today’s Moral Majority (Minority) or by veterans or students of the time–as the failed generation, as the west’s social experiment or flirtation with the utopian possibility of radical youth. This book sees the sixties as a beginning not an end. Of course, positing the sixties as a beginning has its own limitations: Anthony Esler’s classic and committed book from the period, Bombs Beards And Barricades, set out to show that youth revolution or counterculture is not by itself a new thing, indeed it extends far back beyond the post-World War Two period.
Practically everything our insurrectionary youth have tried–from New-Left militance to hippie-style withdrawal from society, from the campus revolt to the commune movement–has been tried before. The crucial importance of the Youth Revolution of our times lies not in its alleged uniqueness, but in that very continuity with history which the Movement itself–and most of its critics–have so vehemently denied.
Further, Esler’s book ends where this one starts. He concludes: ‘[t]he Youth Revolution is not fading away. It is, in fact, a growing force in history’. The optimism displayed here is perhaps justified by virtue of the book’s contemporaneity: like Roszak’s The Making Of A Counter Culture, Bombs, Beards And Barricades was written during or soon after the events it describes. These books are infected with the heady drug of possibility of the time (that’s what makes them so good). Retrospective analyses of the period are altogether less forgiving, not only because they are more sober but also because they are influenced by the changing perspectives on the period: in Esler’s 1971 book the counterculture ‘is not fading away’; Elizabeth Nelson’s 1989 study opens ‘[m]ore than a decade after the fading away of the counterculture’.
There is a way in which the sixties counterculture has a sad rather than nasty habit of turning its sense of failure, its bad karma, onto whatever’s come next. An article from the mid-seventies is pessimistic in its view of the result of the counterculture. Sociologists Daniel Foss and Ralph Larkin argue that ‘in its place have risen “post-movement groups” which embody various aspects of the vision of the 1960s youth movement (including the fantasy that they are dissident), but in every case have withdrawn from conflict with the larger social order’. In effect, the sixties ended with a retreat into New Age mysticism or cultism–they cite as examples of this ‘fragmentation of the youth culture’ Hare Krishna, Guru Maharaj Ji, Scientology, etc.
Whereas freaks had found meaning in maintaining a position of defiance and opposition to the ‘plastic world’, post-movement groups find meaning in escape from the complexities and incongruities of the material world (or the world of the mind) into a more transcendent simplified view of the cosmos independent of material reality.
This may well have been the case in the United States, a republic notoriously reluctant to champion its own radical traditions, but in Britain activists tended to remain active. For instance, a survey of the militant organizations of the early CND movement of the late 1950s onwards showed that ‘these activists had gone on to a variety of other single issue and / or community action campaigns rather than into “orthodox” politics’–or into cults or mystic groups.
The dominant narrative of failure of the sixties counterculture is frequently repeated in books about it. Dates in titles of books signal this: Elizabeth Nelson’s The British Counter-Culture, 1966-73, Nigel Fountain’s Underground: The London Alternative Press 1966-74, Alan Beam’s Rehearsal For The Year 2000 . . . 1966-1976. The cut-off dates alter, but there’s a general reluctance to pursue the alternative project via any actions of the next generation. These books display a shortening gap between the bemoaned ‘end’ of the counterculture and the straggly dyed green shoots of the next youth antagonism, punk rock. Fountain and Nelson are particularly guilty here: the focus of both their texts is the underground press, yet neither even mentions the explosion of fanzine culture which accompanied and contributed to the energy of the punk scene, clearly a prime example of an underground press. Not all hippy activists or writers about the scene are so myopic. In 1972, the underground publication Frendz optimistically proclaimed ‘if flower-power has gone to seed then germination must soon begin. And what King Weeds they’ll be’. In 1982, writing a paean to the life of Stonehenge Free Festival organiser Phil Russell, aka Wally Hope, hippy Penny Rimbaud of anarcho-punk band Crass wrote:
A year after Wally’s death , the Pistols released ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’, maybe they didn’t really mean it ma’am, but to us it was a battle cry. When Rotten proclaimed that there was ‘no future’, we saw it as a challenge to our creativity–we knew there was a future if we were prepared to work for it. It is our world, it is ours and it has been stolen from us. We set out to demand it back, only this time they didn’t call us ‘hippies’, they called us ‘punks’.
From the perspective of rave culture in the mid-1990s, another hippy veteran, Fraser Clark, picks up and radically extends the history of youth cultures of resistance:
Ever since they managed to blackball the Hippy to death, the correct mode of Youth (as hope and conscience of the culture) has been systematically schizophrened from its historical roots. And we’re talking about roots that go back through the punks, hippies, rebels, beats, bohemians, socialists, romantics, alchemists, the shakers and the Quakers, witches, heretics and, right back in the roots, pagans.
One of the things hippy and punk had in common–at least in terms of my construction of them–was an oppositional impulse, an idealism or rhetoric of idealism. For both, politics and culture were, or could be, or should be, the same thing. In The Assault On Culture Stewart Home points out that ‘[i]n retrospect, punk also appears as a very straightforward progression from the sixties, whereas at the time it was perceived as a break’. Senseless Acts of Beauty seeks to show in turn that, rather than being dissipated in what Jon Savage calls an ‘explosion of negatives’, there are traces and activists from late 1970s punk rock which have re-energized political activity and cultural radicalism since. What I’m doing, then, is uncovering links through actions, lifestyles and cultural production of resistance from the legacies of the hippies and punks onwards. The language of utopian desire can be seen in the ringing slogans of the culture of resistance over the years:
1960s: Be reasonable: demand the impossible
1970s: Reality’s a substitute for utopia
1980s: Fight war not wars, destroy power not people
1990s: Go and commit a senseless act of beauty.
Utopian desire doesn’t go away–it may even be stronger than ever today. Culture(s) of resistance is a term offered in both the plural and the singular. Cultures of resistance feed the culture of resistance. Put another way, subcultures feed the counterculture–the range of subcultural movements from hippy through punk through rave and others contributes to the increasingly resistant lifestyle or perspective of counterculture. It’s fair to say that counterculture is a rather unfashionable term today. While many of the styles of the hippy sixties have come round to being acceptable again, counterculture as a term and as a concept seems to have been sidestepped. Is counterculture too located in that period alone (or is it simply too overtly political for the fashion-centred nineties)? I’m arguing not: one of the aims of this book is to reclaim the power of the notion of counterculture, partly to show that the utopian project of the sixties is still with us–in fact never really went away–and partly to signal that the traces and strands of resistance the book uncovers form some sort of larger and longer-lasting achievement, a significant challenge to majority culture. While not disagreeing with the fact that, as critic Sarah Thornton notes, ‘the vast majority of British youth subcultures, past and present, do not espouse overt political projects’, I emphasize that I’m not looking at all subcultures, only at those which I’m constructing as oppositional or politically radical. The deliberately and unashamedly partial narrative of Senseless Acts of Beauty seeks precisely to privilege those moments of culture and protest which have been most overlooked in recent cultural history. This book is intended as an antidote to the marginalization–disappearance, even–of cultures of resistance by youth and others in contemporary Britain.
While Lauren Langman can write in some ‘notes on post-industrial youth’ that ‘the [1960s] counterculture is not a genuine culture, since it lacks its own historic tradition and its own economic base’, I’m arguing that the post-1960s culture of resistance is in a stronger position altogether. The historic tradition, the networks formed over the years, are one of the things I’m tracing through the book. Economic power–if it really is so important–can be seen in its negation through free festivals and the flaunted supercheap independent production and performance of the anarcho-punk scene; more straightforwardly, it’s present in the rise of green consumerism. Langman also distinguishes between counterculture and subcultures more widely.
The counterculture seeks a fundamental transvaluation of ethics, alternate life styles, and transformations of consciousness. The ‘youth culture’, as we call it, is more of an ideology, theme, or style than a clearly designated group. . . . [A]dherents of the counterculture may well be a minority of youth when we consider all the squares, greasers, surfers, hot-rodders, bike-freaks, and such. (1971, 82)
To update this last point in relation to Britain: adherents of the culture of resistance may well be in a minority when we consider all the teds, mods, rockers, skins, casuals, grunge fans, etc., etc. To what extent are subcultures and counterculture the products of generational difference? Does each generation of youth simply do its own thing differently, rejecting that of its mothers and fathers, or big sisters and brothers? There are connections, surprising ones maybe, which belie a straightforward generational reading of events over the last three decades: individual activists like Penny Rimbaud or Fraser Clark move through from one moment to another–hippy to punk, hippy to rave; the space of the free festival scene is reenergized by punk, is transformed by rave culture; the lifestyles of New Age Travellers are co-opted and politicized by peace campaigners or road protestors.
One central way in which cultures of resistance defines themselves against that of the majority is through the construction of their own zones, their own spaces. These can be distinguished in part through the subcultural elements of music, style, or favoured drugs (if any–there usually are), but space itself is vital. In an interview with Jon Savage, bassist Pete Wright of anarcho-punk band Crass describes the opening up of space in late 1970s punk in musical terms.
Wright I went to see Television play, and [Tom Verlaine] stopped halfway through a guitar phrase, which no-one had done for like ten years. He’d played exactly what he wanted, and the rest was space, and the same happened socially. Everyone was filling in bits and making sure everything was done, and then people were stopping and creating little bits of space. That’s what I think was reverberating.
Savage: That’s very interesting, because you also had dub reggae, which had lots of space–the main thing was to drop out.
Writing about the rave scene, Sarah Thornton makes a more general point: ‘underground crowds are attached to sounds’ (177)–popular music is key in the identification of the zone. (This isn’t always a positive attribute. As we’ll see, differences in musical taste can lead to violent tensions within countercultural zones.) Wally Hope, original organizer of the Stonehenge Free Festival, was a firm believer in the connection of youth, music and social change in the early seventies:
Our temple is sound, we fight our battles with music, drums like thunder, cymbals like lightning, banks of electronic equipment like nuclear missiles of sound. We have guitars instead of tommy-guns.
Of course, part-time utopias like the bohemian coffee bar scene, carnivalesque areas like the early open air jazz festivals themselves bear traces of the countercultural zones or spaces I look at. These though are prior to 1960s counterculture, of the hippy generation I take my cue from. The idea of the culture of resistance forming itself in part around the construction of a zone or space is one I develop from texts such as Hakim Bey’s The Temporary Autonomous Zone, or T.A.Z., which uses the term in the widest possible sense.
The sixties-style ‘tribal gathering’, the forest conclave of eco-saboteurs, the idyllic Beltane of the neo-pagans, anarchist conferences, gay faery circles . . . Harlem rent parties of the twenties, nightclubs, banquets, old-time libertarian picnics–we should realize that these all are already ‘liberated zones’ of a sort, or at least potential TAZs.
Bey lists some of the characteristics of the TAZ: ‘pirate economics’, living high off the surplus of social overproduction–even the popularity of colourful military uniforms–and the concept of music as revolutionary social change–and finally their shared air of impermanence, of being ready to move on, shape-shift, re-locate to other universities, mountaintops, ghettos, factories, safe houses, abandoned farms–or even other planes of reality.
Note that what might normally be ascribed as a sign of failure–impermanence–is in this anarchist philosophy celebrated as a symptom of ubiquity–of Ubi-ness, as it might have been seen at Windsor Free Festival. The downside of this seemingly perverse but typically anarchist approach is straightforward enough: endless transgression, little or no transformation. The spectacle of rebellion replaces the possibility of revolution, if you like. I’m suggesting on the other hand that we celebrate the spark of transgression, see in its spreading flash the on-going possibility, even see with its spreading flash. (The trouble with writing about things New Age is you get infected with its rhetoric.)
I think it’s as well briefly to explain the range of social and cultural material I’m dealing with here. Through their forms of social and political organization, their magazines and records, their communications, cultures of resistance are difficult to pin down. Their autonomy can be compounded by their transitoriness, and features like these may be central to their very identity: autonomy and anarcho-punk, transitoriness and New Age Travellers–they go hand in hand. Many aspects are interrelated, and on occasion I have to introduce a feature before I explore it later in depth since it touches on the material I’m currently dealing with. For instance, I discuss the Peace Convoy in the chapter on free festivals, but look at it more closely in the later chapter on New Age Travellers. I’m balancing the effort to offer a clear and largely chronological line with the desire not to construct an overarching master narrative that might smooth out contradictions, tensions, gaps. The book looks at both lifestyle and direct action politics of young and not so young people since the 1960s: 1972 is a more accurate starting date, this being the year of the first Windsor Free Festival and the first East Anglian Fair at Barsham. Lost narratives, partial utopias, the odd temporary nightmare, political confrontation, radical culture through music, style and forgotten books are all uncovered and analysed. This is the first time many of the actions and cultural projects here have been given the critical attention I know they fully deserve. It has been a joy to write–I read about and met some seriously uplifting people! If you get half the pleasure and inspiration out of reading it as I did writing it then I’ve done my job.
This is a book about counterculture, that unfashionable term from the 1960s, that died around the time of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and so on. Counterculture was when youth felt confident in its ability to challenge and change the world, at Berklee, in Paris, in Grosvenor Square, London. With new or newly-popular drugs, music, events like festivals, ways of living, people took culture as lived, practised, consumed, and saw in it the means of social transformation. Counterculture is one of those dull sixties mantras you still hear from people of a certain age round the green and new age sections of bookshops or behind the counters in wholefood stores. For myself, I got the next best thing a few years later–punk rock. (We said it was better.) Daftly, one of the ways punk defined itself was in opposition to the hippies tainted with failure and, worse, nostalgia. It died a lot quicker, around the time of Sid Vicious, or maybe Ian Curtis. Not many people talk about punk now, which may say something about its lasting significance, or may simply be depressing.
FOOTNOTE? OR IN FREE FEST CHAPTER? Discuss the term ‘hippies’, which I use through the book. Pick up Don Aitken offers an archaeology of the term hippy:
Nobody ever called themselves a hippy; the word is always attached to ‘others’ who are not members of one’s own group. You seem to have something specific in mind but don’t define it any further than ‘not punk’. There seems to me to be very little connection between the way the word was used in the pre-punk era and the way it is used now. What happened, I think, is that the first (free and commercial) festivals of the early seventies were labelled by the press as ‘hippy festivals’ because the people who had previously been labelled as ‘hippies’ were the most photogenic part of them. When hippies as a recognizable group ceased to exist (not later than 1972 or 1973 in my view) the definition changed so that a hippy was now anyone who went to such a festival. Then, a few years later, the term was applied to the most newsworthy group among them, the new Travellers, and we had ‘The Hippy Convoy’. The shift in this source of meaning, I think, is the West Country local press, which kept the word in circulation at a time when it would otherwise have died. . . . As a result the word is now a source of confusion, because most people . . . assume a closer link between the sixties hippies and the eighties new Travellers than actually existed.One result is to squeeze out the punk period altogether. Interestingly, new Travellers themselves . . . seem nw to be using the word hippy to apply to people with long hair–full circle back to the sixties. (personal letter)
Also see p. 14 of Greenlands Farm (Garrard ed. 1986). Also use Penny Rimbaud’s letter about the term: “bohemians became hippies became punks became–you name it, but the tradition of the ‘outsider’ continues as it has throughout history regardless of labels”.
Dave Hill talks of the “resistance culture” of the 1990s (1995, 21). He quotes an M11 protestor on the lack of theorising of much contemporary counterculture:
the DIY lifestyle tend[s] to diminish the influence of the written word. Inevitably, in thepractical lifestyle, living rurally, people rally have to start doing things like mending their own clothes, working out how to survive. A lot of our theory, if you like, is not written down. (1995, 22)
Whether the underground espouses an overt politics or not, it is set on being culturally radical. (Sarah Thornton, 181)
One of the things I’m looking at is something we largely take for granted: the relation between popular music and political action or protest. Homology is seen it its most clearest with Crass, but also with free festivals, that range of events which bridged the hippy / punk divide, or the temporal gap betwen them, anyway.
. On Anarchy, London: One Little Indian Records, 1994.
. Dave Hill, ‘The New Righteous’, The Observer, Life Magazine, 12 February 1995, p. 20.
. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition, London 1970, p. 3.
. Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, eds., New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in The 1990s, London 1989, p. 14.
. Athony Esler, Bombs, Beards and Barricades: 150 Years of Youth in Revolt, New York 1971, pp. 7-8.
. Esler, p. 303.
. Elizabeth Nelson, The British Counter-Culture, 1966-73: A Study of the Underground Press, London 1989, p. ix.
. Daniel A. Foss and Ralph W. Larkin, ‘From “The Gates of Eden” to “Day of the Locust”: an Analysis of the Dissident Youth Movement of the 60s and its Heirs of the Early 70s–the Post-Movement Groups’, Theory and Society, vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 1976, p. 46.
. Foss and Larkin, p. 60.
. Richard Taylor and Colin Pritchard, The Protest Makers: The British Nuclear Disarmament Movement of 1958-1965, Twenty Years On, Oxford 1980, p. 110.
. Quoted in Nelson, p. 123.
. Penny Rimbaud, The Last of the Hippies . . . An Hysterical Romance, Glasgow 1982, p. 24. This is a reprint of some of the material originally included in a booklet called A Series of Shock Slogans and Mindless Token Tantrums accompanying the 1982 Crass record Christ: The Album.
. Quoted in Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, London 1994, p. 185.
. Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents From Lettrisme to Class War, Stirling 1991, p. 84.
. Sarah Thornton, ‘Moral Panic, the Media, and British Rave Culture’, in Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose, eds., Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, London 1994, p. 177.
. Lauren Langman, ‘Dionysus–child of tomorrow: notes on post-industrial youth’, Youth and Society, vol. 3, pt. 1 (1971-72), p. 83.
. Taken from an unpublished interview by Jon Savage with members of Crass in 1989. I am extremely grateful to Jon Savage for making this material available to me.
. Quoted in Rimbaud, p. 8.
. Hakim Bey, ‘The Temporary Autonomous Zone’, in T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1991, p. 106.
. Bey, p. 126.
. A phrase borrowed from the introduction to another book of alternative histories: Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline, eds., Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture, Edinburgh 1993, p. 10.