By Crispin Sartwell
Perhaps you're wondering what could be meant by the "philosophy" of punk music. But
before I elucidate that deeply profound matter, allow me to briefly sketch in the history of the
form for you.
Though punk had a variety of important antecedents, such as the Velvet Underground and Iggy
Pop, it's generally agreed that the form was invented in 1975 in NYC by the Ramones with the
aid of somewhat related acts such as Blondie and the Talking Heads. At the time, punk was
received as the acme of primitivism, and the people who made and consumed it were widely
regarded as dolts. The Ramones themselves did little to dispel this impression, performing songs
such as "Teenage Lobotomy" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue." What most people seemed
to hear at the time was fast and furious noise, dedicated to nihilism as a strategy for personal
growth. The style was dismissed as trivial at best, and deeply stupid and offensive to decency at
But in fact the Ramones were (a) jokers, and (b) rock archivists. The style they played is best
considered neo-classical, while the musical context into which they emerged was rank and
rococo. The horrors of mid-seventies popular music included "art rock" - the kind of pseudo-profound conceptual claptrap dished out by Yes or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, in which former
conservatory students, or young men who simply aspired to be conservatory students, played real
real fast though meaninglessly and inexpressively under lyrics inspired by a superficial reading
of Jules Verne.
It was indeed a sad time. The other pole was glossy California rock made by bands such as
Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles: utterly slick, though catchy, and dedicated to the idea that
cocaine and orgies were the ultimate agents of human liberation. This conceit was exploded
some years later as the artists involved declined with awesome rapidity and bounced in and out
of rehab, a trend that continues until this very day, as Stevie Nicks declines into an unseemly
Something, as you can deduce, had to be done, and the Ramones did it. They were a rock band
ultimately in the style of the Rolling Stones, interested in finding at the heart of the form its
essential gesture, the one thing without which it would lose its soul. They were familiar with
every simple and crystalline rock style, from rhythm and blues to girl group to surf and
bubblegum, and they recreated them all with an ironic precision that is as close to perfection as
rock music has ever come.
The Ramones toured England in 1976, and folks who would soon become the Clash and the
Sex Pistols showed up at the shows and were forever changed. But by 1980, the initial
momentum had been squandered. Though the Clash pressed on, the Pistols exploded. The
Talking Heads became artistes, and Blondie became a pop act. The Ramones, believe it or not,
continued to deepen and improve, a trend that persisted even after Joey's death in 2001 with the
release of his lovely punk solo album.
In 1979 and 80, the form received a fresh dose of ferocity in LA and DC from bands like the
Germs and the Teen Idles, who invented hardcore. Soon there was a blossoming scene of
ferocious noise on both coasts, featuring LA bands like the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, and DC
types such as Minor Threat and the Faith. The LA bands were more or less dedicated to
decadence, but in DC, as befits the town, the bands soon became extremely earnest and political,
and merged with activist organizations. The east-coast scene soon developed toward "emo" and
"grunge," and gave Dave Grohl to Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, and Fugazi to everyone. By the
early nineties, the "alternative" punk revival was in full swing in Seattle, then everywhere. And
by the mid-nineties a revival of straight-up classic punk had emerged, spearheaded on the pop
charts by Green Day, and nurtured by a burbling underground of labels and acts who loved the
Ramones above all things. Check out some Screeching Weasel, for example. The current state of
play is that there are probably more punk rock bands than there have ever been, and the
dominant pop rock of the current era - Blink 182, Sum 41, even No Doubt - comes from and
pays homage to punk music. Hardcore is now absolutely global; in fact, the most vital scenes
seem to be in Scandinavia and Japan.
Now punk is a lot of different things and it supports a lot of different ideas or postures toward
the world. There is of course right-wing or neo-fascist skinhead punk, or at least there used to be,
especially in NYC. Bands like the Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front weren't or aren't necessarily
Nazis, but violent thugs undeniably gravitated toward their shows and records. But then of
course there is also far-left punk, represented by bands such as the Clash, Dead Kennedys or
Millions of Dead Cops. Those were classic backintheday hardcore acts, though Jello Biafra is
still around, mutating into a Noam Chomsky-type intellectual. And there is a huge, active left-wing punk scene now, especially including the band Anti-Flag, which is a good band and
delivers leftist lectures over Clash-type thrash.
But I guess the paradigm for me is the DC hardcore scene; I was eighteen in '76, in NW DC:
Minor Threat, obviously; Rites of Spring; G.I., Faith, and so on: the bands that started and the
people who continued Dischord Records, especially Ian Mackaye. The basic idea of Dischord
Records is that first of all, it stays outside the purview of the major corporate record labels: it is
fiercely independent. This is also the approach of Jello's label in San Francisco: Alternative
Tentacles. Ian Mackaye's band Fugazi was in the Spin top 50 most influential rock bands, as
well it should have been; in some ways it invented "emo" and "alternative." But the sales of
Fugazi's albums are relatively modest compared to, say, Creed, or Stone Temple Pilots, bands
that are infinitely less interesting. That's because there's no big promo push, and believe it or not
there's no merchandise: no Fugazi t-shirts or bumper stickers, except bootlegged things.
Dischord essentially sells disks at cost: maybe 10 bucks for a full-length cd. It costs five or six
bucks to get into a Fugazi show, if you can believe that. They cover their expenses, pay
themselves a decent salary, but they're not out here getting rich as motherfuckers.
Dischord is conceived as a library of DC punk music; they don't have A&R people out trying
to recruit hot young talent. And they've managed to hold onto their values for twenty years.
Mackaye says things like this: "It's not that I'm out to smash the state. I'm just interested in
building my own damn state." He's not interested in tearing down the system; he's interested in
building his own little system, or his own zone within the system where he can live and create
the way he wants to. The punk world, once you cut through the rankest pop of Blink or Sum, is
like this; go get a copy of Maximum RocknRoll and you'll see that there are hundreds of bands
and dozens of labels who are operating entirely outside the artistic and spiritual Sahara of
I think this exactly the right sort of politics. And now let me do something that may strike
y'all as a bit absurd; I'm going to trace some historical antecedents to Mackaye's approach and
the approach of what we might think of as the left-anarchist punk world.
We might start out in the early sixteenth century with Martin Luther and the Protestant
Reformation. Of course Luther was no anarchist; in fact he was a German nationalist. But his
objection to the Catholic church accused it of insane greed and acquisitiveness, and accused it
above all of coming between each person and God. Finally, the scene of religious experience and
interpretation for Luther was each individual believer. Early in his rebellion against the Catholic
church, he wrote: "I will tell you straight what I think. I am a Christian theologian; and I am
bound, not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and my death. I want to believe
freely and be the slave to the authority of no one, whether council, university, or pope." Every
believer was, for Luther, a minister of Christ: "All of us who have been baptized are priests
without distinction." And the church had to be conceived of as a community of believers,
answerable above all to their own consciences, rather than as an authoritarian hierarchy. This a
fundamental stroke for what punks call DIY. Make your own fucking records. Set up your own
fucking tours. Achieve your own fucking relation to God, if any.
It's a familiar point that the Reformation leads fairly directly to the enlightenment, where
thinkers like Hume and Voltaire became atheists, more or less. That's where their exercise of
independent conscience took them. And this whole deal leads to the call for political freedom,
for democracy as expressed in the American and French revolutions. And the final flowering of
this attitude is political anarchism: the call for the total elimination of authoritarian structures,
religious, political, and economic. And though there are hints of anarchism from ancient
philosophy (for example in the Tao Te Ching), the invention of modern anarchism must in my
view be ascribed fundamentally to the American Josiah Warren and the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. And there is a profound anti-authoritarian tradition in America that proceeds
from Warren to Emerson and Thoreau, to Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, Albert Jay
Nock and H.L. Mencken, Abbie Hoffman and Noam Chomsky, Ian Mackaye and Jello Biafra.
Let me discuss Josiah Warren's work in a little more depth, because I think that you'll find
there more or less the entire punk thing enunciated starting in the 1820s. Warren was initially a
follower of Robert Owen, and participated in Warren's utopian socialist community of New
Harmony. But that community was by and large a failure, and Warren attributed that failure to
the authoritarian structure that began in the cult of Owen's personality. He dedicated the rest of
his life to establishing his own utopian businesses and communities, and the shocking thing
(considering that Warren is almost forgotten) is that communities such as "Trialville" were
extremely successful. 80 quarter-acre lots were sold at fifteen bucks a pop, and the economy was
put on what we would think of as a barter footing: labor-for-labor exchange was the means by
which the community was developed. Warren tried intentionally to shield the community from
publicity, refusing even to disclose its location in Ohio. In fact, it was in part publicity that
doomed many of the utopian experiments in 19th century America, including Warren's own later
attempt: Modern Times, on Long Island, which through no fault of Warren's got processed
through the NY press and various pr entrepreneurs.
Warren's work, both practical and theoretical, was dedicated to two principles: the
sovereignty of the individual and the cost limit of price. On the first he asserted that all people,
black and white, male and female - even children - have the right to dispose of their own persons
as they see fit, unless they violate the liberty of others to do likewise. And since governmental,
religious, and corporate structures invariably proceeded by violation of the sovereignty of the
individual, they were inherently evil, evil at their very conception. He wrote this: "Experience
has proved, that power cannot be delegated to rulers of state and nations, in sufficient quantities
for the management of business, without its becoming an indefinite quantity, and in this
indefiniteness have mankind been cheated out of their legitimate liberty."
Concerning the cost limit of price, his view was this: most of the evil and poverty in the world
is caused by the greed for profit and the imposition of interest on the use of funds. Warren, well
before Marx, had the labor theory of value down cold: what a thing was worth was what labor
went into it, and the labor of a lawyer was no more inherently valuable than that of a laborer. As
he puts it in his almost unknown classic "Equitable Commerce":
Cost being made the limit of price, would give to a washerwoman a greater
income than the importer of foreign goods - that this would upset the whole of the
present system of national trade - stop all wars arising out of the profits of trade,
and demolish all tariffs, duties, and all systems of policy that give rise to them -
would abolish all distinctions between rich and poor - would enable every one to
consume as much as he produced, and, consequently, prevent any one from living
at the cost of another, without his of her consent. (100)
Things should be sold for exactly what they cost to produce and sell: the raw materials and the
time that went into their making and marketing. If a community or a business could commit
itself to that principle, then it could undersell communities and businesses based on the profit
motive, and so in the long run could succeed and spread, slowly replacing an economy based on
profit to one based on labor, without violence or constraint.
Warren actually established an extremely successful business along these lines: the Cincinnati
time store. He sold staple fabrics and foods, and charged according to the time that went into
their making. And he accepted "labor notes" as currency: notes that pledged a quantity of labor
in exchange for goods purchased. He hoped that a labor currency could eventually replace
currency based on gold and silver, so that almost everyone could have sufficient money because
everyone has fundamentally the same quantity of time at their disposal. The details of how this
would work are of course complex, and I can't really enter into them here; suffice it to say that
Warren showed that the practical application of his principles was possible.
This is, it seems to me, a quintessentially American philosophy, and it is totally opposed, for
example, to the authoritarian socialism of Marx, Lenin, or Mao. It is exactly the opposite of a
command economy. And yet it is also not some laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog corporate capitalism.
The economy it envisions is radically decentralized and egalitarian. Perhaps it is also naively
idealistic, but it can be tried practically, and essentially Dischord and Alternative Tentacles are
attempts to put something like this into practice.
A more recent version of a Warren-type approach is the TAZ: Temporary Autonomous Zone.
The book of that title, which is available for free online, or cheaply from the anarchist
publishing collective autonomedia, is, I think, the most important political tract of the last few
decades. I personally would like to tear down the INS or the IRS or the Sony corporation, brick
by fucking brick, to erase them hard drive by hard drive. But I'm not able to, you see? The
systems that we have created or that have been created at us are far too huge, powerful, and
unresponsive to be resisted by direct attack. And these systems are getting bigger and more
centralized all the time; note the unification of the European currencies, for example, or the way
the United Nations seeks to act as a world government, or the reach of Nike corporation around
the world and its ever-growing implication in economic exploitation, or the vicious monopoly of
bad software achieved by Bill Gates.
Here's a sample of Bey's book:
No, listen, what happened was this: they lied to you, sold you ideas of good &
evil, gave you distrust of your body & shame for your prophethood of chaos,
invented words of disgust for your molecular love, mesmerized you with
inattention, bored you with civilization & all its usurious emotions.
There is no becoming, no revolution, no struggle, no path; already you're the
monarch of your own skin--your inviolable freedom waits to be completed only
by the love of other monarchs: a politics of dream, urgent as the blueness of sky.
To shed all the illusory rights & hesitations of history demands the economy of
some legendary Stone Age--shamans not priests, bards not lords, hunters not
police, gatherers of paleolithic laziness, gentle as blood, going naked for a sign or
painted as birds, poised on the wave of explicit presence, the clockless nowever.
Agents of chaos cast burning glances at anything or anyone capable of bearing
witness to their condition, their fever of lux et voluptas. I am awake only in what I
love & desire to the point of terror--everything else is just shrouded furniture,
quotidian anaesthesia, shit-for-brains, sub-reptilian ennui of totalitarian regimes,
banal censorship & useless pain.
But what you and I might be able to do is find or create little zones outside these systems,
pirate utopias that last a few hours or a few years or a few decades, tiny places where you go
unnoticed or unconstrained by the bigger systems, like Warren's Trialville. There are still gaps
in the universal surveillance, still corners where you can hide and hatch your diabolical schemes,
places on the internet where you can say whatever you damn please and AOL or the Justice
Department haven't figured out quite how to shut you up.
Of course, maybe we'd prefer a real revolution. But it is extremely unlikely, given that
corporate capitalism has managed to give most Americans a stake in the status quo. But even if a
real revolution was possible, there are a few things wrong with real revolutions, as history makes
all too obvious. Often they end up with "the terror." Anarchists helped overthrow the Czar, then
were executed en masse by Lenin. The cultural revolution and the Killing Fields are examples of
what can happen when your basic leftists take over, with their little red books and their
automatic weapons . The systematic revolution supposes a systematic ideology, and the
systematic ideology always holds within it the seeds of slaughter.
Well the TAZ makes a revolution, a tiny revolution, without ideology. The idea is just to carve
out a place where people can do what they want. That, I think, is the only revolution worth
having, and it was exactly the sort of revolution proposed by Thoreau, say, and put into actual
operation by Warren and Mackaye. It's a revolution that's actually being made all the time by
punks, freaks, druggies, weirdos, and lovers. I do not recognize the right of anyone to control my
words or my actions, and I claim the right to resist in any way I deem appropriate. And I am
willing to extend the same courtesy to you, to recognize that you are the sovereign of yourself. If
I start with that, then I can't also design society by some ideal structure, because ideal structures
are just more or less creative oppressions. I just have to let go and see what happens. That's the
only politics that isn't worse than what it seeks to replace.
And that's what I call punk philosophy: DIY; the cost limit of price; the sovereignty of the
person over themselves; the temporary autonomous zone, not to mention zine. We see this in
many other of the most vital areas of the culture. For example, in hip hop, particularly in graffiti
art. The tag is both an intra-sub-cultural form of communication and a subversion of public
space. You might find similar things if you hit the big biker's convention in Daytona, or start
hanging out at skate parks. These are the only sorts of places where the culture is not dead; as
Deleuze and Guattari would put it, these minor languages and minor threats are the places where
the culture becomes; they are at once the flowering and the undermining of American culture.
Make your own art, your own love, your own truth, and find a place where you can do that. If
you can't find a place like that, start trying to carve one out; make your own island nation of
jesters and fools and fops. For God's sake ditch Shakira and make your own music. Get on the
web and publish your own fucked-up writing and see whether someone reads it.