Sunday, June 21, 2009

The poll 'What Do You Think of Subcultures ?' is now closed, and the results were, perhaps expectantly, ambiguous. Perhaps I share this ambiguity, despite my long standing (decades !!!!) antipathy to self-styled "radical" subcultures here in Canada (actually usually "imported without value added processing" from the USA).
What exactly is a subculture ? First of all, I guess, it is obviously a "culture" that is a minority in the geographical location where it exists. A subculture may or may not, have political implications. Biker subculture, for instance, has few, if any, political implications (despite some bizarre attempts to say that it my living memory from both the left and the right). Other subcultures, for instance 'gay subculture' or the subcultures of various ethnic groups may have political implications...or they may not. Typically(but not always) such subcultures have "political demands" that may lead to social tension, but which can be, on the whole, satisfied without any major political or social change. Their demands are almost inevitably what Molly would define with the old fashioned word "progressive", but, in the end, these subcultures end up making up part of a dynamic mosaic that may enrich life in their societies but do little to change it beyond the limited horizons of their participants. Such subcultures have a pretty well inevitable dynamic in that they are the creation of people who self-identify as "oppressed" and who, in reaction, posit the idea that they are not just equal to but actually superior to others outside of the group. Fine and dandy, and I'll return to this later, but keep the following fact in mind. There are other such subcultures beyond the sort that Molly might have some sympathy with. These include those such as neo-Nazi, neo-fascist and 'white nationalist' groups whose dynamics are exactly the same as those with which I personally sympathize. There are factions within the sort of "identity politics" that might have some justification that are equally ugly as the fascists are. No doubt there are 'moderate' "white nationalists" with which I am unfamiliar (more or less because such people are the sort that translate their feelings into effective political action as the right wing parties have recently done in the European elections). Maybe I simply have little interest in following their twists and turns. The problem is that I cannot see, for the life of me, a reasonable way to distinguish the "nuts of the right" from the "nuts of the left". As to relying on "oppression" as an objective category the "nuts of the right" seem to fish in a sea of "failures in life" whose circumstances are, on average, lower in an economic and social sense than those of the average minority group.
So well yeah, subcultures are obviously, by definition, minority phenomena. They have to be distinguished, however, from other things that are similar such as "fads" and "enthusiasms". A "fad" can be distinguished by its very limited nature. Clothing fashions are an obvious example. The ever changeable nature of the fashion industry is perhaps the premier example of effective marketing, and has no implications beyond the bottom line of the companies involved. It's a "fad", just as the use of certain expressions in language ("like", "get a life", "mega" "dot... whatever", etc.) are. Then there are what I call "enthusiasms". These are typical of the social phenomenon called "fandom". There are dozens of examples. Music fandom. Comic fandom. Sci-Fi fandom. Fantasy fandom. The list could go on and on. Some of these memes may indeed shade into the category of "subculture", but they have to acquire particular characteristics to do so, especially a broadening of their frame of reference to include not just an enthusiasm for a particular product of mass culture but to the adoption of a whole set of other behaviors (affectations ?) that serve to identify the participant as an identifiable member of the group.
That's IT , patient reader, subcultures can be defined as the adoption by groups of people of a set of behaviors that distinguish the practitioners from the general society. Not just a choice of clothes. Not just a choice of language in the sense of common expressions. Not just a choice of favoured leisure activities (yoga versus baseball maybe ?). Sometimes not just a choice of what type of sex is "correct". Sometimes not just a choice of what is ethical or not. Sometimes not just a judgement about what sort of work (if any) is desirable. The list could go on endlessly. The point is that the adherent of a subculture accepts a "package", not just one or the other fad. The exceptions prove the rule. I know of a few adherents of "punk" who are sports fans, but very few. Their preferred mode of passive consumption is music events, either concerts or raves. I have also met ancient hippies and 'greenies'(and their imitators) who don't have a sympathy for half baked new age mysticism, but they are also the exception.
Here is where we get to the meat of the subject. There is no doubt that the traditional socialist movement (and the anarchist movement in countries where it was predominant such as Spain) saw the importance of a unique "culture" of the "oppressed". The difference is that such efforts were directed towards a culture that was, in many ways, already existing, and, most importantly, was the culture of what was seen as the majority of the population. At their best so-called radical subcultures adopt already existing cultural traditions that might potentially be majoritarian. At their worst such subcultures deliberately search for matters of "difference" to reinforce their self-perception as "superior" to those outside of the circle. In this way they imitate one of the great faults of subcultures based on things such as ethnic difference ie they search for a way to project the illusion of superiority. This is really and truly great for the self satisfaction of the participants of the so-called "movement". Looking at the larger picture, however, if the subculture claims political significance it is really and truly DEADLY. It is a rock solid guarantee of ineffectiveness. To be honest I'd have to struggle to conceive of anything beyond a commitment to terrorist methods that is so thoroughly guaranteed to "cut one's own throat" as such an opinion (or more commonly unthought-out assumption).
So there I stand. In the end anybody who wants to take anarchism seriously rather than as an 'add-on' to some sort of subcultural identity has to confront the question of effectiveness and has to choose. The matter may be made easier by the fact that the vast majority of subcultural adherents do eventually grow up and shed the fads of their youth. Hopefully anarchism will not be reduced to the status of a nose-ring that you will eventually see as pure silliness.