Beyond buying: on DIY culture and surviving a crisis
What forms of participation are available to us in the wider moral and political economy of cultural production, now and in the imaginable near-future?
Lockdown has changed a number of our personal and social habits, notably altering our appetites for culture and entertainment. Perhaps you’ve picked up or doubled down on a hobby or two, or returned to a former interest from years back. During this period, I’ve been spending my downtime revisiting my old loves: punk and hardcore music, listening to old (Propagandhi, Against Me!, Refused, A Wilhelm Scream), and more recent favourites (Turnstile, Drug Church, Culture Abuse, Pagan), seeking out new bands and, where possible, buying their music and merchandise from sites like bandcamp or directly from their record labels (The Muslims, Provoke, Choked Up!, Petrol Girls). I’ve been devouring DIY videographer hate5six’s gig recordings, which have helped me to reconnect – even in isolation – with the intensity and intimacy of punk shows. And I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about the various music and art scenes that spawned these bands and the bands that preceded them. Things I’ve had for a while but hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, like Carrie Brownstein’s memoirs of her time in Sleater-Kinney and their rise during the later years of Riot Grrl and the Olympia, WA scene, or an issue of the hardcore zine ‘Down for Life’ that I’d found, inexplicably, in a NISA outside Ipswich whilst canvassing before the December general election. Others are things I’ve picked up in lockdown, like Johanna Isaacson’s The Ballerina and the Bull, which discusses the politics of DIY punk and hardcore (and queercore and Riot Grrl), and Laura Grace Ford’s zine Savage Messiah.
WHEN BUYING STUFF ISN’T ENOUGH
Whilst I’m sure these might strike as particular tastes, I’ve not been alone in wanting to support the things I love – financially, as well as in other ways – during a bad period for artists. In a recent piece, political economist Will Davies suggests that one of the many things that have come to light via COVID-19 lockdown is ‘the rediscovery of Adam Smith’s basic insight, later abandoned by economics, that if markets are social institutions, then they must also be moral institutions’:
Once one’s attachment to a local pub, sole-trader or shop is represented in social terms, then it also comes to appear like one of mutual dependency and sympathy… For the time being, the obligation to keep paying people where possible, regardless of such crude concepts as ‘consumer satisfaction’ or ‘value for money’, has become a moral norm…Amongst everything else, we are witnessing the boundary between charity and the market, the gift and the exchange, dissolving in all the ways that economic anthropologists have long tried to point out.’
As an anthropologist, albeit one of political rather than economic bent, the idea that economic interactions have moral and social aspects makes intuitive sense. But the moral norm to financially support is far from evenly distributed across all purchases. This is unlikely to be the motivation underlying purchases via online retail platforms, which are not undertaken by most people with a sense of moral obligation to Amazon or Tesco, but rather due to convenience, inability to make necessary purchases otherwise, or cost. The value underlying people’s purchasing motivation is not ‘value for money’ in an economistic sense, but rather a ‘value’ that is unquantifiable and untethered from profitability. As James Butler put it in a discussion with Davies on Novara FM last month, ‘where people find that sort of value’ is more likely to be ‘small and quite specialist businesses…that have something behind them that’s more than simply seeing a niche there to exploit’, or else ‘producers of a kind of cultural good [or] creative work’.
Both cultural production and specialist and local businesses have been experiencing their own slow deaths over many years. As Nathalie Olah has recently detailed for cultural production, we find longstanding trends towards immiseration, increased precariousness, and submission to the profit motive, made all the more restrictive by austerity cuts to arts and local council funding, alongside epochal shifts in access and support for artists, authors, actors and musicians from non-elite backgrounds. A different, though linked story can be told for the decline of local and specialist businesses with a rootedness in place and an explicit social value for those who make use of them, to go along with the other ways that gentrification transforms urban landscapes. But lockdown has transformed these long, nebulous and slow-moving declines into a critical event, through which people can see clearly which cultural activities are unable to survive an indefinite period of closure or inactivity – grant-assisted or otherwise. By collapsing an abstract and atomised structure of slow death and compromise into a moment of generalised obliteration, lockdown has made (certain) purchases urgently valuable – not so much who not to buy from (if one can avoid it), but, instead, who to buy from, who to financially support. And by rendering explicit the positive impact of direct purchasing, the newfound moral norm to keep afloat the things we love – and which we know will not survive without our support – brings with it the experience of direct agency, because we know that our actions have helped something to survive.
But even with the move towards a moral norm to financially support the things we love under lockdown, we are still for the most part transacting rather than participating. One obvious reason for this is that the critical event that makes the imperative to survive so urgent also makes forms of physical participation impossible for as long as we remain isolated in our homes or only able to congregate to work and not socialise. Further, most of the practices currently adopted to ensure survival are, unsurprisingly, emergency procedures aimed at getting by for now, not geared towards sustaining things out the other side of lockdown. Patreon subscriptions, money transfers, continued purchasing, merchandise sales – these all provide small-term injections of cash, but don’t help us to see a de-commercialised cultural sphere on the ‘other side’ of the crisis, whenever that may come. Forms of financial support show that many people are willing and able to be directly involved in supporting the things they love, but they’re not long term solutions. The question then arises: beyond financial backing, what forms of participation are available to us in the wider moral and political economy of cultural production, now and in the imaginable near-future? How satisfied can we really be with this newfound arrangement as ethical sellers and buyers, privately negotiating another of capital’s crises? One solution might lie in the participatory model of DIY culture, long practised in the hardcore and punk music scenes.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM DIY SCENES
Whilst lockdown might have brought to the fore the urgent moral obligation to, in the words of a sticker in a coffee shop near my flat, ‘Fuck COVID19, Support Your Local Everything’, for alternative music and arts scenes the imperative to survive is axiomatic. Scenes are always, to some degree, on the edge of oblivion. If bands don’t have a place to play, or become so big that they leave the scene behind, if it’s not possible to pay rent and stick around, or get records out to people, or feel a sense of belonging, then the scene dies. This has a strong financial component, of course, insofar as some funds are required to sustain gig venues, recording, practice, and arts spaces, as well as accommodation and/or travel for members of the scene to stick around. It is also about finding ways to circumvent financial restrictions, either by figuring out creative ways to not pay for things or find different funding models: co-ops like ABC No Rio and C-Squat in New York (which, respectively, play host to weekly punk and hardcore shows, and provide home and studio space for many artists, like Leftover Cräck), membership organisations, as in the case of Berkeley’s famous 924 Gilman Street, or record stores and labels experimenting with different economic models, like G7 Welcoming Committee’s adherence to ParEcon. Autonomous and anarchist social centres are historically vital spaces in the ecosystem of oppositional music, rap standing alongside punk and hardcore in, for example, many of Italy’s centri sociali (the group 99 Posse, for example, are named after the social centre they are still tied to, Officina 99 in Naples). Whatever the models, there is a making do with, and exploitation of, the margins, gaps and cracks in the urban and economic environment, captured with genuine beauty in zines and other documentary forms of art emanating from the scenes. In recent years digital spaces, too, have become vital in maintaining scenes by expanding to reach new online audiences: videographers like hate5six or DIY film production companies like Shibby Pictures get hundreds of thousands and millions of views, respectively, on otherwise niche bands, record labels curate their own online shops, and bandcamp provides a platform through which independent labels (and artists) can gain a reach, following, and financial support that would otherwise be impossible.
Support, then, is never only financial, and the imperative to survive, across the board, is also an imperative to participate: bookers, promoters, venues, labels, artwork, zines, wider ‘benefit’ shows, forms of mutual aid, and so on. This can be as one part of an avowedly anarchist, autonomist or DIY ecosystem, but the twin imperatives to survive and participate go far beyond an explicit politics, acting instead as a form of common sense underpinning scenes in general: ‘no one else is gonna do it for you’. For example, suggestion number one in an article titled ‘5 Mistakes to Avoid as a Member of Your Local Scene’, states: ‘Don't just ask for favors – build relationships. Your local scene can be a finite resource if you're not also contributing.’ The imperative to participate is evident, too, through accusations of ‘selling out’, which can be thought of as a way to morally police the extraction of value from scenes. A band making the choice to leave their scene behind often means that labour hours put in to making that band successful are no longer redistributed by that band in support of the wider scene that created it.
What further defines punk and hardcore forms of DIY in particular, though, is what Isaacson calls ‘DiY negation’, a refusal that ‘provides a critical rather than pragmatic view of politics’, through which ‘capitalist realism…is countered by a punk affect of anger, a permeating urge to destroy, which demands the impossible while maintaining a realism about impasses in contemporary cultural innovation’. This mix of practicality, anti-pragmatism, DIY participation and critical refusal in the political and moral economy of punk was made clear to me via an interview with Brendan Kelly, bassist and co-vocalist with the Chicago band The Lawrence Arms, in which he speaks of his band’s hatred of the Warped Tour, a juggernaut traveling festival that, either side of the millennium, played a key role in elevating the mainstream popularity of punk music. For the band, though, Warped tour was ‘destroying the economy of DIY’:
summer touring season used to involve a bunch of bands…jumping on buses and taking smaller bands…on tour…Now, all those big bands go on the Warped Tour. When they come to town, it’s for one day…small clubs all across the US are closing down, they can’t afford to be open…big bands that play the Warped Tour say things like “Oh, it’s great, you only have to play it for half an hour” and it’s like “Fuck you! This is your job, I don’t care how hard you don’t have to work in order to get paid; like you’re fucking everybody!”
Kelly’s criticism of Warped Tour evidences the sense of mutual responsibility to each other and to the survival of the scene as ecosystem. It is at one and the same time idealistic in its refusal and fiercely practical in its concern for sustainability. Punk-as-practice, in Kelly’s view, is oppositional in its values and organisational ethos to the newly ubiquitous expressions of punk-as-aesthetic in the mainstream. Put simply: it doesn’t matter what your music sounds like, if you’re not participating, it’s not punk.
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This dash through the moral and political economy of scenes shows that, running the gamut of sites where punk and hardcore form a part of a broader anarchist politics, all the way to small town once-a-month shows in a backroom, participation leads to more than mere subsistence. What punk and hardcore scenes teach us is how to make a culture that thrives in the face of its own inevitable doom – it allows us to own the fact of our ‘against all odds’ position against capital and to keep throwing ourselves in again and again regardless. In the process, we might not bring down the Warped Tour, but the conditions for making and producing the things we love are sustained by our own passion and energy. We create our own everyday utopias, where the financial is not discrete from but understood as one part of participation, and where participation itself opens up our horizons of possibility and our capacity to make things (of) ourselves. As Manchester’s Sonic Boom Six sang in their ode to giving oneself over to punk: ‘It was the sound of our anthem/We raised our fists like a champion/And nothing seemed so uncertain/But maybe all we knew was there's a world much better than this/Keep believing/You're fighting for a battle with meaning/All mandem afi jump for the ceiling/ Cos maybe all we know is there's a world much better than this’.
We currently find ourselves on the precipice of the largest recession in a century, with governments both sides of the Atlantic already socialising losses and showing complete disdain for loss of life. The systemic, racialised inequality at the heart of all this has been laid bare, yet again, by the disproportionate numbers of BAME COVID-19 deaths amongst transport, service, and health workers, and its longstanding nature made all the clearer by George Floyd’s murder, and the policing of the US uprisings and global solidarity actions in its wake. In addition, the recent defeats of insurgent movements inside the Democrat and Labour parties have left it far from clear that institutional political actors, even those on ‘our side’, can be trusted to work for us. Whilst we might immediately lack participatory models to instinctively fall back on in our political and cultural lives, it is within our powers to create them. This is particularly true in a context where many people have shown themselves willing and able to be directly involved in supporting the things they love. In the spirit of punk negation, of practical refusal and utopic participation, how about this as a slogan for the coming months and years:
FUCK COVID 19 AND FUCK THE RECOVERY: SUPPORT EVERYTHING YOU LOVE.
Fuad Musallam is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. He works and writes about the making and maintaining of political communities in Lebanon and the UK.