The Hampton Institute - The short, tragic, and instructive life of anarcho-punk

A THINK-PIECE published recently on the Hampton Institute platform offers a challenging assessment of the significance and shortcomings of the original anarcho-punk movement – concluding that its political and cultural efforts were “a spectacular failure”.

The short, tragic, and instructive life of anarcho-punk‘ offers a survey of the perceived failings and lacunae of political punk in 1980s Britain, in particular for its lack of a “coherent political culture”.

In what’s an intentionally provocative analysis, author Jackson Albert Mann does acknowledge some of the positive achievements for which he thinks that anarcho-punk can take justifiable credit. In particular, he cites the networks of independent and DIY production of anarcho-punk’s own creative outputs as “a form of cultural syndicalism”.

Yet he insists that the movement’s efforts were quickly hobbled by the “lack of an ascendant progressive movement” in Britain which could have provided the rigour, structure and support mechanisms that this fiercely independent scene lacked.

However, Mann suggests, the crisis that engulfed the British left during the 1980s mean that no such politically conducive culture existed – leaving anarcho-punk to fragment and decline in introspective isolation. This experience of defeat, Mann argues, “holds important lessons for socialist cultural activists” looking to encourage the creation of “working-class cultural institutions” in the present day.

Mann concludes that anarcho-punk represented a tragic dichotomy: “a cultural expression of mass discontent emerging just as the political forces necessary for its development were entering full retreat.”

It is always interesting to read attempts (from supportive, critical or hostile perspectives) to account for the “meaning” of anarcho-punk, and Mann’s disappointed dismissal of anarchist punk’s impact is impassioned.

But two things immediately stand out in Mann’s arguments which can be seen as problematic.

The first is that he does not develop the critique introduced in the opening quote from Political Asylum’s Ramsey Kanaan which which opens the article (“I don’t think that the politics of anarcho-punk had that much to do with anarchism anyway…”). Mann’s case rests largely on perceived short-comings in execution and practice, but the piece does not try to surface the political core on which this activity rested. Was it, for Mann, only the way that anarcho-punks did what they did, and not the belief system that led them do to those things that was the problem?

Mann’s fix for this problem, in the context of the 1980s, seems to be for UK anarcho-punks to have accepted the intervention of an external “guiding hand” to better shape its work: a “patron” as he puts it. Many anarchists would see this suggestion as (to coin a phrase) a “red flag”.

The second issue is what seems to be a confusion about subjective and objective conditions. At different points in the article Mann implies that anarcho-punk was hamstrung by a wider political context that was inimical and hostile. There was, in this view, no prospect of anarchist punk moving beyond the confines of its own cultural milieu to secure greater political influence. In other words, it mattered little what “decisions” anarcho-punk took; it would have had no leverage regardless.

Yet other threads of the article condemn anarcho-punk’s subjective failure to do the right thing; seeing that muddleheadedness as a decisive contributor to the movement’s decline. In other words, in this view, anarcho-punk took the wrong decisions, and in doing so squandered the culture’s evident potential. Finally, Mann concludes that it was the inability of a declining left to save anarcho-punk from itself by making the movement its own that finally sealed its fate.

Framing this confluence of conditions as an “instructive” type of “tragedy” ends the argument in confusion. Could things have turned out differently and better, or not? Mann seems unsure.

Founded in 2013, The Hampton Institute describes itself as “a proletarian (working class) think tank” which aims to encourage and participate in “the collective politicization and critical analysis of and from the working class itself”.

Jackson Albert Mann. 2020. ‘The short, tragic, and instructive life of anarcho-punk’, Hampton Institute, 10 December, https://www.hamptonthink.org/read/the-short-tragic-and-instructive-life-of-anarcho-punk