Punk, Law, Resistance … No Future: Punk against the Boredom of the Law (1 of 3)

by | 9 Mar 2011

Pawn in their game


And that’s the way they try and run this land
How they hold you down and keep you in hand
You’re just a pawn in their game.
(Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”)

Being nothing other than a pawn in their game – who has not sometimes woken up in the middle of the night imagining this. The Big Other that pulls the strings has various figures: the national and transnational law and order apparatuses, the global capital and the alleged economic necessities, bureaucratic and administrative regulations, the demands of social security, educational standards, images, ideas and idols constantly produced and re-produced by the mass-media, and so on and so forth. Things get from bad to worse when one starts to wonder who really is in charge, since today sovereignty is fragmented, which does not make it less pervasive and omnipotent. Then again, you may find some comfort from the fact that this is not your paranoid delusion but the reality, “the only things we got today” as The Clash already told us in “Hate and War”, which you’ll find from their first LP, The Clash, released in 1977: “An’ if I close my eyes / They will not go away / You have to deal with it / It is the currency”.

However, things were different then, and also some years later, in 1979, when Stiff Little Fingers’ first album, Inflammable Material, was released. The band, which took their name from the Vibrators’ song of the same name in their debut album Pure Mania, was founded the same year The Clash’s album was released in Belfast. It was near the height of the Troubles and their manager, Gordon Ogilvie, the Marxist journalist, suggested the band to do songs related to their experiences of the Northern Ireland conflict. When they did so, they were accused by another Northern Irish punk band, The Undertones, of sensationalising the Troubles.

In July 1979, Stiff Little Fingers performed at Helsinki’s Kaivopuisto, a gorgeous park in the middle of the city. The sky was cloudless, some had a picnic, some a drink or two and some danced the pogo wildly, recalls Sally Flesh, then a first year law student with orange spikes and yet-to-come guitarist of The Stompin’ Chickens and The Pin Ups. Even if punk attracted violence also in Helsinki, and even if the rockabilly and teddy boys, who later started to hang around at the same clubs with punks listening to bands like The Cramps, The Meteors and The Stray Cats, attacked punks during the gig armed with socks filled with sand and stones, one may wonder what the situation in Belfast had to do with Helsinki. Certainly, “they” were not the same for the lads coming from the war zone – where “hate has made you blind / And you’ve spent the last ten years of your life / In this emergency” (Stiff Little Fingers, “State of Emergency”) – and for the Finnish punks, who were raised in the consensual Finnish welfare state.

In spite of this contextual difference, it was clear to every Finnish punk (actually in Finland, which in the end of 1970s was an intolerably oppressive and homogenous society and an authoritarian state ruled over twenty years by the same president, punk spread extremely fast, which, in the popularity of punk, made it in Europe second only to England) to whom Jake Burns, the Stiff Little Fingers singer, referred to when he screamed “they”. The songs were not merely about Belfast but more generally about us, Sally Flesh tells, about our common situation and feelings, about repression and intolerance we all confronted:

Everybody’s down in the centre of town
Doing nothing wrong we’re only hangin’ around
They put you up against the wall
Make loud mouthed jokes just to make you feel small
Laugh at your appearance and the clothes you wear
Call that justice just isn’t fair.
(Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”)

At the end of the 1970s, the opponent, that is, the one who run the game and pulled the strings, was more clearly identifiable than today: the state and its apparatuses. There was the Sovereign, the State and the Police – and all those good citizens who were submitted to the System and Normality. Let us call this complex of the legal, social and moral norms, the legitimate ruling power, the establishment and the institutional apparatuses, oppressive structures, institutions and practices as the Law. For the Law, punks were merely: “Just another number you ain’t got a name / Just a little punk y’know they don’t care” (Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”).

During those days, things were black and white, good and evil, just and unjust and there was a categorical division between we and they: “Talking bout their law and order /… / Law and order / There’s no justice in it /None!” (Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”). Punk raged against the Law: “So please don’t just sit there / Let’s try to break out” (Stiff Little Fingers, “State of Emergency”).

Brand new beat

When the law break in
How you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement
Or waiting in death row.
(The Clash, “The Guns of Brixton”)

The law enforcement was there, not merely in South London, which “The Guns of Brixton” told about, but all over European cities, to “crush us” and “bruise us”, as The Clash’s song tells. It served the interest of the Government, the Capital and the conventional Morality. There existed, if not formally at least in practice, a permanent state of exception all over Europe. At least those at the margins of the society experienced the situation as totalitarianism – not as the totalitarianism of Nazism or Stalinism, but as a new kind of totalitarianism, which regulated every part of your life and which demanded unconditional submission, obedience and mediocrity in the name of Nation, Economy, Morality and Security. It was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four realised here and now, or as the Sex Pistols defined the state of things: “God save the Queen / The fascist regime”.

People who lived in this kind of pervasive soft totalitarianism did not even realise – or readily ignored the fact – that they were totally subjected to the Law:

An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!
(The Clash, “White Riot”)

The Law would laugh sarcastically if an excluded punk would start to speak about the equality before the law, the subjective rights shared by everyone, the fundamental freedoms and human rights or the ideals of the rule of law and constitutionalism. Then again, punks could not care less about these ideological superstructures which have significance only for the establishment: “All the power’s in the hands / Of people rich enough to buy it” (The Clash, “White Riot”). All these nice principles of law merely disguised and veiled not merely the reality of unjust and exploitative political and economic conditions but also violence that was the ultimate foundation of the Law and which was present in every legal norm and its interpretation, application and enforcement. Punks did not need Robert Cover or any other legal scholar or philosopher to tell them about this daily fact. Your being was surrounded and even pervaded by legal violence that forced you to the pre-given roles, positions and careers:

They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock.
(The Clash, “Career Opportunities”)

“Well, I got no choice”, Joe Strummer, the singer of The Clash, finishes the song, but there was a choice. As Pete Malmi, the singer of Briard, the first Finnish punk group, sings in their second single: “Fuck the Army”. Do that and dance the pogo, a dance style credited to Sid Vicious, with raised wrists shouting “I wanna riot / White riot – a riot of my own” (The Clash, “White Riot”). Instead of “taking orders” and “going backwards” they were “taking over” and “going forwards”, which was possible thanks to “a brand new rock”, “a bad, bad rock, this here revolution rock”.

Everybody smash up your seats and rock to this
Brand new beat
This here music mash up the nation
This here music cause a sensation.
(The Clash, “Revolution Rock”)

This here revolution rock did cause a sensation, but punk was not a political movement. On the contrary, it despised not only all the political parties but also the pacifist utopianism and ecological movement of the hippies. Punk was, first of all, “brand new beat” whose revolutionary force that would “smash up the nation” did not aim at destroying the liberal-capitalist rule of law democracies but more to an intentional self-alienation from the dominant juridico-politico-economic order and the mainstream morality and culture that were experienced as totalitarian and oppressive. Some punks were working class lads, some unemployed, some educated in art schools and universities, but what was common to them was that they deliberately separated themselves from careers they were presumed to have.

The songs were about their situation and life in the totalitarian rule of the Law and normality that reigned over the grey European cities, where “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home / I run through the empty stone because I am all alone” (The Clash, “London’s Burning”). According to Pete Shelley, the guitarist and later singer of the Buzzcocks, their songs were reflections on how they felt, which enabled others to do that as well: “We gave everybody a voice. You could go on stage and say, ‘Fuck.’ It was word you used if you weren’t hiding away from anything. It was like, ‘I can do and say anything I want.’ It encouraged people to become creative and form bands and do the things they wanted to make their own fun. It enabled people to become active participants in culture, rather than just being passive consumers.” Punk was a subversive scene, a big refusal to conform, the absolute other of the Law.

Part 2 >>>


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