Searchin' to Destroy

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Here is how Zerzan subsequently described his encounter with punk rock:

1977 was the year of the original punk rock explosion in San Francisco, imported from its birth in the U.K. about a year earlier. No one thought its vehemence was the rebirth of the ‘60s, but it occasioned an exciting outburst of nihilist energy. Punk might be thought of as a kind of aftershock of the ‘60s quake, although many punkers were explicitly contemptuous of that earlier scene (especially of hippies). The first blast of raw, angry punk was bracing as hell, and some went further than music performance. For instance, a small bunch went up to Pacific Heights more than once to bash new Mercedes, BMWs, and the like with chains and metal bars. More characteristic, of course, were the drug O.D.s that occurred all along, even during the 1977 heyday, as well as later.

By early ‘78 the initial rush was over, particularly for the more political types like myself who secretly hoped that punk might actually re-ignite significant resistance. Sixties illusions and groundless idealism were effectively dead and the new defiance of punk went deeper, even with its cynical overlay. Or so it seemed for a season.

This flyer dates to his realization that by early 1978, punk was not going to overthrow the dominant system of political and economic organization. But, as one can see, there’s more cynicism than analysis, explanation, or, to be sure, hopefulness on display. Zerzan's invocation of the "cynical overlay" of punk above is an accurate characterization of some punk but not all of it, and the tone in the flyer projects his own attitude on to the benefit gig. In essence, he decries the punks for not being more cynical. My overweening critique of the flyer is that, on the one hand, it asks too much of punk (for this reason, I feel comfortable subjecting it to rigorous critique even though it is not a book or even an article, of which Zerzan has produced many). On the other, the flyer assumes the punks to be stupid and dogmatic. But it’s worth examining the specifics of it as well.

The phrase “a couple of pseudo-radicals who alternate calls to revolution with record company ads in their misnamed little tabloid” seems to be a reference to V. Vale and Nico Ordway of San Francisco’s Search & Destroy zine. It carries with it a familiar snobbishness—again, something I still can’t help but find alluring—that believes radical politics need not dirty its hands with the sphere of mass culture. But the flyer evinces ambiguity here too: are we to believe X-Ray Spex to have been exemplary of Zerzan’s politics of refusal? If Zerzan were adhering closely to Debord’s line of thought, he would recognize that alienation on the shop floor and in the political realm (eg, unions) are of a piece with alienation in the artistic realm (broadly including pop music). That punk was opposed to alienation nevertheless could not change the fact that its opposition would necessarily be mediated through alienated cultural production after the collapse of 60s social movements. Anyway, in the sixth issue of Search & Destroy, which featured the appositely (for my article’s purposes) titled “Industrial Music for Industrial People” feature on Throbbing Gristle, Nico Ordway explained why punks should support the nation’s mine workers in a piece called “Coal Strike . . . Dimensions of a Crisis.” I call attention to this article because it shows that my critique of Zerzan is not simply an example of retrospective criticism based on knowledge that was not available then. Instead, the article is, if anything, far more perspicacious and prescient than Zerzan was. Its organic connection to the San Fran punk scene makes its sharpness particularly thrilling for me, as I feel like I am constantly attempting to defend punk's radical left politics against today's reactionary lunkheads in its midst.

Ordway offers a fairly standard Marxist take, and, unlike Zerzan, he describes the proximate goals of the strikers as intimately connected with broader issues facing the working class. He says that the strike was based on two issues: first, the union members’ very ability to strike without penalty, and, second, the protection of miners’ health. These two issues are linked: because of a failure to improve safety conditions, a key focus of activism in the previous decade, miners across the country were striking with increased tenacity in individual mines that were unsafe. Although the miners had the right to strike individual mines, the union representatives, in collusion with the corporations, wanted to restrain this activity, which, for many miners showed how bankrupt the union was. Therefore, when the industry proposed a contract, with increases in wages, that would penalize miners for striking individual mines, the union accepted it without the widespread agreement of the rank and file. The contract also restricted healthcare coverage for miners (pretty much inevitably) injured on the job. As mentioned, after Carter’s intervention, the contract was adopted.

The broader context, which Ordway underscores, explains why the industry would not simply improve safety conditions, which would decrease the likelihood of strikes. The stockpiles of coal made the strikes less effective in hurting the industry, which meant that they could be more easily ignored. But more broadly, Ordway suggests, industrial giants “have suffered a fall in the rate of productivity and profits over the past decade.” Today, this explanation is more or less accepted by radical critics of neoliberalization as its catalyst. He continues, “Especially in the past two years, industrial employers have been on a coordinated campaign to boost their profit margins by trimming workers’ rights and benefits.” Because of the centrality of coal to a range of industries in the US, and worldwide (for he ties in the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile and the industrial interests that stood to benefit there, as well), controlling costs of coal while boosting the industry’s profitability would serve as a benchmark for broader industrial restructuring. The cuts to healthcare, like the refusal to improve mine safety, were part of an overall retrenchment of social-welfare policy that began as a response to diminished profit rates and labor militancy in the 1970s. Not to give an inch became capital’s ethos on such matters ever since, but against ideological claims of decreasing state interference with the market, neoliberalization, as Carter’s intervention in the mine strike showed, entails the state taking an active role in ensuring the smooth functioning of capital accumulation. Autogestion seeks to detonate that alliance.

Unlike Zerzan’s accusatory flyer, Ordway sees the miners’ strike as inseparable from the revolt against work that had so inspired Zerzan. The flyer fails to recognize that the nationwide strike, which elicited Carter’s intervention, was the culmination of the individual wildcat strikes, sabotage, and gunfights by more radical locals. This radicalism forced the national union to take the drastic step of the broad strike. The punks were in support of the radicals, and it seems plainly mistaken to have assumed that the punks or the radical miners thought the national union and its contract fixed the problem. Dynamite and semi-automatic rifles, which some Kentucky miners used against the corporation that owned the mine, are as “unsanctioned” as it gets. Zerzan seems certain that the punk gig will support the union, rather than, say, the saboteurs. But, because the show was recorded on video and excerpted in the “Faster Shorter Louder” video, we can see that, for example, Penelope Houston of the Avengers made reference to “the miners” only, not to the union or the contract. Perhaps other bands had a more specific critique, but, from what I know about punk rock, I’d say it’s safe to assume the punks were more enamored of explosions than of contracts. But the organization of the gig itself demonstrates that punk rhetoric and punk practice differed, something Zerzan's adoption of punk's nihilistic rhetoric does not seem to recognize.

Zerzan’s anti-union position echoes the very critique Contradiction mounted of his own activism in 1971. But it seems that even by 1978, still before Reaganism, the conditions of possibility had dramatically changed. Ordway notes that the radicalism of the miners was due in part to a younger generation having gone down the shafts and found safety conditions not to have improved since the previous century. The industry’s decision to clamp down on the previously won ability to strike individual mines was its way of testing how far it could push back against this new generation’s militancy. He writes, “It is because the mine workers are angry at being treated as disposable objects that the mine strike has taken on the character of a fundamental protest against the domination of the employers over the workers.” Zerzan, in contrast, with his fetishization of the union, actually has a much more parsimonious political program, if one could call it that, than the punk-miner alliance had. In later writings, Zerzan’s idea of revolution is shown to be not just the overthrow of the domination of the bosses but of the commodity form, work, and civilization itself, but his focus on the union here does not so indicate. Moreover, I do not see the distinction between anti-work and strikes as so sharply drawn. And I do not think the punks did either. The miners whom the punks were supporting were some of the most radical in the industry, similar in age to the punks of San Francisco, and feeling the same rebellious urges. These miners first compelled the national strike through their militancy and then rejected the contract eventually imposed upon them. Ordway closes his discussion with this defense of the benefit show for striking miners: “Because most punk rockers have experienced the boredom, oppression, authoritarian-patriarchal bureaucratic repression, and simple exhaustive exploitation of office and industrial WORK” the punks are in solidarity with the miners. Ordway understands that repression of the miners would extend across the working class, and that “all who rebel have a stake in this conflict.” The work of ideology is to sever such links, to make it seem as though the motor of one group’s oppression is different from that of another. The punks were able to cut through this set of blinders, even if they may not have described it in those terms.

In contrast, Zerzan is caught up in trying to separate the authentic, radical-enough-for-him rebellion from the actually existing, organic radicalism before his eyes. I find this flyer’s desperate, moralistic, holier-than-thou attitude quite repulsive (baby, you’re so…). Because I felt as though Zerzan and his ilk had the answer when I was younger and that the answer was itself to try to be more radical than anyone else, without attempting to explain what that entailed, and to use that position as a cudgel, it particularly bothers me. In fact, if we take the word radical to mean “going to the root,” Ordway shows how the punks were the radicals here. The revolt against work meant confronting the oppressiveness of work here, there, and everywhere, so to speak, to show that solidarity could bridge ideological lines like urban/rural, gay/straight, white/black, etc. It meant refusing work and refusing those who would make work so intolerable. But it also meant trying to understand how the oppressive relationships outside the shop floor (or mineshaft) are related to those of the capitalist to the worker. I am in agreement with Zerzan insofar as I believe that work sucks and unions are so often bankrupt and in the pockets of the industries, or are industries unto themselves. But I simply do not believe that the way to increase the ranks of radicals is to make your fellows who are similarly oppressed feel bad because they are not like you, as informed, or as radical. Moreover, comfortable middle-class lives, if such things exist, may be premised on the oppression of the poor, but rather than making the middle class feel guilty about this arrangement, as liberal apologists and many radical leftists do, a better approach would be to demonstrate the shared contours of oppression and alienation between these groups. It may be true that capitalism would crumble if everyone suddenly decided to stop working in their miserable jobs all at once.* But telling people they’re stupid for continuing to work is only going to increase the ranks of those who identify with the hegemonic, oppressive ideas. In fact, neoliberalization has meant that Zerzan’s wish has largely been achieved: unions retain a small fraction of the power they did even in the 1970s. Can they still be said to be “the chief enforcer of wage labor”? No way.

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* Actually, I doubt it, as the history of capitalism is capital’s sequence of attempts to emancipate itself from the working class, as Mario Tronti, a chief theoretician of the revolt against work, once wrote. The insane growth of financial speculation in the past couple decades can be taken as proof of this proposition, as it denotes the growth of money without the intervening production and sale of commodities. The crisis, however, indicates that, contrary to capital's dream, it cannot escape the need for labor.