Friday, 11 January 2008

Imagination and the overculture: yes, it's fucking political.

There has been a lot of debate following the last post, most of which can be boiled down to the following issue: should subcultures be political? Do all 'alternatives' have a duty to engage? Do we really want to create a better world or do we - as one commentator put it so beautifully - just want to fuck in the ruins?

Let's first define the term 'subculture', which is a filthy slut-word that often flings itself around where it shouldn't, and is generally no better than it ought to be. I here define a subculture as 'a group of people who identify as outside the mainstream (however they choose to define that mainstream) and variously the habits, social mechanisms, musical, fashion-and aesthetic- preferences common to members of that group.' Or, less prissily, a subculture is a bunch of people with strange ideas ganging up against the overculture, creating a behavioural enclave that walls them off from the big, scary world outside. On one end of the scale are Hippies, Goths in all their various guises, Ravers, Emo-kids, Metalheads, Cyber-kids, Indie Rockers, Geeks, Nerds, Roleplayers, sexual deviants, Fan boys- and girls-, Fetish-pros and lifestylers; on the other end are cultures that literally ghetto themselves (more prevalent in the US than over here), political factions and organisations, cultists and anarchists. Because 'chav'(/pikey/townie depending on your location) is a specific class-identifier, I do not include it here; it is worth noting, however, that most members of the above-named subcultures tend to have the disposable income and leisure time particular to a life lived above the poverty line. Which does not mean that they are dismissable, merely that many 'subculture' lifestyles - even the self-professed asceticism of the Hippy movement - indicate at least a lower-middle-class background.

So let's ask ourselves again. Do subculture kids have a duty to engage politically?

I believe, passionately and unequivocally, that they do. Let me tell you why.

What differentiates subcultures from the overculture is no more nor less than the facility of imagination. We have the ability to imagine lives for ourselves which are different, however subtly, from the range of options prescribed to us by the overculture in which we have been raised (unless we have been lucky enough to be raised by hippies). Yes, mainstream capitalist culture tries to hitch us back into the mainframe with varying levels of success, by providing us with shiny toys and clothes to buy and things to do which defuse our political energy. At base level, though, most of us continue to see ourselves as 'other'. And that otherness, combined with the causal imaginative faculties common to most 'alternative' people, is also the starting point of most liberal political energy.

The political Left, too, is differentiated from the Right in that it can imagine possible futures and make the mental leaps necessary in order not to be afraid of change. Political, social and systemic change is exactly what terrifies the Right.

The problem with subcultures is this: they encourage imaginative people, many of whom are by default distressed with the way the world works, to use that power of imagination for escapism rather than for action. Fundamentally, it's easier to create fantasy worlds and elaborate cliques into which to disappear than to change the world that you've got. It's easier to hang out in an exclusively queer-, kink-friendly and fabulous subculture and spend all day arguing about hair extensions than to campaign for gay rights. It's easier to join a roleplaying organisation where you can spend all day pretending to be a world-destroying psychotic wizard/prophet-monk with healing powers/master-thief and heir to a ruined kingdom, than to engage in the long and sometimes arduous process of actually getting involved in the actual power processes that are actually extant in the actual country actually now.

Do we have a duty to engage politically? Damn straight we do. And does that duty fall heaviest on those 'lost' members of the Left who have turned their energies elsewhere? Absolutely. It must be stressed that asking people to engage politically - much like asking them to vote - is not the same as asking them to conform. Making a choice to disempower oneself politically is not just a personal choice - it is harmful to others on your political wavelength, it deepens the divide between the powerful and the disenfranchised in modern apolitical youth culture. Encouraging you to be political is not fascist, conformist or collectivist: it's the difference between urging you strongly to turn up on voting day and holding a gun to your head and telling you to vote for me. Fascist; liberal pro-personal empowerment. One of these things is not like the other.

Not that I'm against subculture escapism per se. In fact, subculture is, by definition, subversive - so long as one doesn't become blinkered. I think there are a good few MPs for whom an afternoon of Dungeons and Dragons would do wonders, or an evening in lurid pink spandex, dreadfalls and goggles. I would personally relish thr opportunity to take David Cameron to Slimelight and buy him a cider and black, possibly watered down with gin. The only politically distasteful elements of the socio-cultural underground are those which choose to deal with a hostile, unsympathetic world by refusing to acknowledge its existence.Not turning up to vote because you're 'not interested' or because 'they're all the same' isn't alternative, or wacky, or cool. It's just plain thick. This is how the bastards gain power. Put down that lollygoth, I'm talking to you.

No. Membership of a subculture does not necessarily mean alternative politics, and I never pretended to believe that it did. I just happen to believe that it should. The progress of liberal agendas is suffering because too many liberal, creative, imaginative people choose to escape entirely into alternative self-reflexive worlds. I believe that we can choose to retain our unique identities whilst not allowing ourslves to be fobbed off with trinkets. I believe that we can be revolutionary and politically switched-on and still have time to put on our make up and head to the crustiest local pub to pick up something multiply pierced and willing. I believe that subculture kids can and should be political.


  1. But what subcultures aren't so well-known these days as not to be just part of the over-arching culture? There isn't really a mainstream 'scene' any more, people are sort of expected to identify with a so-called 'sub'-culture. The list of examples you give covers almost everyone. Who's left? Surely, on strength of numbers, the rest of the people could be categorised into subcultures as well. David Cameron is a posh prat- surely that's a subculture? It certainly isn't the norm.

  2. Wow. I love this. I just happened to Google the world "overculture" to be sure of how I was using it in a sentence, and came across this article. I totally agree with your premise and I am persisting in reading back through your blog. Brava.


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