DIY activism & punk capitalism

by craig

When I was fifteen and first getting into punk stuff, there wasn’t too much of a scene going on in Miami, not in any organized sense, but me and this friend from school would find rides out to Miami Beach to catch shows at this dive called Washington Square. The ten years between then and now have seen the forces of gentrification turn South Beach into this hideous tourist shopping bonanza and Washington Square became, I think, a gourmet pizzeria, but in those days it served as a destination for bands that in the next few years would show up on MTV-like Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins-and also as a venue for local hardcore acts with few other spaces to play down there, skirting the ocean at the bottom of Florida. The shows were eighteen and up and so we would wander around the local delis on Washington (now, also, gone) trying to scam a fat magic marker with which to “x” our wrists-the primitive mark of paid entry. Thus self-branded we would ease past the line, flash our wrists, and make our free, illegal “re-entry” into the smoky, steamy confines of the show.

At the time we just thought we were being rascally and punk rock, but there is something about that creative negotiation of capital and access and lack thereof that resonates with my politics today.

After Florida I wound up in New York City and happened upon some cool guerilla politicking with this group of kids, and we got into calling our shit "DIY activism." For some of us this referenced jaded punk rock pasts that gave way to political organizing futures, or maybe the cynical mix of punk and politics that comprised our present. Mostly we pressed stickers and printed public art posters, cross-examining issues like the mainstreaming of gay politics, police brutality, and federal funding for needle exchanges. We put out a zine and a public arts and speaker forum, ad-hoc projects that have continued since then to take on new lives in new hands.

We’d all met doing gay activism with this group of mostly older professional white guys who constantly waved their years of experience over our younger heads, dismissing our demands for complicated political agendas that wrestle simultaneously with sexuality and race and feminism and economics. And so we jumped ship on their long, tired meetings and decided we didn’t need their fancy grown-up selves to make things happen. Following our own improvised strategies, we stole art supplies and snuck in early to our office jobs to make photocopies. We put on sliding-scale shows to renew the cash we’d fronted ourselves. This was do-it-yourself activism: scrounging resources, winging it, having fun and inventing our process along the way.

So for me there is some connection between challenging mainstream, institutional activism that produces only a narrow agenda of limited liberation, and the promise of punk rock to make music that defies corporate marketing strategies and aims.

And like when I snuck into shows because I didn’t have ID, this brings to mind issues of access and resources. It’s not about following a formula for the right way to do things, it’s about a praxis that arrives organically out of the pressure of what needs to get done. DIY activism says not only multi-national corporations with huge advertising budgets can use the subways and streets to push their ideas; we can too, armed only with stickers and wheat paste and a sense of urgency.

So my early punk stirrings inform my everyday politics now, and those politics ask me to reconsider the place of punk in these questions of capital and resources. I’m disappointed when I open up an issue of Punk Planet and am treated to interviews with “indie” record label guys or “alterna” sticker corporations telling me the secret to their success; their pop-psych business philosophies sound way too much like those of any executive of any money-making machine. Finding ways to make capitalism work for “us” rubs the wrong way and seems a dissatisfying place to end up when I thought we could be having conversations about economic redistribution, anti-poverty politics, and strategic socialist possibilities in every day practice. When I read “Punk Planet” and the businesses it pushes, I don’t feel reassured by some naive promise that we can all make a buck doing what we love; I see the professionalization of a subculture that can’t be accounted for or dismissed by a simplistic debate about selling-out. We are all situated in a field determined by global capitalism, but there are myriad choices we can make within the field, choices that have very real, material, disparate impacts.

Just as I don’t believe the lie that gay organizing events cannot be funded without corporate sponsorship [this gay liberation proudly brought to you by Miller Lite . . .], I believe that we can make zines and stickers and records and lives that don’t only succumb to the market forces of capitalism. If I want to publish a book, I don’t have to sell my words to some conglomerate that also owns the news we see on TV, the music we hear on the radio and the station playing it. I just have to print that shit out myself, make a lot of copies at Kinko’s, and sneak out the back door without paying. So I don’t hand more profit over to some corporation, instead I steal proft from another. The capitalist logic of order and hierarchy and process teaches us all the things that are never possible, and our job is to call out the lie and find the better, different way to do all that rabble-rousing we’ve got planned.

I got into politics after punk taught me about doing-it-yourself, finding your own way-as Mimi Nguyen would say, cutting and pasting your revolution together. And in turn, writing about and organizing for social and economic justice has led me to question where (if at all) poverty alleviation and economic redistribution fit into punk (or any music market, for that matter). My question is simply-how does finding more uses for capitalism challenge the earth-shattering divide between rich and poor folks in the united states? I don’t think it can. Capital consumption and production are not our manifest destiny. The economic structure is itself a DIY project, it’s something we each piece together in every day practice with whatever resources we have at hand. And in that process we can fuck capitalism up, do it wrong. We can refuse the alienation and competition and greed that our so-called booming economy demands of us in these violent times of

I guess in the end, for me DIY politics says: don’t tell me what I can’t do, and don’t tell me capitalism is the only way. I think this is a reasonable place to start.