By Jackson Albert Mann, Hampton Institute
I don’t think that the politics of anarcho-punk had that much to do with anarchism anyway… more like militant liberalism.”
This is how Ramsey Kanaan, ex-vocalist of the Scottish punk band Political Asylum and founder of left-wing publishing houses AK Press and PM Press, characterized the politics of anarcho-punk, the wave of anarchist punk rock bands that washed over the United Kingdom in the early 1980s. His reflection comes from the final section of Ian Glasper’s colossal anarcho-punk oral history, within which similar sentiments are expressed by many former anarcho-punk musicians. They are right to feel ambivalent. In the first years of Thatcher’s rule, anarcho-punk developed into a surprisingly dynamic politico-cultural movement. Yet, by the end of the decade the movement had disappeared just as quickly as it had emerged, leaving behind a few catchy hooks, some memorable graphic design, but virtually no coherent political culture. For all of its bluster about political commitment, anarcho-punk was a spectacular failure.
Reading through Glasper’s numerous interviews, one is tempted to locate the origins of anarcho-punk’s aimless demise within the movement itself. Indeed, this is what many participants, fans, and scholars believe. According to Punk graphic design scholar Ana Raposo, it was competing “claims for authenticity” within the movement that generated the “cliquey, insular, and negative” attitudes which led to its downfall. I would argue, however, that anarcho-punk’s eventual anticlimactic decline was a symptom of something external to the movement; the dire position of left-wing politics in the 1980s UK. To dismiss anarcho-punk without a proper analysis of its full politico-historical context is to do the contemporary Left a great disservice. An exploration of the movement’s rise and collapse holds important lessons for socialist cultural activists now aiming to construct what William Harris recently called “working-class cultural institutions.”