Dances with Agitators: What is ‘Anarchist Music’?

By Jim Donaghey

Robin Ballinger argues that ‘[m]usic is neither transcendental nor trivial, but inhabits a site where hegemonic processes are contested’ (in Sakolsky and Ho (eds.), 1995: 14) – in other words, music matters. However, music (and culture more widely) is often viewed as being of minor importance within social movements, as something coincidental rather than fundamental. Consideration of anarchism and music contributes to an understanding of the complex relationships between culture and radical politics more widely, while challenging those narrow conceptions of radicalism that fail to take cultural aspects into account. This chapter points to the core role of culture (and music) in social movements, and the recognition of this importance across a wide spectrum of anarchist perspectives. The chapter then considers evaluations of ‘anarchist music’, identifying the aspects which are too easily recuperated by the State and capital (such as aesthetics and lyrics), and highlighting those aspects which contain radical transformative potential (such as Do-It-Yourself or DIY production processes – though this is necessarily marginal in character and scope). A transformation is not a fixed entity; it only operates in relation to an a priori situation. Evaluation of ‘anarchist music’ in terms of transformation is therefore alive to shifting contexts, and does not impose a particular set of criteria – yet, it still usefully problematises any claim of a particular music as being ‘anarchist’. However, no form of music (in terms of its aesthetic or production process) is entirely immune to co-optation, and it is argued here that music’s radical transformative potential is most fully realised, and most resilient, when engaged within a culture of resistance.


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