Philosopher with a mohawk

Sjereno Cörvers is a Belgian philosophy student and semi-old punk rocker who researched Herbert Marcuse’s view on art (which includes punk). The philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who is well known In the domain of the student protest movement in the USA and protest movements in general, saw art as a possible saviour against capitalist societies. These societies consist of one-dimensional people, he says. One-dimensional humans cannot escape from the utilitarian and scientific view of the world and thus are powerless to resist capitalist destructive practice. He saw salvation in some forms of art. Punk is the best representation of this form of art, although punk rose after Marcuse’s death.

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Saying that capitalism is the root of many problems in society in this magazine is like shouting in an echo chamber. Saying that a famous philosopher denounced capitalism might also sound familiar. But stating there was a philosopher who rejected capitalism and saw salvation in punk before the dawn of the punk movement, that, I am sure, is new to many of you. I am speaking of Herbert Marcuse, the intellectual claimed by the student revolts across the West. Especially his book One-Dimensional Man could be seen frequently in the hands of students at protests. Throw books, not stones! They too, break glass.

How could he have claimed that punk could bring redemption from capitalism? Technically he didn’t, but he saw an escape from capitalist thought in certain art forms. To Marcuse, capitalism is not just an economic system, it’s a way of thinking with the sole purpose being the exploitation of nature. To efficiently do so, it quantifies humankind and nature and reduces them to mere mathematical formulas. Based on this worldview, humankind constructed a world filled with economic laws and calculations. We interiorised this paradigm of thinking in terms of efficiency, utility and domination. Nature now appears as a vessel of materials and objects to be used at our disposal and without intrinsic value. Not only is nature subject to efficiency and utility, but also humankind. Think of how disposable the workforce has become and how assembly line work fits the capitalist paradigm.

The problem is we can’t think outside of this box because every negative statement or experience can be transformed into something positive. For example, through marketing or technology and its promise of elevation. You might feel bad about flying with a big airline company because of climate change. But no worries, you can pay €7,- extra to pay off that moral debt. They want you to believe you are not polluting but contributing to the solution.

We need something that denounces without the potential to be converted into something positive. Some songs don’t exactly make you smile – unless you’re one of those twisted sadists. ‘There’s a trace of decay through each passing day,’ Russ Rankin proclaims in Precariat. In Marcuse’s eyes, art should not only be negative but realistic too. For him, art before the 1930s created an illusory reality, an escape from daily suffering, and was brimming with order. Yet something changed in some forms of art, especially in avant-garde art.

Punk music that externalises the punk spirit uses the same techniques as avant-garde art. The movement is based on discordance, friction, disruption and rebellion; also to itself – like in Punk is Dead by Crass, which condemns the consumerist elements of the punk movement. When applied to reality through political and societal content, a distance arises between the individual and social reality. The punk can thus transcend social reality, creating a community that questions the mindset of the status quo. Punk creates space for another consciousness which radically rejects the existing system. Every time the vibrations of Suffer from Bad Religion blast through my stereo, I want to hit the streets and shout ‘Fuck you, I reject this system!’.

In terms of form, punk is also the negation of the existing order: punk is sometimes called anti-music. Punk wants to remove the distance between the audience and the musicians by omitting lofty language. They grossly break musical norms: the tempo is fast, the guitar riffs aggressive, and the musicians sometimes aren’t even proficient at playing their instruments.

Since the 1990s, capitalist thought has assimilated more parts of the punk movement. Bands like Rise Against became performance bands. Therein lies the danger that if a band loses its radical impact, it becomes susceptible to massification because it works as a catharsis, as a group therapy that suppresses the rebellion, rather than as a radical negation of the reality that stimulates rebellion.

By Sjereno Cörvers

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