Friday, 30 August 2013

Politics of the punk scene

The other weekend was the annual Rebellion Punk Festival in Blackpool which features a lot of world famous punk bands. I've been going for about 7 years now, the last few years of which I've been getting in for free by helping set up the punk art stall. On the first day of the festival, the Thursday there was only one band I was really excited about seeing and that was Leftöver Crack. I've seen this band twice before at Rebellion Festival. The singer Stza Crack (as he is known solo) said something that really got me thinking. He said that a lot of bands, even at that festival talk about unity but they don't mean it and that there is no place in the punk scene for homophobia, racism or sexism. Something that I had noticed over the years in the general punk scene is they have tended to reject homophobia, racism and sexism more and more over the years, yet here Stza was claiming that at least at that festival some of the bands playing promote or at least do not reject those ideas. Over the weekend I saw the proof that he was telling the truth. I heard about some "macho-man style" sexism on the very first day, saw someone wearing a Skrewdriver (famous for forming the Rock Against Communist group in the 80s which promoted far-right views) t-shirt on the second day and I even saw someone with a false "Viking" helmet which had a sticker on the front with the union jack and the words "march or die" and on the back had a sticker saying "anti-racist is a code word for anti-white". Previous years at the festival I have witnessed people wearing fascist shirts with slogans like "White Power" and record stalls selling CDs from neo-Nazi punk bands. I did not realise there was still this vast wide range of political opinion within the punk scene.

To understand why punk attracts people from so many different political backgrounds let's start with asking what is punk? Well everyone seems to have their own definition of what punk is. To me punk is just a music genre (or a group of music genres) with sub-genres which happens to attract a subculture defined by clothes and hair fashion as well as an attraction to certain political ideologies. To others punk is a way of life, to look like a punk, listen to little but punk, to have punk tattoos and to have most of your friends as well as social life also into the punk way of life. To some it's a political movement where bands express their political views through music and literature given out at punk gigs. Some of those people say to be a punk band you don't even have to play punk music. The truth of the matter is no-one has a right or wrong idea about what punk is. Punk is whatever it means to you.

Politics has been at the heart of punk since it's very conception. From the very early days there's always been pretty much every form of politics within punk - capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, apolitical, etc. If you can name a political ideology there's probably punks somewhere singing and talking about it. There's also been a lot of punks who don't bother with politics and prefer their lyrics to be comical or romantic. The Lancashire town I grew up in, Poulton-le-Fylde, was home to one of the most famous political bands of all-time, Skrewdriver. Skrewdriver were more famous for their politics than their music, despite the original line-up not being political at all. Their singer Ian Stuart Donaldson who remained the only founding member of the band throughout it's existence became a leading spokesperson for the National Front and the National Front's North West organiser. He later went on to form Rock Against Communism, a network of bands promoting fascist and neo-Nazi ideals. I think it's fair to say that Ian Stuart and the later Skrewdriver line-ups have been perhaps the most famous and influential far-right punk band. Ian Stuart was killed in a car crash in 1993 and MDC (who support far-left politics) wrote the song "Nazis Shouldn't Drive" about him. Along with Skrewdriver there was a whole host of far-right punk bands in the 1980s, but that side of punk seems to have died down, along with the wider far-right political movement which gets a revival every time there's a recession.

However, there has always been a strong anti-fascist and anti-racist trend within punk. During the 80s, partly as a reaction to rise of neo-Nazi Oi! & skinhead punk bands the SHARP movement was formed. This stood for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. At it's height, far more punks and bands were associated to SHARP than far-right punk movements. Throughout the 80s punk and two-tone ska had many crossovers which helped the punk movement be more accepting of non-whites as many prominent ska bands (such as The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter) had black members.

Around the same time as the far-right punk bands were forming, another massively influential branch of political punk was also forming, anarcho-punk. Possibly the most famous and earliest anarcho-punk band was Crass who inspired a sub-genre of punk and a culture behind it which is still flourishing today. Here you had a punk movement that was involved in animal rights, environmental direct actions, squatting, DIY ethics, protests and promoting anarchism. Now there is two ways to look at anarcho-punk. The first is as an actual sub-genre of punk with a specific sound different to and more aggressive than classical punk, along with an accompanying subculture. Anarcho-punks (sometimes called crusty punks) often have dreadlocks or unwashed hair, wear denim jackets, covered in sewed on patches, black tattoos and facial piercings. The other way to look at anarcho-punk is purely as a political movement, and this is how most people involved in anarcho-punk see it. To those involved in the anarcho-punk scene, all you have to do to also be involved in anarcho-punk is to follow anarchist politics. This was most obvious when Chumbawumba were performing at anarcho-punk shows and being heavily involved in the scene, despite not playing any typical genre of punk, and who later became famous for the world famous pop single Tubthumping (aka I Get Knocked Down) and playing their later career as a folk band.

Of course a punk band doesn't have to be political at all, and many of my favourite punk bands have never been political. However, I think a band is missing a huge opportunity to influence the world for the better if their lyrics aren't political. With so many things wrong in the world I struggle to see how non-political topics could ever be more important. A lot of punk bands have influenced me and changed me for the better forever. If it wasn't for Goldfinger (particularly their singer John Feldman) I wouldn't have become aware of all the animal cruelty and exploitation in the world and turned vegan at the age of 17. Anti-Flag taught me to oppose imperialistic wars and war criminal heads of state. NOFX taught me to be critical of the state. Leftöver Crack, Star Fucking Hipsters and The Filaments taught me that the police protect the state, corporations and the rich rather than the people and are violent towards anyone who goes against the rich. Ghost Mice taught me about anarchist lifestyles such as skipping (aka dumpster diving). ONSIND taught me that you can be male and involved in the feminist movement. The Autonomads taught me that shoplifting from major supermarkets only harms the pockets of the ultra-rich supermarket bosses. Defiance, Ohio taught me that bicycles are an environmentally friendly way to travel, cars are not (yes, even Toyota Prius cars are not good for the environment). Citizen Fish taught me that televisions are stopping people from thinking, and making them dumber and more apathetic. If it wasn't for punk bands talking about these issues I would either still be ignorant to them, or would have discovered them as a later point in my life. I still think there's a long way to go, and some of the methods of spreading good political messages and ridding the world of bad political messages need massive improvement. However, the world is politically a better place with punk in it.

Here's my favourite song about politics in the punk scene, Up The Punks by Ghost Mice:

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The arguments for Citizen's Income

If you've ever wanted to know what it was the pushed me over the edge and join the Green Party, it was discovering their policy on Citizen's Income. What is Citizen's Income I hear you ask? Well, it is a universal benefit that is not means-tested which everyone of working age will get and it will replace benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance and other out of work benefits. All people whether in work or not would receive perhaps something in the region of £90 a week (or whatever a decent minimum amount someone needs to live on will be in the future) on top of any earnings they may receive. Of course there would still be other benefits such as housing benefit, disability benefits, child benefits, etc for those people who needed that extra help.

What a radical and crazy idea, everyone of working age receiving perhaps £90 a week from the government on top of any earnings they get. What's the point in this? Surely people who are earning enough do not need extra money. Why should those financially well off get free benefits off the state? I'd like to remind you that even the very richest people in society receive free services from the state. Libraries, hospitals, refuge collection, well lit and paved streets (alright, the streets aren't always well paved), schools, the police force, the fire brigade, etc. These are all basically free benefits that are not means-tested and are available to every citizen in the country. You could argue that these services are not free to everyone as they are paid for out of tax and rightly so. But they are free at the point of use, and you do not have to prove that you come under some forms of criteria before you are allowed to use the service for free. Could you imagine what it'd be like if these services were only free to the poorest in society? I could just imagine Daily Mail readers hounding those poorest in society for being "benefit scroungers" and belittling and demoralising those who cannot through any fault of their own find well paid work. Well, actually no I don't see that happening, I don't think even well-off people would stand for being charged every time they wanted access to an NHS hospital or having to give the police force their debit card number. When it comes to those public services everyone is seen and treated as equals. There isn't much class divide in a hospital or library. Imagine if more benefits were non-means-tested. In some parts of the country the unemployed can claim free or reduced cost bus passes. A worker travelling on the same bus may have to pay £17 a week or £40 a month for the same bus pass, which is a reasonable chunk of their salary gone on travel expenses. There would be far less begrudging of the poorest in society in the buses if everyone in the country was entitled to a free bus pass. Instead of cutting a benefit that the unemployed receive and perhaps depend on, making it a benefit that all in society are entitled to will eliminate the division between the unemployed or low-waged getting something for free that other people have to work to afford. This forms part of the principle of Citizen's Income.
Isn't this just encouraging people not to work? The answer to that question is yes and no. The amount for Citizen's Income is only a little higher than the current Job Seekers Allowance. Those claiming JSA often struggle for money, and therefore when it comes round to buying interview clothes, getting the bus to look for work or travel to an interview, having access to a computer with the internet at their own home, etc sometimes they simply just cannot afford the basics to get them back into work. Having that little extra will help them when they find they need to buy a suit and shoes for an interview, or with getting a bus to town to hand out CVs to potential employers. Far too often unemployed people get stressed and worried about money when they could be focussing on finding work.

Similar to the Universal Credit that the current coalition government are trying to phase in, if you gain any form of employment you would keep all of your Citizen's Income. And unlike Universal Credit you would still receive your entire Citizen's Income if your income went up. This is an incentive to work. Currently if you work then your benefits go down and if you work over 16 hours a week you cannot claim any Job Seekers Allowance and you may be worse off if housing benefit and other benefits get reduced. With Citizen's Income you will always be financially better off in work. However, I will not pretend that Citizen's Income will make everyone want to find employment. It won't. There does need to be other measures to increase employment as well as make employment a more attractive proposal. So there would be people on Citizen's Income who will not try to look for any paid work whatsoever. Ultimately what I have to say to this is that does not matter. We live in a society that over produces. Over the last few decades production methods have gotten more and more efficient and machines now do the work that men and women used to do. Factories need to employ far fewer people to produce more goods than they did a century ago. In the 1970's and 80's people were told that these machines and computers would lead to people working less. This hasn't been the case, and working hours have actually increased dramatically. There are far more jobs in service roles than in production these days. Sales and marketing jobs are abundant. As a society, we do not need all of these new jobs that have been created. Pizza Hut often pay someone to stand in the street holding a sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of the nearest Pizza Hut. This is a job role that isn't needed by anyone, no-one need to see that sign, people can find Pizza Hut if they want to without the need of that person. I would argue that we are at a stage where society could easily provide the basics for everyone without the need for everyone to be in full time employment. More than a third of the food in this country is thrown away. More and more items are purposely manufactured to break easily so that people will keep buying those items and more items are produced in order to be used once and then thrown away. Computers, mobile phones, cars, video games consoles, and other technology is designed so that every few months or years people will need to update and buy a whole new version. A lot of this technology could be designed so that in order to get the new upgrade you only have to buy a small part and get that fitted rather than buying a whole new model. We can easily cut the total amount of hours worked. This brings me onto my next point.

Citizen's Income may actually increase employment. How? At present lots of people are over-worked and feel the need to work lots of hours to be able to afford a decent standard of living. There are people in full-time employment who would like some extra free time. Perhaps they've got children and would like to spend more time with their family. Everybody having an extra £90 a week in their pockets would allow more people to reduce their hours if they wished. This would mean employers would have surplus hours for employees and may have to employ more people. It's Green Party policy to reduce a full-time working week from 36 hours a week to 26 hours a week so that there would be more hours for people currently working less than 26 hours. The other benefit of this is the net contribution to the private sector. If more people are working, and if everyone has an extra £90 a week, more people can afford to spend more. People are more likely to visit their local shops, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, etc. This will result in those places employing more people, and then those extra new employees will themselves have more money to spend in the private sector.

But how will this all be paid for? Can we afford it? Along with Green Party policy to raise tax for the richest in society, and to tackle tax evasion and avoidance as well as other policies such as the Robin Hood Tax and clamping down on tax heavens, Citizen's Income can become affordable. Corporate tax avoidance, tax evasion and tax heavens costs the UK government an estimate £95 billion [1]. Let's say for arguments sake that this is 42 million people in the UK of working age and let's also say that Citizen's Income would be £90 a week. That would be £3.78 billion per week or £196.56 billion a year. The UK government currently spends £4.91 billion a year on Job Seekers Allowance[2]. A further total of £40.41 billion on in-work benefits including income support and working tax credits which would be saved if minimum wage was raised to a reasonable level, something that Green Party policy supports[2]. On top of that everyone on disability benefit would have £90 out of their disability benefit replaced with Citizen's Income. Roughly estimated that's 3.25 people[3], so that's another £15.21 billion. That makes £60.93 billion out of current benefit spending which would go towards Citizen's Income. That leaves a shortfall of £135.63 billion to make up. During the Second World War the highest level of income tax was 99.25%. In the 1950's and 60's this was reduced to 90%. In 1979 when Thatcher got into power it was 83%. By 1988 it had been reduced to 40%. At the present it is 45% but only for earnings over £150,000. Along with the £95 billion for corporate tax avoidance and tax evasion, reversing the declining trend of low levels of tax for top earners would easily cover more than the shortfall of £135.63 billion. Not to mention the potential extra income tax from the possibility of more people being in employment.

None of the above however give the real reason why I support Citizen's Income, just added extras. The anarcho-communist within me believes everyone should have the right to the basics in life - a roof over their head, food on the table, clothes to wear - a basic decent minimum standard of living, while at the same time I believe that if someone wants luxuries they should have to work for those luxuries. Citizen's Income would achieve this, giving people enough money to afford the basics in life while not giving enough money to afford many luxuries. All in all, society would be a bit of a better place with Citizen's Income. There'd be reduced poverty, possible extra employment, less class divide and greater equality.

For further reading: