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Come As You Are: Punk and Neoliberal Leftism 


This article is the starting piece for a larger book project by Jason Myles and Alexander Herbert on the simultaneous history of punk/hardcore and leftist politics, and the problems that the blending subcultures pose to organizing today.

Permit us to open this article with some personal reflections on our experiences in both the music and leftist scenes as a point of entry.


First of all, I want to say “thank you” to the followers on Instagram who responded to my poll about why they don’t go to shows anymore. The answers were actually more varied than I expected and clearly there is a lot to say in such an article. I also want to confess that a lot of what I am going to discuss below I am guilty of. I don’t fault anyone for falling into the traps of scene cliques and subculture – it provides a vital outlet (and sometimes the only outlet) for alienated kids. I just hope that being aware of the “scenes'” limitations can help everyone overcome them.

When I was very young, between 4 and 7, my sister, cousins, and I used to memorize choreography from Backstreet Boys and other pop artists’ music videos and then perform the dances for our parents. It was cute, and I wish I had a picture to drop here. It reflected a genuine human urge to be seen and to participate in something larger than oneself in community. Humans, as social beings, are performative by nature, and we are always looking for ways to perform in front of an audience.

This urge to perform has never escaped me, and when I was in high school, I played drums for a hardcore punk band. We were never that great, but for high schoolers we were phenomenal and our energy and sing-along lyrics cultivated a rather large following in our county. I remember one time after we recruited the singer – a novice to punk rock at the time – I told him at a practice, “Dude, nobody cares what the lyrics actually are, they will sing along to anything and even better if it’s funny or offensive.”That’s how the song “FMP” came out, with the appropriate chorus “Some people like to play tennis, but I just want to fuck my parents.” Of course, everyone sang along.

Our shows were known for being raucous and unhinged. A few times our set caused riot-like situations and had to be broken up and ended by police interference. (One of those stories is memorialized here by a friend). Between the ages of 16 and 19, I tried, with all the adrenaline and angst I had, to play drums as fast, loud, and powerfully as possible. People used to approach me after shows and say, “Damn, man, I’ve never seen drumming like that!” and “You’re really great.” Even the metal kids were smitten by my speed, which was always for me a standard measurement. One time, we even played on the street and someone approached ME to give ME twenty dollars. I said, “Put it in the band bucket.” Rhe dude replied, “Oh no, buddy, that’s for you.”

Truth be told, I hated it. The type of hype and ego boost that came with being in a band always made me feel uncomfortable. I felt like people wanted to be my friend BECAUSE I could play drums fast, and people were interested in me BECAUSE I was “that drummer.” Looking back, my anxiety was probably more extreme than it needed to be, but I could never shake the sense that people respected me for a skill that was truthfully only a tiny fraction of what made me unique.

When I was a budding 20-year-old punk in the final months of a band, I understood the energy and commitment I directed to the music to be a dead end, and I decided to redirect my attention to something more immediately contributory.

So I quit – I stopped playing in bands and writing music altogether. Around age 20, I decided that I didn’t want to be known or respected for music, I wanted to be recognized and judged on my intellectual capacity and achievements. To me, that always seemed like a more worthy and contributory endeavor. While my friends continued to write and put out records hoping to make it big with one, I set my sights on books and a professional degree to put me in front of a lecture hall rather than on a stage.

Although I stopped writing and performing, I did not fully give up attendance. For a brief period, between about 2014 and 2018, I stayed aloof from most of the musical developments in the United States, and I found Russian punk to be the perfect niche that combined my passion for music and my professional goals. My first punk experience in Russia, a Party Breaker show at an abandoned factory in Nizhny Novgorod, reminded me of the energy and angst of my old band. The entire room moshed, nobody stood with their arms crossed in indifference, and, despite the nails sticking out of the floor, wall, and ceiling, people hung on rafters, giving it everything they had. It was raw, unadulterated energy the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the days of my old band.

Most importantly, everyone knew and respected each other. The scene in Nizhny was so small that bands of various genres had to play together, and people knew one another across genres. There wasn’t just a reflexive sense of “pick someone up when they fall moshing” but rather, “pick ‘Nikolai’ up when he falls moshing.” Despite the slight change, there’s a massive qualitative difference.

When I finished What About Tomorrow? I felt inspired, but I also felt this sigh of relief and a newfound ability to enter back into the world of US and local music. I started going to shows again in the United States and exploring new bands. Part of the impetus for Punks Around Fanzine came from a desire to submerge myself back into the “scene” but with a newfound appreciation for the social issues and elements that make Punk unique.

By 2018, so many new bands were posting to Bandcamp and other online formats that I found it impossible to keep up with. Every time I found a new band, the hip kid at the show would minimize the discovery in favor of their obscure discovery from Des Moines, Iowa, or some other random place. So, in defeat, I started just following the lead – I waited for certain people I respected to introduce me to new bands, and I stuck to my old favorites that were by then old and tired.

Underlying these developments from 2018 to 2023 was a political and economic shift in the United States that pivoted my attention from music and even history to political concern and activism. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the rise of a new form of identity-based intersectional politics, I found myself frustrated by the failure of those around me to see the shifting economic situation of the country as a sign of larger things to come. When I moved back to Providence in 2019, my rent price was a fraction of what it is now, Roe v. Wade was still upheld, and the United States was leaving Afghanistan.


I can’t quite remember the year exactly, but I remember it was the early aughts. My buddy who was a guitar player in a band that was about to play Warped Tour was at my house fiddling around with my “lawsuit” ESP Flying V. If you’re not familiar with it, it was the Kirk Hammet model in the 80s/90s before Gibson guitars sued ESP for copyright infringement due the look of the ESP version being a direct clone of the Gibson one. Anyway, my buddy asked if he could use it during their Bay Area Warped Tour performance and I was honored and of course didn’t mind. His band included a couple more childhood friends from Richmond, California so to me it was all love, but I had no idea what that guitar would mean to the crowd and the fans in attendance.

I got the guitar back and asked my buddy how the show went. He said they played super early (Warped Tour changes the slots of the bands every day, and his band was a smaller band, so they played on some small stage super early, and most likely played to a fraction of the people that actually went to the show) and he said that some fans questioned his use of the V guitar. I was shocked, why would anyone have an issue not with the content of the music, but the look of the instrument played by the guitarist? It’s a V body style played by everyone from Metallica, Jimmy Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz, and blues legend Albert King is known for his signature model V. The versatility of the instrument was ignored, as for the young concertgoers, it was simply a relic of something they weren’t there to see: archaic heavy metal. As is the case with generational discourse, so much of it is futile – a cultural critique. Younger fans were aggrieved at the use of this guitar at something that was billed as a “punk rock” festival — metal instruments had no place there. This was no longer outsider music that encompassed a wide array of listeners, thanks to the success of bands like Metallica, it was part of a “bro culture” or a soundtrack to bullying for the waifish Warped Tour fans. Metallica was a main staple of rock radio, as were the grunge bands of the early 90s at this point. Once considered to be cutting edge, now a new crop of self-purported edgy youth understood this music as the soundtracks to sports stadiums and conformity.

I found this all strange because I grew up in an era where we really didn’t care all that much what our heroes’ instruments looked like. Slayer’s late founding member and guitar player, Jeff Hanneman, made sure his guitar was loaded with stickers even displaying his love for the Dead Kennedys. James Hetfield of Metallica wore GBH shirts (a hardcore punk band) and Metallica even covered the Misfits on their Garage Days EP in 1987. Punk and metal were hand in hand in an alliance against the conservative Reagan/Thatcherite 80s. What happened?

Metal or punk, hardcore, grind, industrial, pop punk, a hyper genrefication of heavy, guitar-oriented music is a common industry tool to sell records. A band like Nirvana is the personification of hardcore punk. In 1991 when Nevermind came out, “grunge” became the perfect marketing tool for all the Seattle-based music that was coming out. There is no sonic throughline with grunge like you get with something like thrash metal. Grunge, to me, signifies music released in the post-Reagan/Bush era in which white people in plaid shirts and ripped jeans made guitar-based music that was everything from hardcore punk to 70s hard rock and metal. Grunge’s time as a counterculture was short-lived since the moniker was an industry creation. It’s more a fashion aesthetic than it is a musical genre. It was only a matter of time before Nirvana and their Seattle mates would be playing stadiums and become pop culture icons.

I knew if I were ever to make music, I didn’t want to be burdened with fitting in a box because I was influenced by a diversity of tones that couldn’t be encapsulated into one simple genre moniker. So I formed a two-piece with a woman I was dating at the time, La Fin Absolute Du Monde (French for The Absolute End of the World). When asked to define our sound, we’d say “We’re the soundtrack to oblivion.” Because we really didn’t think that our sound was easily definable with a familiar genre label. In one song it could be melodic acoustic guitar and a lilting vocal, the very next song could be bombastic metal with screaming vocals. Our music was getting some attention online, and we soon got a very small deal with a very small label out of the UK (Foolscircle Records) and they released our first 3 projects.


We found out quickly that people don’t like vague terms when it comes to discovering or even reviewing new music, they want a reference band so they know where to place you in the bin of disposable bands. Music, for us, was experience, and with the advent of streaming, the ability to access the history of recorded music in your pocket made music simply the background white noise of your life. This is all about markets and market share, it’s not about “art.” Attempting to capture any aspect of an existing market that you’re trying to tie oneself to has become so common that often you see new artists pitch themselves with the acronym “FFO,” or for fans of, so you know exactly what you’re getting. “Hey, you liked the hot new band that’s on the cover of all the music blogs and all the curated playlists, well, we sound just like ’em! Not only do we sound like ’em, we dress like ’em, we act like them in interviews, we are basically a clone of them, only different!” (They’re never really that different).

Trying to break free of the aural monotony was our goal, and I don’t know if we achieved it, depending on how you define success. We refused to follow the popular trends in heavy music and follow our own path, we believed this to be the very ethos of what we thought of as punk rock, or rock n’ roll in general. Rebellious music that thumbed its nose at the status quo. Or so we thought.

We believed that because of our divergent musical stylings, we would have a wide range of people listening to what we were creating. And for the most part, touring with everything from alt-country acts, rappers, death metal groups, and more, we did have an interesting fanbase to say the least. The diversified sound though wasn’t what taste makers wanted to cover. They wanted something that fit nicely into what was already trending. It’s not about new sounds, it’s about a new band that sounds like what’s hot to obtain eyeballs to your site/magazine/blog. When we were pitching the band for reviews for our 4th record, a friend in a popular group at the time gave an early mastered version of one of our songs to a popular music critic that they knew at the biggest heavy music blog at the time. The response was, and I’ll never forget this, “What the hell is this? I’m only listening to doom metal dude, I can’t do anything with this..”

Music, much like contemporary politics, sadly, is about satisfying the appetite of already committed consumers and appealing to that audience by having new faces do the exact same thing that is trending at the moment. The same people that saw themselves as true authentic punks decrying the use of the V shaped guitar are no different than self-proclaimed leftists that need you to identify your political affiliation before you’re allowed entry into a left space. Are you brand liberal, brand communist, brand neo-conservative, etc? Musical subcultures like hardcore punk, conscious hip hop, and the like may have music that speaks to certain left sensibilities, but it becomes a niche designed to meet the needs of a small, yet captured market of people that desire more than what they believe to be corporate controlled tedium of the mainstream. It’s the mindset that says “I don’t have to listen to Taylor Swift to know I don’t like her, she’s mainstream,” and that’s bad..right?

There is a culture of authenticity that prevails in these milieus that makes it difficult to build cadres. If too many people like your countercultural fetish, then it’s no longer worthy. This is the sentiment for many on the contemporary left. A war of individualism is born out of a desire to be more “radical” or more “left,” so splits are formed and more obscure subgenres are created. Take MAGA Communism for example. Is that an actual ideology, or is it simply a clever marketing ploy to attract apathetic eyeballs for monetization? The algorithms of rage garner attention for an ecosystem that lives off responding to outrageous proclamations. Political commentators are no different than loudmouth sports radio pundits. This polity of individuality is peak neoliberalism. Social media provides outlets to broadcast your brand slogans, and the “like” button can confirm for you that you are indeed one of many in some sort of struggle without ever leaving home. But as much as believing that NWA’s “Fuck the Police” was an anthem against authoritarian control of a captured poor and working-class populace, believing that your radical identity is a threat to capitalist hegemony is equally naive.

Towards a Politics of the Pit

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we recognize the naive belief that subculture could liberate us from the confining structures of neoliberal hegemony and social relations. Communities centered around music offered our young selves a promise of brotherhood while at the same time obediently subjecting us to standardized modes of acting, thinking, hearing, and seeing, premised on the “forefathers” of the genre; we had to dress like British skinheads of the 1970s, play guitar like the post-punk icons of the 1980s, and be just as hard, masculine, and menacing as the Hardcore idols that built our “scenes.” We signed on because we believed that the exchange of individualism for conformity granted us entry into a genuine community, and this dissent constituted some political purpose.

The truth is that the 1980s generation, like the 70s rockers and the hippies before them, always lacked a sense of organized political purpose. 80s hardcore was a cultural protest, and few of its leaders joined activist groups or radical parties to try to change the conditions they complained about. A friend of mine who grew up in that period once said something like “Revolutionaries want to change the world, hardcore kids want to destroy it.” The recent zine “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” argues essentially that the 80s Hardcore movement was never about changing the world – only complaining about it. I would add that whereas, in the 1970s, punk bands strived to be the most authentic “rockers,” even if that meant openly criticizing the rock industry, by the 1980s bands competed to be the most culturally transgressive.

When Nirvana made their debut, cultural transgression became a cliché easily co-opted by the establishment, and the 80s hardcore bands that I loved never bothered to resist that process – a testament to the fact that “community” never mattered as much to them as it mattered to us, the fans. In fact, if a band didn’t change their sound to keep up with demand, they quit altogether. Gang Green is a case in point, but the Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, and countless others, for some reason or another, changed their sound to keep up with an emergent commercial demand.

Those who remained the champions of hardcore like Youth of Today, Chain of Strength, and Gorilla Biscuits, helped the genre shed its last remaining political relevance. Only the skinhead subculture retained a “working class” ethos, which even there prided itself on its conservative bent, with a vehement anti-communism. Of course, fringe anarchist groups remained tethered to a political sensibility, which became diluted and trite when fashion overtook punk and became a symbol of one’s anti-establishmentarianism. Moreover, anarchists never adequately distinguished themselves ideologically from libertarians, so when the Tea Party emerged, the politics became even more vague. To don spikey hair and studs became a symbol; the studded vests sought to combine the rocker and the transgressor to an obscure political totem against the “state,” and that vagueness explains why some of those bands like Rancid broke through. The politics were abstract and individualistic enough not to be dangerous, and punks doing outreach and mutual aid never connected their reasons for doing so to capitalism in any systemic way.

As for pop punk, listen to any song from Green Day, Blink-182, or any other breakthrough band from that period, and you’ll hear individualistic self-loathing, self-irony, and tomfoolery, but not a single condemnation of capitalism.

So you can imagine our excitement when, in the early 2020s, younger punk rockers started advocating outright communist points, and in some cases slinging copies of the Communist Manifesto and flying the Hammer and Sickle. It was easy to think, “Damn, these kids are finally doing what punks’ past had never been able to do – mobilize.” Much (but not all) of the modern re-emergence of Marxism stems directly from the underground DIY punk scene and adolescent experiences in “scenes” and music communities. Alienated from their peers and parents, and living paycheck-to-paycheck, many younger punks sought refuge in political ideologies that seemed to explain their reality. Anarchism, which always existed in punk spaces, re-emerged within underground hardcore, and Marxism also made its entry in a large way for the first time.

Although the exposure of Marxist ideas to budding punk rockers is invaluable, punk’s adaptation reads more like a new form of dogmatism rather than political guidance. It is as though millennial punks have traded in their mohawks for the Communist Manifesto, treating it like a new scripture subject to the same catholic dogma.

The cross-pollination of leftist politics with punk has created a situation in which leftism has become as performative as the rock image of the 70s and the cultural protest of the 80s. To be the most authentically “punk” means to have the most doctrinally informed take and to never be wrong about anything, which necessarily comes at the expense of others. The ego-centered dogmatism blends machismo (often now masked as “queer” sympathetic) that has always permeated the scene, with art-based egos, in which personalities can only be validated through intellectual, creative, and sexual dominance within a community that is often imagined to be larger than it actually is. This is why “cancel culture” is practiced in the hardcore/punk scene more than anywhere else, why men still frequently cross lines with women, why people who feel powerless (who lack the intellectual, creative, social, and/or sexual capital) often exaggerate accusations, and why bands keep getting called out for bad behavior and treatment of others. Fragile, truly powerless egos have become tied up in a political projection that feeds into the always-present search for acceptance and dominance. It is a toxic blend of ego, purity, performance, misdirected masculinity, and false compassion.

The limitless access to quick and easy information on Youtube, Wikipedia, and Social Media allows anyone to promote and spread under-developed ideas with conviction, and those ideas make for good song themes and choruses to chant. For those without the wherewithal to become walking Wikipedia pages, it’s easier to gate-keep bands and present oneself as the keeper of some hidden underground knowledge where, if you’re not “hip” to these obscure bands (or texts, or intellectuals), you’re a poser. Almost every aspect of this scene, on every level, is loaded with egoism, contradiction, and missed potential.

Thus, the problem is that none of the energy expended within the scene on political slogans, the search for knowledge, and hard work is devoted meaningfully to political movement or mobilization. Proclaiming one’s Marxist politics on stage is not mobilizing the crowd, it’s a performative act declaring one’s moral purity and scene credibility.

Truthfully, contradictions of punk and Marxist circles complement each other in that both promise a sense of community, compassion, and anti-individualism while practicing none of that on a daily basis. The energy that should be directed toward fostering a powerful, mutually committed community of comrades is directed instead at the individualist creation of content. Everyone wants to be an independent artist, nobody genuinely wants to be a comrade, receiving its ultimate manifestation in the recent turn toward DJing and noise music, where collaboration is unnecessary.

Shows have become cauldrons of toxic pan-gender machismo and cliques in conflict with each other over notions of purity, authenticity, and maximalism. Hardcore and punk rockers today are more concerned with labeling their peers “posers” than creating a meaningful co-dependent, and cordial community. The contradiction between rhetoric and practice is nowhere more evident, and every ticket sold and audience member validates those egos and contradictions.

The left political spectrum is no different in this regard. Everyone is performing their radical bonafides on social media, mistaking engagement as approval, and the shared outrage of an issue as community. Much like the idea that music is activism, monetizing your perspective to become some sort of thought leader is just another form of individualist self-gratification. The centerpiece is no longer the “working class,” but the chattering class of podcasters, academics, and public intellectuals talking in a circle.

We propose a book that looks more closely at the simultaneous history of counter-culture and leftism, and how the two have mutually constructed a “politics of the pit” that aspires to communality and compassion but produces exclusion and hierarchy. If you’re interested in such a topic, or have anything to say, please send us a comment or feel free to share your experience.