Punk's Not Dead! (It's Just Been Crudely Absorbed Into the Machinery of Capitalism)

18/06/2015 14:48 BST | Updated 13/06/2016 10:59 BST


So. Artwork designed for the sleeves of Sex Pistols records 'Anarchy in the UK' and 'Never Mind the Bollocks' are now being featured on Virgin Money credit cards. The age-old cry of 'punk is dead!' has gone out across the internet as what were once potent symbols for all that was anti-establishment have been neutered and repossessed by 'the man'. Why does this feel faintly inevitable? And is this really such a loss, the death of something authentically 'punk' (whatever chin-stroking broadsheet-fillers might decide 'punk' is)?

Commentators point out that Virgin Money's decision-makers can hardly have overlooked the incongruity of sploshing the words 'Anarchy in the U.K' all over a MasterCard -- emblematic of the digital capital that it provides accesss to, the credit card is thus also an emblem of the social superstructures that support and reinforce capitalism. Few things could seem less anti-establishment or anarchic. Few things could better represent the dominance and prevalence of capital.

So hip! So ironic! Cut to an image of a delighted Richard Branson, dressed in the sort of semi-smart-casual manner that so usefully belies his multibillionaire status, giving a goofy middle-aged thumbs-up to Virgin's latest wheeze. And for double the postmodern points, Virgin have chosen to rehash already reappropriated imagery: Unions Jacks, the queen's face, collages of torn-out typefaces. The whole tone of a Sex Pistols track like 'God Save the Queen' is one of searing sarcasm, testament to punk's perceived ironic stance in general. Virgin have tamed and reframed this irony, folding it inside out and watermarking it with their own name.

Is this so new, and does it mark the death of punk after all these years? Well, no. For one thing, Virgin have partly chosen to use the images by way of tribute to the history of the larger Virgin family -- the Sex Pistols only really exploded in reputation when Branson himself signed them to Virgin Records. A mainstream label brought them mainstream success, and John 'Johnny Rotten' Lydon has since never been short of a few quid. The truth is, the Sex Pistols have always been used as shorthand for an imagined punk scene by those who haven't cared to look further. A conveniently mainstream symbol for a supposed countercultural scene.

This is hardly an isolated case of punk-gone-commercial. Iggy Pop's car insurance ads broke hearts across the country. The inexplicable ubiquity of the Ramones logo on t-shirts sold in shops like Topman has been a puzzle for the last decade. Even the post-Cobain, post-break-up life of a band like Nirvana has been one of logos plastered onto every conceivable garment -- completely to the contrary of the wishes of the sincere and tragic frontman. The anthem to this tendency in the modern age is surely Propagandhi's excellent and scathing 'Rock for Sustainable Capitalism'. "Remember when we used to believe that music was a sacred place, not some fucking bank machine?". Quite.

Is punk uniquely cursed to become its antonym? Of course not. Rather, this is the classic gesture of capitalism: to recognise an opponent or possible threat, and, rather than attempt to quash it, to embrace it wholly, to absorb the threat entirely within its own workings, and to put it to work for profit instead of ideals. You can be anti-capitalism, but capitalism won't allow you to be outside of capitalism. A case in point might be the very notion of charity. Slavoj Žižek argues that charity itself reinforces the dominant framework of capitalism when it serves to convert philanthropy into a cash transaction. This tendency is only sharpened when companies program the charitable act into an existing consumerist gesture -- for instance, when Starbucks reassure you that when you buy their coffee you are already doing a little good with your money. Charity might actually perpetuate the very conditions which necessitate charitable donations, a cycle which in no way threatens to challenge the conditions. Give a man a fish, and he'll feed for a day; teach him how to fish and he'll smash capitalism. Or something. At any rate, it is a favourite habit of capitalism to make its enemies into itself, and it is only natural that the counterculture of punk should be constantly drawn towards the mainstream rocks by the siren-song of big money.

So up with your anti-establishment slogans! Right on brother! Here, we'll even help you out with the cause, we'll print your slogans on our credit cards. Lost intention? Gained profits! This is entirely the way Virgin is currently operating, and has always operated. It sets itself up as the outsider, the underdog -- but look closely, and you'll notice it is outside nothing, under nothing. Virgin Cola is still just tooth-rot in a can. Virgin is the wolf in punk's clothing. It's the Tory M.P without a tie on, eating a Cornish pasty, and telling you he's of the people, and not of the politicians. All the while, Virgin operate within the bowels of the current capitalist paradigm,non-threatening, non-radical. Virgin are the pigs at the table at the end of Orwell's Animal Farm, eating alongside the humans they claim to despise and oppose: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Creatures on the outside, unite! Punk is probably a real thing, a real spirit of counter-culture. And effective and authentic anti-establishment attitudes are probably demonstrable in the aesthetic realm as well as the ethical, without punk becoming 'another stale cartoon', to quote Jello Biafra. But it is at least equally probable that you aren't going to discover the meaning of punk on the front of your credit card any time soon, no matter what Virgin tell you. The Sex Pistols were lousy, anyway.