The Meaning behind the Image: Ideology, Identity and Politics in Subcultural Style (Part 2)

By Jon Bailes
January 26, 2009

3. Ideology

It is crucial for a theory of subcultural resistance to define exactly what it is that is being resisted. In the 1960s, specifically in the U.S. ‘Cultural Revolution’, this was perhaps easier to define as there were clearer social norms – a post-war consumerism based on conformity and a collective work ethic that had replaced the entrepreneurial spirit of America. [42] Against this grew a widespread desire for individual freedom, enjoyment and rootless existence among people who ‘saw life as something more than getting and spending’. [43] This rejection of 1950s’ values created a fresh approach to politics from a 60s’ youth turned off by traditional motivations and desperate not to repeat the perceived political passivity of the older generation. And, as a political counterculture, this movement, even if only comprising a minority of youth, had its victories, for example in helping to pressurise the US government over the Vietnam War. Others meanwhile, ‘succeeded in embodying radical disaffiliation [..] in a form that captures the need of the young for unrestricted joy’; [44] that is, rejecting and escaping traditional expectations.

However, this counterculture was perhaps not as revolutionary as it appeared. As Eagleton says, ‘it was the soullessness of an affluent society, not the harshness of a deprived one, that was under fire’, [45] and, lacking any overall political programme, the attack on traditional values was only replaced by hedonistic ones. Also, as dropping out is only a temporary solution even for those with middle-class financial backing, even hedonism requires funding eventually – permanent, full-time refusal of society rather than attempting social change was never really plausible. In actuality then, the counterculture of the 60s created an image of a more open society than was really the case for many still restricted by stratified social conditions.

This is not to say that parts of the establishment did not regard the 60s’ counterculture as dangerous. As Roszak says, ‘the image of disaffiliated youth bailing out on everything industrial progress is supposed to value may have been more menacing to the status quo than counter-culturalists themselves realized’. [46] However, this hostile reaction was more that of traditionalists attempting to hold on to a structure of work and consumption that was already outdated according to expanding capitalist needs. Marcuse observed that, ‘the classical bourgeois culture is outdated now, it is disintegrating – not under the impact of the cultural revolution [..] but rather by virtue of the dynamic of monopoly capitalism which made [the dominant] culture incompatible with the requirements of its survival and growth’. [47] So, whilst the traditionalist Right may blame the 60s’ counterculture for the breakdown of social values, it probably had little real impact on what was already happening in the socioeconomic system.

Jameson identifies a change in capitalism itself from the 60s onwards; this is a form of capitalism which finally ‘eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way’. [48] Traditional ideals, such as family values and the Protestant work ethic, were not so much capitalist fundamentals as they were exploitable values in a historical period now superseded. Therefore, the idea that the 60s counterculture had anti-capitalist aims came mainly from the false assumption that capitalism was rigid and unchanging, when in fact ‘it was as dynamic a force in its own way as the revolutionary youth movements of the period, undertaking dramatic transformations of both the way it operated and the way it imagined itself’. [49] It is a mistake then to oppose individuality and heterogeneity to a system that in fact encourages consumer liberation – as Eagleton says, ‘capitalism is an impeccably inclusive creed: it really doesn’t care who it exploits’. [50]

For many industries then – especially advertising and clothing – the counterculture was welcomed as ‘a symbolic ally in their own struggles against the mountains of dead-weight procedure and hierarchy that had accumulated over the years’. [51] The business world wanted such an anti-mass society, individualistic ideology to spark a new consumerism – one that laid to rest the ethic of saving and practical spending, enabling a cycle of buying, using and discarding goods. Indeed, according to this view, the counterculture can be explained as a generation of financially stable middle-class youth moving on to a new level of bourgeois consumer sensibilities, not a revolution against dominant social structures. According to Frank, even slightly before the counterculture became prominent businesses were revamping their methods. This involved the development of targeted marketing towards specific demographics, rather than mass society as a whole. Apparently, ‘this new species of marketing is concerned with nothing other than the construction of consumer subjectivity, as manufacturers and advertisers attempt to call group identities into existence’ [52] – social fragmentation is a deliberate marketing tactic.

Therefore, whilst the bottom line for capitalist practices is still individual profit, ideas about how best society should be constituted to generate that profit have altered. Meanwhile, the celebration of new social freedom is welcomed by corporations because it detracts from the fact that economic imperatives are as exploitative as ever. In this, ‘youth’ is not only a new target audience but an ethos used to sell to everyone. As Frank puts it, ‘Madison Avenue was more interested in speaking like the rebel young than in speaking to them’, [53] suggesting that, even in the 60s, the image of ‘rebellious youth’ already had wide social appeal. Here, youth represents the new, which is an eternally useful symbol to a system always trying to turn over products more quickly. And, this ‘commercial requirement of novelty’ further exploits a fragmented society in which one’s place seems unclear, bringing ‘the need for more images to look at and the need for further confirmation about who you are’. [54]

However, despite the compatibility between counterculture and consumer capitalism, this still does not render the idea of incorporation useless. It is not in the interests of business to represent the social contradictions expressed by some countercultural ideas, and it exploits the sentiments that arise from them. As Frank says, ‘not only does hip consumerism recognize the alienation, boredom, and disgust engendered by the demands of modern consumer society, but it makes of those sentiments powerful imperatives of brand loyalty and accelerated consumption’. [55] It is always a case of using only the image of hip youth to appeal to everyone, whether hip youth approves or not.

What all this points to is the need for a theory of ideology. For Barthes, ‘bourgeois’ culture has always disseminated itself throughout society without drawing attention to the fact that it is a particular, not universal, form of culture. The uncritical celebration of diversity and creative consumerism can be seen as the latest form of this dissemination, apparently subversive and yet based on an idea of freedom in leisure, including appropriation, that is mostly in line with capitalist requirements. Fiske’s theory that incorporation involves the system giving ground seems even less convincing in this light, in fact, as Thornton points out, it is probably more accurate to say in most cases that new social spaces ‘are “won” when social groups are recognized as profitable markets’. [56] Subculture has become a useful myth to promote the idea of anti-commercial style in opposition to the corporate establishment, and, because framed in the language of rebellion – as defined by corporate advertising – it makes people feel empowered without actually having access to power. [57] The ‘establishment’ is represented by new dominant ideology as an (incorporated) image of traditional values – resistance against such values is harmless to actual power centres, and moral panics serve to reinforce ideology, but do not represent it.

For Jameson, postmodernism itself represents the cultural logic of late capitalism and, whilst this may seem an overly sweeping statement, there is certainly a lot of substance to the idea that theories of subjective fragmentation and image as identity only serve to strengthen a consumerism reliant on the continual search for the new and different. Meanwhile, postmodern ideas, such as those of Baudrillard, tend to make a fetish of the depthless image, ignoring the structures behind it, which suits consumer capitalism perfectly. This is exactly what Marcuse means when he says that image ‘militates against the development and expression of concepts‘, and thought ‘surrenders to the immediate facts, it repels recognition of the factors behind the facts, and thus repels recognition of the facts, and of their historical content’. [58] This is a condition of the dominant logic of the age, not an inevitability.

Furthermore, whilst the traditional work ethic may no longer be prevalent, it has been replaced by the need to work to facilitate fulfilment through consumption. Individual needs have taken over from a social conscience, which is a better result for capitalism even if people are less committed to their jobs. The workplace still demands commitment, and this contradicts the idea of freedom found in consumerism, but a balance is maintained whereby, because people can be ‘rebels’ in their free time, the bureaucratised drudgery of work causes no radical reaction. [59]

But, as Baudrillard says, since the worker no longer sees work as production, ‘work has passed from being a force antagonistic to capital to the simple status of employment’. [60] Likewise, leisure is basically a ‘social demand’ that is done almost as routine, according to a model. And, as Adorno realised, it becomes an expectation that ‘free time must not resemble work in any way whatsoever, in order, presumably that one can work all the more effectively afterwards’. [61] In this model lies one of late capitalism’s contradictions, one that some subculture theories miss due to focusing purely on leisure. The more freedom is located in consumerism, the more it requires working slavishly to afford it, and then both are done for no purpose other than to fuel each other. The spirit of adventure and self-determination celebrated by the counterculture of the 60s is turned back on itself as one is forced into ‘rebellion’ as routine. It is the disenfranchised, socially outcast ‘Other’ who becomes the subject of envy – ‘blowing free, untouched by the dreary conventions which tyrannized more fortunate members of society’ [62] – desire becomes that of capturing its frozen image through consumption. The irony is that this essence can never be reduced to image, because it is the freedom that comes from being excluded, and which cannot be separated from impoverishment and persecution. Marcuse sums up the situation when he says, ‘behind the technological veil, behind the political veil of democracy, appears the reality, the universal servitude, the loss of human dignity in a prefabricated freedom of choice’. [63]

This can be observed further in the concept of ‘identity’, where, according to dominant rhetoric, one can freely construct one’s self through image. For example, ‘a middle-aged executive wearing jeans as he mows the lawn on a suburban Sunday is, among other things, aligning himself with youthful vigor and activity’. [64] But whilst this suggests specific meanings can still be given through styles and objects – dependent on the context, audience and social conditions – it cannot really be said to create identity. The middle-aged executive does not become a different person by changing clothes, and, whilst he may feel different, he is really still conforming to what a middle-aged executive is expected to do.

For subcultures, image can be used to manufacture new identity to the point where, as Thornton explains, clubbers in their leisure time can find it offensive to talk about aspects of their life such as work because it can ‘puncture the bubble of an institution where fantasies of identity are a key pleasure’. [65] It is perhaps not inappropriate then to call this a kind of false consciousness – no ‘identity’ is actually changed and the conflation of subversive image, motivation and action into image alone is a product of dominant ideological thinking. In other words, this ‘constitutes a politics of change, albeit a “change” that resides wholly on the surface of things’, as ‘style makes statements, yet has no convictions’. [66]

However, McRobbie explains that, ‘male gay culture has in the last few years had a remarkable impact. It has been explicit and outspoken, while holding on to both an aesthetic and political discourse’. [67] But here again is a crucial difference between an ‘oppositional’ marginalised group wanting social change, and an ‘alternative’ marginalised group wanting access to the centre. To the extent that the political project of gay culture is only to move away from tradition, and not from capitalism itself, it is incorporable. The previous, negative, model of the gay male is surpassed, but, even if more positive, it is replaced with another model. Superficial styles and consumer tastes are often given to represent male homosexuality, while the politics and history of oppression all but disappear in the celebration of this rigid ‘gay culture’, where ‘being “out” requires one to subscribe to a particular identity’. [68] In such shifts, hierarchical society is not challenged – as one group is accepted, another is left outside, always according to consumer potential. Where McRobbie says that, ‘the free market offers opportunities for new emergent identities’, [69] she ignores the fact that these are incorporated and depthless.

Rather than having the freedom to decide how to be successful then, one has to fit into a particular model of success. The media is full of images of the woman who raises her self-esteem and improves career and relationships by altering her image, and whilst this may be a change of identity in some sense – she genuinely feels changed – it is simply shifting between defined models. This is effectively the logic of sales work, where ‘anything about one’s intrinsic self [..] might intervene in the achievement of a desired goal (sales), so it [is] essential to cultivate an extrinsic self to hold up constantly’ . [70] Therefore, whilst ‘people see themselves [..] as active agents whose sense of self is projected on to and expressed in an expansive range of cultural practices, including texts, images and commodities’, [71] there is nothing necessarily progressive, or even self-determining, in such feelings. What is really necessary for self-determined identity then is a project whose aim is an equality that does not fit the model of consumer capitalism, and that will remain ‘outside’ unless it can change society to accept it in all its guises.

The plus side of the cultural and ideological shift is that people now have more opportunity to place their own meanings on commodities, as ‘when the codes of traditional culture are broken, and new social impulses are set free, they are impossible fully to contain’. [72] And, as mentioned previously, there will always be some appropriations that are genuinely subversive and options beyond ‘prefabricated choice’. But, on the other hand, there will be more harmless appropriations presented and taken as subversive by the media and public as long as this ideology persists. Contrary to ideological dictates, many supposedly rebellious acts that genuinely shook the boundaries of traditional society no longer have any effect; in fact they are mostly received with complete complacency. As Marcuse puts it, ‘no “obscenity” or madness can shock a society which has made a blooming business of “obscenity” and has institutionalized madness in its politics and economics’. [73] To have impact, subculture has to negate society, not simply reflect it, and, when it comes to sex, violence, drugs, noise and obscenity, there is very little that has not already been created and promoted by major media producers.

Without looking at what exactly is antagonistic today no theory of subculture or counterculture can carry much weight, and theorists such as Fiske fail because the standard by which they judge subversive culture is in accordance with dominant ideology – that authority is the same as it was in the 1950s. However, as Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl say, whilst ‘the potential for style itself to resist appears largely lost’, this does not rule out that ‘certain contemporary “subcultural” movements can still express a political orientation’ [74] – there are still different reasons why people attempt to appear different from ‘normal’. If style is rebellious according to ideology, then that may suggest people are still trying to rebel, and it is worth asking why. Dismissing all spectacular style as apolitical because of ideology would be making the opposite mistake to those, like Fiske, who assume everything is ‘progressive’.

This ideology theory adds the necessary framework to make sense of postmodern society and again make evaluative judgements. As Jameson says, ‘in the light of some conception of a dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm [..] genuine difference could be measured or assessed’. [75] One can theorise again different political agendas at work – namely a Rightist populism that is distinct from, and even exploitative of, Right-wing traditionalism. This is an ideology that offers feelings of relative empowerment, but attempts to depoliticise people by focusing on their personal pleasure, which then makes it easier for actual social inequalities to remain unchallenged. This often holds true for subculture, for example Muggleton points out that, ‘when skinheads claim to be non-political [..] they are declaring their indifference to or lack of sympathy for overt political agendas and organized political groups’, [76] an attitude which simply reflects late capitalist ideology and its meaningless contemporary party politics. As Baudrillard says, in such politics the stakes ‘have been shut off, there’s nothing but [..] corporate stakes [..] thus there’s no more passion in politics’. Consequently, whilst passions such as hate and disgust still exist, ‘our world hardly provokes adversity any more, because conflicts are immediately shut off, circumscribed, invisible’. [77] But then this suggests that rather than being apolitical per se, as is often claimed, perhaps people are merely lacking access to meaningful politics.

4. Class and Social Structure

It has been suggested in previous sections that social structure can still be used to identify genuinely oppositional tendencies expressed in subculture. This contention is also found in the ‘CCCS approach’, although again in an overly rigid model. In Resistance through Rituals, Clarke et al. situate their subculture theory in a social context where ‘structures – of social relationship and of meaning – shape the on-going collective existence of groups’, that ‘men and women are, thus, formed and form themselves through society, culture and history’, and the practice of reproducing culture ‘takes place within the given field of possibilities and constraints’ of each social group. Also, there is always a dominant culture that has varying levels of influence over all other cultures in society, and all these ‘cultures stand in relations of domination – and subordination – to one another’. [78] It makes sense to assume then that there will be a variety of influences on any one person – the dominant culture, but also the ‘class’ culture of the family and immediate environment, gender culture (itself related to dominant and class cultures), ethnic culture and so on. Also, youth culture differs from the parent culture within its class group, because ‘youth encounters the problematic of its class culture in different sets of institutions and experiences from those of its parents‘. [79]

From these basic premises Clarke et al. and Hebdige create their theories of spectacular subcultures as a form of resistance against dominant social structures, and specifically class structures. Apparently, ‘subcultural styles can be seen [..] as coded expressions of class consciousness transposed into the specific context of youth’. [80] In these accounts, all subcultures, whilst varied according to different historical conditions, are oppositional – a struggle between subordinate and dominant cultures – if not necessarily consciously or radically.

However, it is a mistake to assume purely class based meanings, especially considering the above ideology theory that subcultures often conform to dominant culture. Furthermore, one needs to be careful in relating all of youth experience to ‘the problematic of its class culture’, as there are ways in which youths also have cross-class cultural affinity – perhaps simply the fact that ‘youth, from many class backgrounds, enjoy a momentary reprieve from necessity’, [81] or because of the media’s carpet bombing of all youth with mass-appeal pop-culture. There is also the question of those youths who do not become part of a spectacular subculture, which Clarke et al. recognise, saying that ‘the relation between the “everyday life” and the “subcultural life” of different sections of youth is an important question in its own right’. [82] Even so, since an analysis of more culturally ‘normal’ youth might serve to disprove the idea of a singular youth-class oppositional experience, surely it is a necessity from the beginning.

Also, in these works there is an analytical separation made between working-class subcultures and middle-class countercultures. Middle-class countercultures are more individualised and do not distinguish between work and leisure practices as much as working-class youth. Apparently, working-class subcultures adopt their class culture’s problematic ‘which sees leisure as a significant arena of “relative class freedom”‘. [83] Countercultures, meanwhile, are more overtly political as they articulate their responses to dominant social structures explicitly, which implies they are conscious forms of opposition.

However, it is also said that, ‘even when the middle-class counter-cultures are explicitly anti-political, their objective tendency is treated as, potentially, political’, [84] which suggests it is an automatic, not critically engaged, reaction to treat middle-class counterculture in this way. Clarke et al., by taking on this binary definition, are simply reflecting the dominant rhetoric that claims 60s’ counterculture as radically threatening. Furthermore, the idea that it is only the working-classes who particularly see leisure as freedom is then undermined and it is necessary to acknowledge that ‘counterculture’ members may also enjoy consumer culture freedoms uncritically. Whilst it is probably true that middle-class youth are more likely to drop out totally from a strict work-leisure opposition because of financial means, the distinction between working- and middle-class subcultures is not especially clear.

If a case is to be made for structural meaning in subculture it is necessary to find out precisely how a more complex theory of social structure can be useful. First, as Hall and Jefferson later recognise, it is important to keep in mind that ‘contemporary post-industrial societies have certainly become much more individualistic, socially fragmented and pluralistic since the 1960s and 70s with the result that class and culture are much more disarticulated than they were’. [85] And, for Jameson, it is certainly true that the traditional production of industrial society has largely vanished, taking classical class distinctions with it, and theory has to accept this. Fiske meanwhile, explains how it is possible to move fluidly between social groups, forming cultural allegiances with them dependent on requirements, claiming that ‘they are context- and time-based, not structurally produced’ by ‘external sociological factors such as class, gender, age , race, region or what have you’ (although curiously the example he then gives, of ‘young urban Aborigines in Australia watching old Westerns on [..] television [and allying] themselves with the Indians’, is an allegiance, albeit temporary, born precisely from distinctions of class, age, race and region). [86]

As fragmentation theory replaces rigid class definitions, various possible ‘meanings’ of subculture must be recognised. These include: rebellion against parental values that are not necessarily the same as dominant social values, subcultures as merely aesthetic tastes, natural youthful exuberance, individual psychological reasons, and, as already explored, compliance with dominant ideology and late capitalist goals. Also, for Muggleton, the supposed group mentality of subculture members can be called into question. Instead, subcultures are based very much on ideologically influenced desires of personal freedom and escape from convention, and ‘are, paradoxically, a socially shared means of expressing an individualistic sensibility, and may always have been’. [87] It is important that none of these ‘meanings’ are taken as totalising explanations of subcultural behaviour, but also that none of them are removed as possibilities.

In the face of the above it appears difficult to construct any kind of theory of subculture, especially one based on social structures such as class. However, class is still a useful category for judging subcultural meanings, particularly if viewed in terms of wealth and access to consumer goods, but also still in terms of social status. As Clarke et al. maintain, the ‘general rise in living standards critically obscure[s] the fact that the relative positions of the classes [remains] virtually unchanged’ [88] – that is, the gap between a largely uneducated poor and a largely educated rich. Also, one has to take into account the different conditions of different historical periods – the fact that much subculture work in the 90s finds that subcultures are about fun and personal tastes, whereas theories in the 70s decided they were about expressing discontent, suggests temporary fluctuations in subcultural meaning in accordance with changeable economic conditions.

Apparently, ‘lifestyle enclaves’ are superseding categorisations such as class, gender and race in society, [89] but this assumes that ‘lifestyles’ are unrelated to those supposedly outdated structures, and matches a dominant ideology hiding social conditions behind consumer categories. For example, two common ‘lifestyle’ designations in Britain today are ‘chav’ and ‘hoodie’, yet both of these, when applied with their connotations (the former signifying cheap and tacky, the latter juvenile delinquency), are absolutely related to class and social status. Whilst the middle-classes may adopt these styles, ironically or not, their stigmatic connotations are lost – a well-spoken, well-educated boy wearing a ‘hoodie’ will rarely be perceived as a threat precisely because of social status. The fact that class is rarely mentioned in media coverage of ‘lifestyles’ is not something that should be taken for granted as a lack of class distinctions, and this shows again that, while styles have multiple meanings, they are contextual rather than free floating.

Furthermore, the apparent ephemeral, fragmented nature of youth culture is perhaps not as widespread as it seems. Whilst most people now have the means to adopt new ‘lifestyles’, some will always be more restricted than others in what they can appropriate and signify. The relatively poor person is never free to signify ‘wealth’, for example – even though there may be cheaper versions of consumer items (such as ‘high-street’ versions of designer label clothes), the significations are not the same (the label itself becomes meaningful). And then, surely, ‘social suffering, marginalisation, disempowerment, unequal access to education, childcare and healthcare, and so on’, prevalent in some social strata more than others, must have a restricting influence. [90] It is certainly the case that there is now more of a class transcendent ‘youth culture’, but, even when framed under a term such as ‘subcultural capital’, which signifies levels of ‘hipness’, style can often really be about class. For Thornton, ‘clothes frequently act as metonyms for larger social strata’, and derogatory ‘references to stilettos and handbags are roundabout ways of saying that a social group lacks subcultural capital’, [91] which is itself a roundabout way of saying a social group lacks class.

As Thornton says, it is not credible to describe ‘youth as an undifferentiated mass – homogeneous in their heterogeneity and indifferent to distinction’. [92] In fact, one may hypothesise that this ‘fluidity’ of youth culture is more a middle-class privilege than a universal right. The idea of cultural fluidity has helped promote an ideology of equality in society, but this equality is questionable when one considers objective social differences and where the idea has come from. As Hutnyk says in regards to race relations, ‘continued maintenance of white privilege in education, the marketplace and the public sphere is left unchallenged by the self-congratulatory mutual fascination with fantasy versions of cultural pluralism’. [93] The celebration of cultural diversity replaces discussions of social structures, not because the latter do not exist any more, but because mere visibility is seen as all important.

Perhaps social structures alone, however, are still insufficient as a means of identifying subcultural meaning. For Muggleton, individual testimony from subculture members is a crucial part of definition, and he proposes a theory based on ‘the degree of “fit” between the social scientific constructs and the common-sense reality of social actors’. [94] He claims that, ‘only a small minority’ of interviewed subculture members ‘made any sort of references to economic conditions, and there were certainly no suggestions that their affiliation was a response to such factors’. [95] But it is overly simplistic to claim that the lack of ‘fit’ automatically disproves such theories. As Graham Murdock and Robin McCron explain, ‘studies [..] have indicated that conceptions of class are tangential or irrelevant to a number of people’s understanding of stratification’. Therefore, the interviewer also needs to ascertain ‘the ways in which the class structure is experienced and understood at the level of everyday life’, whereas Muggleton simply asks his interviewees about class without establishing what it means to them. Also, ‘it is important not to lose sight of the fact that localised conceptions of class are developed within the overall framework provided by the hegemonic ideology’ [96] – without a theory of ideology based on socioeconomic structures to filter testimony through, one ignores questions of how ideas of subjectivity are constructed.

Even so, for Muggleton testimony sheds light on certain contradictions in subcultural theory that are actually resolved in lived experience. For example, the contradiction between individualism and the forming of groups is made sense of by the subculture members themselves as being ‘anti-structure’ – the group ‘is not tightly-bounded, sharply defined or composed of uniform practices’. [97] Purely structural analyses may assume a group mentality that fails to grasp the match between individual motivation and consumerist ideology, so it is important to know what the subculture members’ conscious motivations are (at a basic level a more ‘anger’ motivated subculture would offer different conclusions to a ‘pleasure’ oriented one). Still, the questions of why ‘anti-structure’ and whether it is structure per se or a particular structure that is objectionable would then be aided by analysis of social status.

Muggleton may be correct that class should not be fitted to subculture in advance, but it is not the case that a ‘Marxist’ method ‘can be regarded as scientific only in so far as it produces plausible and conjectural claims about unobservable essential relations’. [98] There is plenty that is not ‘unobservable’ about social inequality, besides which there is always an acceptance that structural analyses are working with ideal types that require continuous re-evaluation. Also, subcultural theory becomes more complex when regarding class structures as potentially influential than it does if working with ‘a global notion of “the new youth leisure class”‘, [99] where everything is explained away as cultural diversity and inequalities disappear altogether. The ideal then is a subcultural studies that is not reductive to class, but is always based in both social structure and ideology, and ‘reads’ testimony in accordance with these. In post-modernity it will certainly be a challenging process ‘to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole’, [100] but this ‘cognitive mapping’ is absolutely required to keep hold of a critical theory at all.

Conclusion: Revolutionary Potentials

It has become apparent so far that subculture is not inherently subversive, let alone revolutionary. However, whilst any kind of direct relationship between class antagonism and subcultural behaviour has proven untenable, this does not necessarily destroy the link between subcultural behaviour and rebellious tendencies. What this thesis has tried to demonstrate is that both late capitalist ideology and, in some cases, postmodern theory act as obscuring mechanisms against the understanding of complex social structures, hiding them behind the image of a depthless pluralism. In contrast to these, it has been shown that, whilst subcultural meanings are not identifiable purely through style, with the additional considerations of social status, ideology and conscious motivation, specific meanings can be theorised. The fact that subcultural styles still have specific intentions means that plurality of meaning does not stop widespread communication, and context is always crucial.

One can theorise then that certain subcultural styles are still symbolic forms of rebellion, even if born of media influenced ideas of what rebellion entails. Still, Hebdige makes clear, one should ‘avoid the temptation to portray subculture [..] as the repository of “Truth”, to locate in its forms some obscure revolutionary potential’. [101] Nothing can be taken for granted and subcultures, or even individual subculture members within a group, certainly offer a variety of meanings that do not all point in the same direction. However, by looking at cases in the terms outlined above, one can theoretically differentiate between whether something is ‘alternative’ or ‘oppositional’.

Even in the latter case, however, as long as this is purely symbolic opposition expressed through style, this does ‘not change so much as rearrange things [..] no amount of stylistic incantation can alter the oppressive mode in which the commodities used in subculture have been produced’. [102] Furthermore, subcultures that attempt to escape consumerist society and find an autonomous cultural space also fail in their efforts. As soon as an escapist movement becomes big enough to warrant mass media attention, it is categorised in its terms, heavily discussed and pulled back into society – ‘a kind of cynical smothering of dissent by saturation coverage, and it begins to look like a far more formidable weapon in the hands of the establishment than outright suppression’. [103] Even the dropping out or mindless non-appropriative conformity associated with the idea of an ‘underclass’ is categorised and made to signify against its will.

Both escape and symbolic resistance are easily incorporable then, the only alternative appears to be subculture that is based, at root, in a commitment to politics. Whilst it can be made less visible or even demonised by incorporation, oppositional politics is not destroyed by the process. What must be distinguished then is whether subcultural significations negate de-politicising ideology by pointing to politics, or simply take part in the pastiche that ideology allows, and whether symbolic significations which may be oppositional in intent can be made explicitly political. Finally then, to the extent that there is at least some latent political consciousness in subcultural intentions, and that consumer creativity goes beyond prefabricated choice, it is possible to make a few preliminary remarks about the methods for creating an active subcultural politics.

Firstly, it is necessary to recognise that certain subcultural groups are already politically engaged – the assumption that styles are symbolic expressions of social conditions tends to ignore that they are sometimes accompanied by explicit expressions. Style can be a way of bringing people together for a political purpose, which also undermines any assumption that style is entirely motivated by dominant ideology. However, this may be problematic to the formation of a wider movement, due to the exclusionary nature of styles. As Andy Cornell says about punk rock activism, ‘our assumptions have, in large part, kept us disconnected and sometimes created obstacles for the broader movement’. [104] This is difficult to overcome as long as the ideology of authenticity versus the mainstream continues, making groups exclusive to those that do not share styles. Therefore, there is a need for such groups to distinguish possible political affiliations from style and taste differences.

Secondly, in a society where many pleasures are granted, if politics does not promise more pleasure can one really expect ‘rebels’ to give up on capitalism for something not yet determined? For Fiske, escapist pleasure can lead to political activism in the long run anyway – consuming media that offer escape from unequal social relations into worlds where such structures are suspended allows the consumer to think differently about their reality and challenge it. But this blind optimism ignores that people often use escape as a refuge, where one can hide from real life rather than confront it. In other words, it ‘gives rise to an ironic detachment that dulls pain but also cripples the will to change social conditions’. [105]

Fiske also claims that there is pleasure to be had in being subversive and ‘avoiding the social discipline of the power-bloc’, [106] however, as already shown, what Fiske considers subversive is not necessarily what is subversive. This kind of pleasure does not entail any real political goal and may be individually motivated or simply nihilistic, not necessarily progressive. And, as Marcuse says about pleasure, ‘there is nothing wrong with having fun with the Establishment – but there are situations where the fun falls flat, becomes silly in any terms because it testifies to political impotence’ [107] – a big change requires serious organisation, and, as the object of radical politics is surely to make life more pleasurable for more people in the long run, it is unavoidably a serious business. Still, in the end, perhaps the idea that politics is not pleasurable is simply part of dominant ideology – if the false empowerment and self-determination of late capitalism is anything to go by, imagine what the real thing must feel like.

Thirdly, political subculture groups which look to state power to resolve individual problems that are related to capitalism as a whole are contributing to the ideology of a healthy politics, not causing overall change. Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner argue that ‘the emerging anti-globalization-from-below movements [..] have made clear the need for democratization, regulation, rules and globalization in the interests of people and not profit’, and that ‘stung by criticisms, representatives of the World Bank, in particular, are pledging reform’. [108] But ‘reform’ is precisely the problem of much well intentioned resistance. It is in the interests of political and economic powers to allow protest of issues that fail to confront the fundamentals of capitalism, and for it to compromise on them (whilst making up the losses somewhere less visible) because it reinforces the rhetoric of power, the rhetoric of democracy and stops movements becoming more radical. As Baudrillard says, such protests paint a false picture of what capitalism is – ‘all the recrimination that replaces revolutionary thought today comes back to incriminate capital for not following the rules of the game [..] as if capital were linked by a contract to the society it rules’. [109] And, for Hutnyk, ‘some point of connection and organisation seems missing [..] and inappropriate “appropriations” and half-understood orientations seem more the norm despite the best of intentions’. [110]

Therefore, as Marcuse says, there is a requirement for proper leadership ‘to “translate” spontaneous protest into organized action’ if any kind of movement is going to develop. [111] For the Left, this is no longer simply a case of transferring power to the proletariat, because ‘the working class is no longer this “absolute negation” of the existing society, [..] it has become a class in this society, sharing its needs and aspirations’. [112] But to the extent that there really is cross-class ‘alienation, boredom, and disgust’ in late capitalist society, it is necessary to locate it and link it to the system in the consciousness of different subcultural groups, to show what they have in common when looking beyond image.

According to Marcuse, ‘radical opposition today involves [..] the entire realm beyond that of material needs’ and the necessary mode of revolution is ‘to find forms of communication that may break the oppressive rule of the established language and images over the mind and body of man’. [113] That is, revolution, first and foremost, today has to be a cultural movement in order to gather mass support (what communication methods and technologies it would use, and how, are separate questions). In the words of Roszak, since it is the suppression of radical politics that currently enjoys mass support, ‘there must be a stance of life which seeks not simply to muster power against the misdeeds of society, but to transform the very sense men have of reality’, [114] which is a case of re-historicisation.

A Left movement today then, rather than dismissing micro politics and symbolically oppositional styles because they inadvertently strengthen the system, has to find ways to link them to macro politics to make them explicitly political again. Furthermore, these connections must be made not at the level of anti-traditionalism but against the current dominant ideology. For Eagleton, the anti-capitalism movement shows how ‘one could combine local action with planetary perspectives’, and this linking together is not only more effective, but allows people to understand the connection between their problems. The role of the theorist is a crucial one here – as Fiske correctly states, ‘theory can help to cultivate a social dimension within interior or fantasized resistances, to link them to social experiences shared with others and thus discourage them from becoming merely individualistic’, and ‘it can thus facilitate their transformation into a more collective conscious’. [115] However, it must still be capitalism itself that is the overarching opponent of each cause, even when class, in the traditional sense, is not the issue. Baudrillard correctly suggests that capitalism is a challenge to society itself, and therefore only a collective project aiming for a change of system, no matter how unlikely that seems, will enable the social in an evolved form.

Of course, various progressive causes may clash in terms of their desires and needs and this would cause difficulties for the development of any united movement. However, if there is one thing that fragmented social structures offer, it is that although a single collective ‘mass’ identity is impossible, people can create their own ‘forms of belonging’ – groups that come together due to specific affiliations without claiming to represent a single identity. [116] As Hutnyk says, ‘this does not necessarily mean the abandonment of any “collectivist” spirit since one can retain this and still be differentiated, by locality, neighbourhood, generation, ethnic background, cultural tradition, class gradation, gender and sexuality’ [117] – the point is to create a common cause against unequal stratification, something which suits anyone who is oppressed. Rather than a differentiation between subculture and counterculture then, subcultures could become part of a counterculture – maintaining their whole identity whilst finding a wider recognition that does not lead to incorporation by market imperatives. In fact the recognition and tolerance of actual substantial difference, as opposed to image difference, and the intolerance of structural inequality, could become the grounding of the entire movement.


42. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 10.

43. Roszak, xxv.

44. Roszak, 39.

45. Eagleton, 28.

46. Roszak, xxxii.

47. Marcuse, Counterrevolution, 84.

48. Jameson, 36.

49. Frank, 6.

50. Eagleton, 18-19.

51. Frank, 9.

52. Frank, 24.

53. Frank, 121 (author’s emphasis).

54. McRobbie, 192.

55. Frank, 231.

56. Thornton, 25.

57. Frank, 31-32.

58. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 95-97 (author’s emphasis).

59. Frank, 232.

60. Baudrillard, Simulacra, 90.

61. Adorno, 190.

62. Hebdige, 47.

63. Marcuse, Counterrevolution, 14.

64. Fiske, 1.

65. Thornton, 91.

66. Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 16.

67. McRobbie, 20.

68. Mervyn Marcano, ‘Dear James Baldwin’, in Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak out, ed. by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin and Kenyon Farrow (New York: Nation Books, 2005), 105.

69. McRobbie, 51.

70. Ewen, 83 (author’s emphasis).

71. McRobbie, 58.

72. John Clarke, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts, ‘Subcultures, Cultures and Class’, in Resistance through Rituals, 53.

73. Marcuse, Counterrevolution, 50.

74. Rupert Weinzierl and David Muggleton, ‘What is “Post-Subcultural Studies” Anyway?’, in The Post-Subcultures Reader, ed. by Muggleton and Weinzierl (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 4-5.

75. Jameson, 6.

76. Muggleton, Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style (Oxford: Berg, 2000), 150.

77. Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, ed. by Sylvere Lotringer, trans. by Ames Hodges (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), 147-149.

78. Clarke et al., 4-6.

79. Clarke et al., 38 (author’s emphasis).

80. Graham Murdock and Robin McCron, ‘Consciousness of Class and Consciousness of Generation’, in Resistance through Rituals, 172.

81. Thorton, 102.

82. Clarke et al., 9.

83. Clarke, 159.

84. Clarke et al., 48.

85. Hall and Jefferson, ‘Once more around Resistance through Rituals’, in Resistance through Rituals, xv.

86. Fiske, 24-25.

87. Muggleton, 163 (author’s emphasis).

88. Clarke et al., 15.

89. Muggleton, 39.

90. David Hemondhalgh, ‘Recent Concepts in Youth Cultural Studies: Critical Reflections from the Sociology of Music’, in Youth Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, ed. by Paul Hodkinson and Wolfgang Deicke (New York: Routledge, 2007), 39.

91. Thornton, 114.

92. Thornton, 98.

93. Hutnyk, 124.

94. Muggleton, 11.

95. Muggleton, 167.

96. Murdock and McCron, 170-171.

97. Muggleton, 60.

98. Muggleton, 19.

99. Clarke et al., 20.

100. Jameson, 51.

101. Hebdige, 138.

102. Hebdige, 130.

103. Roszak, 37.

104. Andy Cornell, ‘Dear Punk Rock Activism’, in Letters from Young Activists, 74-75.

105. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979), 96.

106. Fiske, 47.

107. Marcuse, Counterrevolution, 50.

108. Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner, ‘Internet Subcultures and Oppositional Politics’, in The Post-Subcultures Reader, 307.

109. Baudrillard, Simulacra, p. 15.

110. Hutnyk, 23.

111. Marcuse, Counterrevolution, 47.

112. Marcuse, Counterrevolution, 39 (author’s emphasis).

113. Marcuse, Counterrevolution, 79.

114. Roszak, 267.

115. Fiske, 172-173.

116. Eagleton, 21.

117. Hutnyk, 35.

Jon Bailes is co-editor and webmaster of State Of Nature. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on ideology theory at the Centre for European Studies, University College London, and has an MA in European Thought from the same department. He is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).