Alternative vs oppositional culture

I’m really enjoying chapter four of Deep Green Resistance, “Culture of Resistance.” Lierre Keith talks about alternative vs. oppositional culture and it’s a very necessary and well-written analysis. In an alternative culture, the social norms of the dominant culture are rejected and personal lifestyle changes are made in order to live outside the established norm, but no material changes are made to the rest of society and there may not be any political analysis. An oppositional culture is an organized political resistance that takes concrete steps to dismantle systems of power. Keith summarizes the differences between alternative and oppositional culture, while also noting that real life is not this black and white and people are often somewhere in the middle:

Alternative vs Oppositional graphic

She then explains all of these points using examples from various alternative cultures from Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. When reading the characteristics of alternative culture, I kept seeing transgenderism over and over. Alternative culture names social conventions as the enemy and seeks to make personal changes in order to subvert them. Transgenderism names the “gender binary” as the enemy and seeks to make personal statements with hairstyle, clothing, and pronouns in order to resist this cultural convention; however, none of these personal lifestyle changes can challenge the real power that men have over women, and so the cultural construct of “gender binary” is slightly tampered with while the real problem of sex-based oppression remains intact. When you try to talk to transgenderists about the material reality of sex-based oppression they stick their fingers in their ears and sing ‘la, la, la’ to avoid engaging. They are an alternative culture who exist to make members of their group feel good about their personal identity. They are a politics of emotion that does not care about effective strategy.

Keith began chapter four with the sentence, “The culture of the left needs a serious overhaul.” I totally agree with this. In North America, the left has dissolved into a neo-liberal cesspool of identities and navel-gazing and no longer has any interest in challenging systems of power. I laughed at the sentence: “The contemporary alterna-culture won’t result in anything more sinister than silliness” (p124.) Indeed. Instead of trying to overthrow capitalism, we are sitting around fawning over men in dresses and calling political analysis “phobic.” We couldn’t possibly get any more pathetic at this point. Keith has excellent suggestions about the values and strategies the left should actually have. We need to be brave, committed, and loyal to each other. We need to create material support for our comrades who are resisting capitalism. (Sitting around talking about our pronouns is fucking daft!)

While talking about the Romantics, the Bohemians and the Beatniks, Keith makes some really excellent comments that, again, totally remind me of the transgenderists. They value “emotional intensity that rejects self-reflection, rationality and investigation,” (p130) and although they claim to reject the bourgeoisie, they also reject the radicals who attempt to create social and economic change.

“Their main project was to “reject…the conformity and materialism of the middle class,”* mostly through experimentation with drugs and sex, and to lay claim to both emotion and art as unmediated and transcendent.”(p131)

*(The quote within the quote is from Keith Melville’s Communes in the Counter Culture.)

This is so familiar. Alternative cultures are full of members of the middle class who claim to reject middle class values, but instead of dismantling the class system, they just hang around indulging in personal fun (“drugs and sex”). In other words, useless fucking wankers.

Keith goes on to explain that alternative cultures have always been created by youth and they reflect the biology and psychology of adolescence. Alternative youth cultures are focused on “the endless project of the self,” (p135), and believe that society’s main offense is suppression of their “always-authentic feelings” (p135). Their main activism is in breaking rules and crossing boundaries, sometimes just for the sake of performance and shock value. She really drives this point home when she gets into a criticism of how men on the left embrace pornography. When your alternative culture is based on breaking social rules rather than seeking justice, then there’s no reason why you can’t have the freedom to do what you want with women and children. There are many quotes in here that made me put down the book for a moment and say “Wow.” One of them is this:

“On a global scale, the naked female body—too thin to bear live young and often too young as well—is for sale everywhere, as the defining image of the age, and as a brutal reality; women and girls are now the number one product for sale on the global black market. Indeed, there are entire countries balancing their budgets on the sale of women. Is slavery a human rights abuse or a sexual thrill? Of what use is a social change movement that can’t decide?

We need to stake our claim as the people who care about freedom, not the freedom to abuse, exploit, and dehumanize, but freedom from being demeaned and violated, and from a cultural celebration of that violation.” (p148)

We need to therefore reject the adolescent aspect of alternative culture—such as the pursuit of personal freedom at the expense of others—and instead promote adult values such as responsibility, respect, and the serious pursuit of long-term goals toward a fair and sustainable culture.

I’ve been reading this book very slowly. In fact, I have read TWO fiction books since I started on DGR, probably as a way of procrastinating. This book requires me to do a lot of thinking and I often have to read passages more than once. It’s not light reading—it’s a book that will permanently change the way I think and it takes time to process. One of the things it makes me think about is how will I become a radical activist? How can I fit into this culture of resistance? I have no idea yet but this book is a great resource for getting me thinking.


3 thoughts on “Alternative vs oppositional culture

  1. The chart reminds me very much of what I am talking about when I say that anarchism has been so coopted that it is difficult to know what people are talking about. The right hand chart is more like responsible anarchism, while the left-hand one is the corrupted version, and yes, transgenderism and this corrupted version of anarchy, which is more like chaos, get along very well.

    The left-hand part is like play and the right-hand side like work. In a culture that says it rewards hard work, but actually values convenience and rewards dishonesty, it’s not surprising that such thin fare as this pseudo-anarchy become popular.

    The chart is also reminiscent of how liberalism and radicalism are compared, but I think it’s more effective as an analysis of what’s gone wrong with the left in general.

    Not sure what “enforce norms” is doing in there, though. Anarchy literally means “without ruler,” so this seems jarring. However, not having rulers is not the same as disrespecting legitimate authority in different contexts. It’s the presumption of hierarchy in human relations that becomes problematic. There are people, even on the “left,” who are quite convinced that social hierarchy is unavoidable and necessary, which says all it really is necessary to know about how muddled political stances have become.

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  2. Nice! I agree with Miep, that some form of anarchism is the closest thing I see to a solution. We need to dismantle this pop/fad/trendy version of protest/alternative culture/activism and push for real RESPECT for all people. Bearing your breasts in public, wearing those silicone bracelets for whatever your cause and dressing up patriarchy and oppression as if it was somehow alternative or subversive (i.e. sex-pozzes) is NOT revolutionary, it’s just more of the same.


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  3. This makes so much sense. When i was younger, I was very much into individualism, I was quite “alternative”. I attribute this to general adolescence AND the fact that I felt so isolated, there wasn’t anyone around me who wanted to “change the world” (whatever that meant to me at the time, more on that in a second). To me, community and teamwork meant conformity and pretending you were something different than you were, to keep your mouth shut if your thoughts went against popular opinion. I was having none of it. I look back on my belief in anarchism then and now. Before it was a general “I shoplift from big corporations because fuck them, and I support local businesses by *not* shoplifting from them.” and “PISS ON THE ESTABLISHMENT! PISS ON ALL OF IT!”, and might have included plans to actually piss on things. Ahem. Now, it’s socially-conscious, focused on actual dismantling of oppressive systems, searching for a way to bring about a “better world”. how silly it was of me to think that thievery and pissing on things screaming, ANARCHY! was going to do anything more than get me tossed in jail.

    And yes, I very much agree that transgenderism is a form of alternative culture. This is a thought I’ve been mulling about for some time, though I didn’t have this language to describe it– it stops at shock value, an individual’s right to…do whatever the fuck they want and spit on anyone who suggests applying critical thought to systems of oppression. What’s literally pissing on the establishment/forcing people to call you she when you are AMAB going to do in the long run? Why are you doing these things? What is the root cause? You don’t care? You just want to be obnoxious and loud? Let everyone know you think everything is fucked up, but you have no idea how to change it? Because it’s big and scary and you can’t even? Okay. Call me when you learn to think.


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