The Profits of Rage: Alternative Cultural Ideologies and Labor Exploitation
Issue #37, March 1998
The alternative culture industry is deceived by its own hype because it believes that it is the last vehicle for revolution in a post-political society. This is the official ideology which drives the economics of the punk and otherwise independent counter-cultures. But this ideology masks an incredibly complex form of coercion. No matter how much resistance to the status quo that this ideology contains, it still hides the fact that alternative artists and laborers are unable to create a kind of work for themselves that transcends traditional forms of exploitation in capitalist society. More often than not, bands never get paid, and the people who work at independent record labels rarely ever receive wages which correspond with the amount of time that they put into their jobs. With few exceptions, alternative cultural labor is rewarded with minuscule compensation. There's absolutely nothing liberating about it, except the degree to which it shows how the system manages to consistently promote the illusion that it's possible to engage in non-exploitative labor practices in a free market society. But given the historical period of economic development that we live in, the power of the ideology behind alternative cultural production makes a lot of sense. In a service economy, there can be no greater reigning ideology.
The work of critics like Tom Frank of The Baffler have done a thorough job of alerting us to the ways in which alternative capitalist culture depends on the belief that it is possible to be liberated from capitalism through consuming the right goods. But this culture depends just as heavily on the belief that producing those goods is similarly liberating. Unfortunately, because most of the best critics of alternative culture have come from within that culture, the problem of production has been a notable blindspot. For all of its allure, the DIY ethic fetishizes the capitalist production process, making people believe that one form of capitalist production can overthrow capitalism as whole. Because it is not necessarily the product itself, but the independent nature of the production process that makes alternative cultural commodities like punk rock appealing, the ideology that sustains alternative cultural production is particularly difficult to uproot. But that doesn't make it any less problematic. Selling liberated labor is just about the most disingenuous, self-defeating thing you could possibly do in such an undemocratic context.
The major problem with the alternative culture industry is that there's no political criterion by which we may distinguish it from the rest of the culture industry. On the most basic level, it has the same agenda: to make money. This is not to disparage the legitimate political goals that certain labels have: to form a cultural counter-hegemony revolving around certain genres of music which call political authority and cultural norms into question, and if possible to delegitimate the status quo. Whatever the contradictions involved, this will always be a noble calling, especially in a society dominated by the principle of exchange, in which conscience-less individualism is considered the highest form of virtue. The problem is that, although the music is political, its economic base is not. To put it bluntly, the economic politics of most alternative record labels do not correspond to those of the artists whose work they put out. This is true, not at the level of sentiment, but at the level of practical contradiction. Small, independent record labels sell revolution, but only to a limited degree, because if they went the whole hog they'd have to pay their employees better, making the whole enterprise unworkable.
Most indies still rely on the good will of their employees to work for less than substandard wages, almost always overtime, because those employees believe in the greater political vision implicit in their record label's "product." This is an entirely reasonable move to make, because there are very few venues in American civil society which offer the sophisticated kind of political information and ideological perspectives that punk rock offers. That makes punk an incredibly valuable commodity which alternative culture industrial workers are willing to sacrifice their time and their money to get out because there are so few opportunities in American society for expressing real dissent and having an audience that'll actually pay attention to you when you do. Many of the people who work at radical indie labels do so because they identify with that need to get the word out, because they know that no one else will make it available if they don't.
The problem is that the utopianism and good will of people who work in the alternative culture industry get exploited. Time and time again, the message gets out, and people listen. That is one of the main reasons why punk business continues to be a viable economic formation and punk rock a continuously self-reproducing art form over twenty years after its supposed inception. But what happens is that the continuous state of political emergency which punk addresses serves as an implicit excuse for many labels to take advantage of their employees and bands' willingness to overextend themselves in pursuit of the right cause. Half time employees most often work full-time. A great deal of the grunt work -- packaging records for mail order, calling radio stations to track the progress of new releases, performing basic accounting chores and maintaining complex, graphically dense promotional web sites -- are performed by interns who are employed without pay to learn the skills that will eventually get them half-time paying jobs with full-time responsibilities at a real record company. What keeps them there? What is it about the business of making punk rock records that makes the legions of adolescents, twenty and thirty-something wanna-be artists, musicians and counter-cultural administrators content to remain in this cycle of feel-good-despite-the-pain exploitation, despite the fact that the work never ends?
There are several explanations. To begin with, most people in the punk rock business think that it will end. They honestly believe that at a certain point the books will begin to balance, and they will then be able to live off of the benefits of their own labor. This is entirely understandable, because in almost every business other than rock and roll, if you work hard you'll eventually see some rewards. This is also the heart of the Protestant work ethic, that hard work is always rewarded by a this-worldly form of redemption which we create ourselves. It's called solvency. It would be great if it worked. It can't be underestimated how much this uniquely Christian cultural ideology stokes the flames of labor in every exploitative capitalist labor situation in American civil society, punk or otherwise. No one is immune. Instead punk simply offers up half-baked theories of cultural labor like the DIY ethic, which in many respects is a radical restatement of a very conservative, misunderstood theory of labor. Doing everything yourself doesn't necessarily just mean that you aren't also doing something for someone else. It also means sacrificing yourself to labor in general in order to create the best possible product under prevailing relations of exploitation.
What motivates so many people to sacrifice so much, despite the fact that they never get fully rewarded for their efforts? The impoverished models of fulfillment and self-realization that are embodied by those individuals, those bands, and those record companies which show that they can stand the disappointment of never getting satisfactorily rewarded for their work because they accrue a certain degree of cultural capital, surviving by the skin of their teeth while continuing to beat the system at its own exploitative game--that's the big payoff. Not to mention the less exciting knowledge that working for an indie label is working for the lesser of two evils, because indies supposedly exploit their employees and their bands less than the bigger guys do. But there are also less cynical ideological reasons why hipsters sacrifice themselves to alternative capitalism so readily. The system of alternative cultural reproduction sustains itself precisely because those people who work in it get unprecedented moral rewards from knowing that they are economically perpetuating a supposed culture of resistance which never gets totally suppressed because it's marginally less oppressive than its better-financed and better-distributed counterpart. The feeling of elation which you get from surviving is intoxicating. It resembles the rush which accompanies continuously walking along a tightrope high above a circus floor without ever falling. You do it again and again despite the risks involved because you know you can overcome gravity if you always strike the right balance. In a society where there are very few acts of labor which allow us to retain any sense of dignity at all, that feels liberating.
The problem is that there aren't enough tightropes upon which we can perform balancing acts. For every person who gets such a morally fulfilling job, millions don't. The market's commitment to the process of natural selection makes sure of that. Nevertheless, everyone is drawn to the challenge of joining the circus because those performers who manage to stay alive make a crucial difference in our ability to tolerate living in an unjust society. That's our opiate. That's why we sacrifice ourselves to petite-bourgeois corporations like indie record labels by joining the circus ourselves, whether it be in the capacity of a fan, musician, "zine" editor, or promoter. The problem is that we always seem too eager to adapt to the status quo rather than do something to change it. We want to overthrow the system, but we find that we have to join the system in order to do so. Eventually, we discover that our own revolutionary rationale simply turned out to be another strategy by which to access upward mobility. This is what implicates us in an eternally exploitative economic system which makes no distinctions between alternative and predominant, mainstream and independent.
When we finally figure this out, we will begin to realize how we always get co-opted by capitalism's laws of labor, its codes of economic conduct, and its repressive cultural regimes which marginalize as many people within alternative economic formations as it marginalizes people outside of them. That's why we construct ideologies around categories like "punk" or "alternative," because caught within the inescapable vice grips of the system, we need a religion to console ourselves. And our religion is culture. Unfortunately, we mistake what is merely alternative for what is truly utopian. This means that we are always searching for salvation on the inside, rather than working to make a better state of affairs which defies business as usual. That's why we have to remember that despite the fact that there are no fulfilling jobs outside of the established labor alternatives, the same laws which govern labor for the "bad guys" also govern the rules of engagement for the "good guys" as well.
Joel Schalit is a member The Christal Methodists, whose next album, Satanic Ritual Abuse, is scheduled for release sometime soon on Candy Ass Records. In his real life Joel is also a doctoral student in Social and Political Thought at York University. When he's relaxing, Joel goes in drag as associate editor of Punk Planet. Joel would like to say a special fuck you to Revolver Distribution. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.