“I am the antichrist/I am an anarchist,” John Lydon famously snarled on the Sex Pistols’ 1976 debut single “Anarchy in the UK.” The song is an angry punk rock call for revolution and destruction—an elemental rejection of your staid, oppressive social structures. Lydon wants to destroy the Man and all his works.
Or does he? Today, Lydon’s anger is directed less at the Man and more at anyone who dares question the Man. He’s a committed Brexiter, insisting that it is the movement of the working-class (“They’re not going to be dictated to by unknown continentals”). In one interview he said that Trump was “the only hope” and foamed that Trump’s opposition “seems to have a Karl Marx agenda behind it.”
Some might argue that Lydon has just gotten reactionary in his old age. But the truth is that the Sex Pistols were never an especially progressive band. Lydon’s bandmate Sid Vicious liked to wear shirts with swastikas on them; the song “Bodies” was about Lydon’s hatred of abortion and of women. The band’s radical posture was always just posturing—a patina of opposition which could be pasted onto no politics or onto reactionary ones. Lydon embraced anti-establishment branding. But anti-establishment branding doesn’t have much to do with supporting left politics or left political change.
Anti-establishment branding in Western culture is pervasive and even compulsive. In his book The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank pointed out that the symbols and music of the counter-culture have often been co-opted by corporations to give themselves an aura of rebelliousness and authenticity. “Nike shoes are sold to the accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs and songs by The Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron,” Frank observes sardonically.
…peace symbols decorate a line of cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds and the walls and windows of Starbucks coffee shops nationwide; the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category spectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves.
Commercials urge you to fight the power by buying soft drinks. The right, for its part, urges you to fight the power by crushing marginalized people.
Robert O. Paxton explains in his The Anatomy of Fascism that reactionary forces framed themselves as popular movements in opposition to a supposedly sclerotic, left orthodoxy. “Dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm—that was the unexpected combination that fascism would manage to put together,” Paxton explains.
Populism, then, isn’t really a popular movement. It’s a rhetorical strategy whereby politicians claim to speak for an authentic public fighting against the shadowy forces that control the levers of power. When Trump claimed that Biden stole the election from him through “fraud that has never been seen like this before,” he was framing Democrats as insidious manipulators undermining the rightful government of authentic (white) voters. As with Hitler’s rabid warnings about Jewish plots to control the world, anti-establishment branding often is a form of bigoted funhouse-mirror projection. Marginalized people are accused of being secretly in control of the world. As a result, targeting them and eliminating them can be framed as a necessary rebellion against hegemonic injustice.
Reactionaries today don’t generally claim to be defending a status quo. They claim to be trying to overturn a decadent world order controlled by “globalists” (a dogwhistle for Jewish people) or by coastal and urban elites (a dogwhistle for Jewish people, queer people and Black people). MAGA assumes that America is no longer great because outside, insidious elements have infiltrated and weakened it. The job of the right is to fight the power by crushing the immigrants, the women, the Black people, the Muslims, and the leftists who have illegitimately gained control of this great nation. The right is always waging a brave insurgency against the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
There is, then, no contradiction when anti-establishment icons embrace reactionary conspiracy theories. Boomer rock star Van Morrison has released a whole album of querulous anti-lockdown anthems. Boomer rock star Eric Clapton, known for racist rants in the 1970s, is spreading anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. And onetime progressive Glenn Greenwald has co-signed far right conspiracy theories which claim the January 6 insurrection was all an FBI plot to discredit Trump. Aging rock stars and pundits see themselves still as leading a charge against those in power. They just think those in power are leftists or marginalized people or public health officials.
Anti-establishment branding, then, doesn’t guarantee that you’re fighting the establishment. By the same token, branding yourself as respectable to the mainstream doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a reactionary. Louis Armstrong’s stage presence was the opposite of confrontational. Lydon screamed “I want to destroy passerby;” Armstrong had a massive hit singing “I see friends shaking hands/Saying, ‘How do you do?’”
Armstrong’s politics weren’t so easygoing, though. In 1957 he was supposed to go on a State Department tour of the Soviet Union. But he cancelled it to protest violence against Black people trying to integrate schools. In an interview at the time he called Arkansas governor Orval Faubus an “ignorant motherfucker” (the reporter changed it to “ignorant plowboy”) and said Eisenhower “had no guts.”
Armstrong added, “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” That’s the sort of sentiment that would still ignite a right-wing firestorm today. And we know it would ignite a right-wing firestorm because quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s respectful protest did just that. Kaepernick didn’t raise a middle finger like Johnny Lydon, or use crude language like Donald Trump. He just kneeled. But the right was enraged anyway.
Of course, some people who eschew anti-establishment branding are reactionaries, like birther Pat Boone. And some punk icons like Kathleen Hanna actually advocate for policies—like abortion rights—which really do defy the Man. The point isn’t that being nonthreatening is the real rebellion. The point is that whether someone presents themselves as friendly or rebellious has little to do with their actual political commitments. You can yawp like a rebel for fascism. You can smile for revolution. Or you can yawp for revolution and smile for fascism. When someone says they want to be respectable, you need to ask what they’re respecting. And when someone says they want to burn it all down, you need to be very clear on what, or who, they want to burn.
Featured Image is John Lydon dice “Se acabó Londres, se acabó”, by Ed Vill