This article is reposted with kind permission from Cava Sunday’s blog.
Before we go any further, it is perhaps useful to flag up the fact that I am completely stuck as to how to define the term ‘hipster’. We know a few things are in the mix: trend-setting and trend-observing, art and design, culture and nightlife. But these aren’t new things. They existed before, and will exist after, we use the term ‘hipster’. We might also cite disposable buzzwords like ‘vintage’, ‘pop-up’, ‘artisan’, ‘silicon roundabout’ or even more obscure niches like ‘streetwear’, ‘normcore’ or ‘health goth’. We might see beards, haircuts, plaid. We might see androgyny, ethnicity, lamé or black fabrics.
With this is mind, it is difficult to say what a hipster is – let alone what ‘they do’ – in an era when you can get your skinny jeans at Primark and your lumberjack shirt from ASDA. Big beards and haircuts are on builders from Essex as well as GQ magazine grooming connoisseurs. Despite the increasing polarisation of society along material lines, fashion and lifestyle is less reliable a metric of class position or social location than it has ever been. The elasticity of the term ‘hipster’ leads to some serious problems in my opinion. Especially when coupled with the use of a populist rhetoric (that seeks to divide people into ‘gentrifiers’ and ‘gentrified’) as opposed to a materialist analysis (that seeks to identify and attack the social forces responsible). This next piece will consider the role that Xenophobia plays in filling the gaps left in these rather porous definitions. It isn’t as theoretically sound as my prior piece, and is perhaps more emotive and anecdotal.
The Indigenous and The Other
“Our communities are being ripped apart – by Russian oligarchs, Saudi Sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs.” (Fuck Parade 3 Publicity)
Aside from the obvious problems that arise from blaming the free movement of international capital on defective ethnic caricatures (Russians! Arabs! Jews! Nouvelles Riches! Toffs!), there is a conspicuous omission here. You will recall how I mentioned in my previous post that ‘Phase 2’ of Neil Smiths analysis – The Anchoring Phase – involved the mass sale of council housing and the emergence of an ideology of regeneration and property speculation. This process was responsible for the embourgeoisement of a large section of the working class in the East End, with many buying their flats and selling them on for a tidy profit. A few of these went on to own other homes in the buy-to-let boom, and have continued to benefit from increased deregulation in planning and finance. Many people I know renting off private landlords are renting from individuals who are either presently or previously embedded in working class inner London communities. In short, the deliberate omission of slumlords and cockney capitalists from these discourses can feel a little bit like a demand for ‘East End masters for East End subjects!’. Was the East End a better place to experience capitalism under the old masters? Of course, Class War might respond (as they have done in previous years) that they aren’t against working class people doing well for themselves. I hope to do well for myself someday, so I can’t disagree. But hipsterphobia reinforces bogus ideas of what it is to be working class based on outdated archetypes. Clearly, it is less controversial to move to Essex and start a family and a building firm, but more controversial to enjoy fancy bread, vintage clothing and nights out in Dalston clubs.
Delboy’s Paradise: Against the backdrop of an E1 postcode, there is nostalgia and frailty but also the desire for local prestige and an opportunity to break out of the class (and not a hipster in sight). [37:44 – 43:00]
Romanticising the Past, Obscuring the Present
The need to ignore the role of home-grown Thatcherite success stories finds expression in the focus on the alien ‘other’. It reduces the complexity of the situation in London to a moral question of nasty people ‘invading’ an area which needs to be protected. I find it ironic that Class War – whose conference at Shoreditch Town Hall in the 1990s was attacked by the National Front, who were one of many fascist groups that had been deeply embedded in the area since the 1970s – can glorify the Shoreditch of the past so uncritically. The Shoreditch of the past was economically affordable, but not necessarily physically safe, for many minority groups. There have always been wars against and between the ‘other(s)’ in Shoreditch, since the slums of the Old Nichol terrified the Victorian moral imagination (and probably before).
In the present day, Shoreditch remains diverse, even if it’s diversity is fluctuating and contested, or shifting from residency to employment. It would be uncontroversial to note the influx of those that work in more traditional working class jobs (building, cleaning etc) in a time of Eurozone crisis. But what isn’t acknowledged is the role of EU migration in the creative, retail and service industries too. A traditionalist and masculine outlook on class is blind to the obscene working hours, low wages and total insecurity of these industries. When we take into account 3rd-national (that is, outside the EU) migration to London for these various industries too, we see that other subcultures dismissed as ‘hipster’ are actually much more ethnically and nationally diverse than the Anarchist scene. Most people who work in these industries want to make the most of being in a young, vibrant and trendy city: they haven’t necessarily come to London to drink in estate pubs with Anarchists, or dodging dogs on bits of string at crusty gabba raves. To treat everyone outside this world with hostility and suspicion is nothing more than subcultural territorialism.
Combined with the tendency to insulate political positions from critique, and thus insulate the self within the comforting quarrels of the scene, this has a real impact on the revolutionary left’s ability to actually know what is happening outside their bubble, no matter how authentically working class they might believe themselves to be. Experience of the world around them gradually gives way to a knowledge of the ideological lens with which they view the world. In the scramble to make sense of an insane world, the Anarchist scene resorts to a rather tragic conservatism:
“…fuck upper class raves, fuck yuppies it’s not the fucking 80s, fuck hipsters, fuck paying to party, fuck £5 a pint, fuck capitalism, fuck racism, fuck borders, fuck Theresa May, fuck the criminal justice act, fuck homophobia, fuck transphobia, fuck patriarchy, fuck fascists……………..Fuck them all”
This abridged quote from publicity for the first Fuck Parade reflects a degree of insecurity in this cult mentality. Everything that exists outside of what the Anarchist movement and the Free Party scene can provide can get fucked. Presumably, we get closer to what we might define as a ‘hipster’ here – that is, the decadent ‘others’ that dress fashionably at raves where pints cost a fiver. But given that many people who are racialised, subjected to borders, homophobia and transphobia don’t really want to hang out on the Anarchist/Free Party scene, is demonising them compatible with a supposedly antifascist praxis? Assuming the goal is to build a mass movement (something which I am fairly ambivalent about myself), telling everyone to get fucked is not a great start. It also feels a little protestant to me: forsake your petty earthly pleasures for an austere righteousness. Equally, I cant help but feel like this is more Victor Meldrew than Emma Goldman; a radical kind of curmudgeonery that harks after the good old days before the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
Veneration of more traditionally recognised working class identities (with a fairly masculine and heterosexual focus) is problematised by the extremely fragmented nature of the class experience in London. Within the category ‘precarious minimum wage workers’ we might find that the only thing these people have in common is the money they take home for their labour. But there are other factors that locate them geographically, culturally, socially in the city that make drawing common denominators extremely difficult. We are yet to begin developing a radical appraisal of class and tenure in London. Generally speaking, I feel like the left responds to this mammoth task by nervously wishing it away. Hipsters – for as much as they evade any meaningful definition whatsoever – are the problem, because they are a stark reminder that left strategy is floundering and the world is much more complex than radicals want to acknowledge. Hipsters are the alien ‘other’ that brings within them the seeds of doubt and the final erosion of an ossified worldview better located in the latter half of the 20th century. This is exacerbated by the fact that hipsters are to some degree ‘outsiders’ in the fact that they are a multi-ethnic and transnational demographic. Far from being a ‘way in’ to popular resentments, the NIMBYist attitudes of supposed revolutionaries towards the housing crisis merely reinforce just how out of touch with 21st century London they really are.
Further reading: An interview with Hipster Antifa Neukölln, who have chosen to respond to similar circumstances in Berlin.
Hipsterphobia Sails Dangerously Close to Homophobia and Other Gendered Norms. [3/3]