A Scene Critique
The anarchist Do-It-Yourself ethic has succeeded in creating a flourishing counterculture. The scene excels at developing low-tech solutions to the consumerist, petroleum-based mainstream, simple designs based on recycled materials that aim at being user-friendly.
However, I think this success comes at a price: passionate activists put so much time into specific projects that little thought is devoted to critiquing how the entrenched countercultural lifestyle actually meets – or doesn’t meet-people’s needs. This scene is, undoubtedly, a scene, and it is not particularly open or inviting to new people. The scene takes on mythological proportions, and people feel they have to live up to certain standards in order to participate. Everybody is different, but people censor and mold what they show to a scene in order to fit in. This perpetuates the myth of homogeneity, and turns off people who can’t or don’t feel like doing the work to fit in.
Many people don’t want to take on the emotional trip of feeling like the odd one out. It is a struggle to attend events where you feel like you’re the only person representing, where you are perceived as ‘different’ and either fetishized or considered dangerous, scary, complicated, and thus ignored. It hurts to feel like you have to put on an act, to go into the closet, in order to be comfortable in a group. A scene where people feel bad for not fitting in is little more than a mimicry of the mainstream, one subculture out of many. The folks closing people out of the scene are the same folks who are shut out of some aspect of mainstream culture. At some point, everybody puts on an act in order to fit in.
In reality, all kinds of people are doing all kinds of different things, whether they are underground or out about their actions. People are much more complex than this model of homogenous subcultures. People do take risks, make decisions and go places they’re not ‘supposed’ to. Unless you talk to somebody and they choose to tell you, you can’t always see that ‘white’ boy’s Mexican dad, that ‘straight’ girl’s lesbian parents, that able-bodied person’s disability, that suburban punk’s welfare childhood. Perhaps you have not ‘seen’ that person of color within ‘the activist scene’, even though they have been at every major protest for 20 years.
The energy and time required to (re)build organizations and physical infrastructure from the ground up means that this type of revolutionary actions comes most easily to certain people, who are able bodied, young, frequently white and from middle class backgrounds, and with few commitments other than this radical lifestyle. Many do-it-yourself activists do recognize the limited potential of a homogenous scene-but people seem to be forgetting that homogeneity is the very nature of a countercultural lifestyle!
Sharing a lifestyle, particularly one based on political convictions, is a way of finding support in the midst of a callous world. What is a lifestyle, but simply a set of actions folks take to meet their living needs; a radical, political lifestyle gives political purpose to fulfilling this particular set of actions. However, everybody has different needs. Placing too much importance on living a lifestyle as a political act means that folks are judged as ‘less revolutionary’ when they make decisions that aren’t in line with the political rhetoric– or simply that there is no room for them within the scene.
Overt judgments come down hard when people are open about making decisions not in line with prescribed do-it-yourself anarchist rhetoric. People are judged for the kind of healthcare they use, the kind of job they get, the projects they take on, where they choose to live. Few decisions are easy when you’re trying to balance political connotations and personal needs. To me, it’s important that people question the models they’re given-whether within the mainstream or within the counterculture-and make decisions that truly reflect their needs, rather than struggling to fit their life into a box. Talking about motives behind a decision may lead to positive, even revolutionary personal change (for everybody involved), while dissing a decision will more likely piss somebody off and make them feel unwelcome.
Other folks struggle within the DIY scene, or are simply not there, because the entrenched DIY lifestyle doesn’t meet their needs. People running the scene engines are too self-focused, too passionate about the current state of things, or to politically rigid to think about changing course. For example, flier-makers rarely think about noting whether an event is wheelchair accessible-and resource-poor DIY organizations end up holding events in inaccessible back rooms or fixer-upper houses, rather than prioritizing accessibility. In a culture where few own cars, many ride bikes, and parties often happen up rickety stairs or in the middle of an abandoned factory, people with different mobility situations going on have to put more effort into getting to a DIY event. If events are not accessible, some folks might not even want to go to them.
Even with lipservice supporting the working class, families, and immigrants, the culture is not set up to meet their needs. People are often surprised to hear that somebody is working long hours to support their family or because they don’t have the financial cushion to take on major financial investments (transsexual surgery, overseas travel, equipment costs, etc.) while still “living for free”.
Events are not always child-friendly in the traditional sense, and coordinating getting a sleeping child home on bike is difficult! With creativity, energy, and good humor, so many things are possible. But people have only so much energy to devote to ‘creative struggles’ like getting themselves or their kid to some far away place in a rickety bike cart.
People who do have options should carefully consider their actions. Folks have certain backgrounds, certain abilities, etc., that make some things come easily to them, in the counterculture and without. In other words, people have privileges that go hand in hand with the mainstream hierarchical social system. These privileges give options and choices-the option to be sexist, the option to shop at Walmart, the option to fit in and be ‘cool’. Not exercising your option is only half the process of breaking down the institution. The pressure to fit in, the option to be sexist, is still there-you’re just not participating. Privilege and social hierarchy will exist as long as the system that perpetuates them exists, and attacking the root of the privilege, the system, is necessary to eradicate the privilege.
Everyone fits into both mainstream and the DIY counterculture differently. People change, and lives include contradictions. There are no perfect anarkoids. When we are open to hearing about what other people are doing, we see that the ‘scene’ is actually a lot less homogenous than we perhaps thought, and we are more relaxed about hanging out with people who we thought were different than us. At this point the scene changes into a movement.