Remembering and romanticizing one’s own youthful rebellions is a staple of adult social interactions:
What’s the most subversive thing you’ve ever done?
Does anyone else feel like they’ve become more conservative over the years? Remember what we used to do with that before it was cool?
From adults who still consider themselves disaffected or radical, these statements may take slightly different forms, but they echo similar sentiments:
I remember when I believed I could really change the world.
I feel like I’ve been at this same protest 100 times.
Does anybody know why we’re even here? What is the goal? Is there a goal?
In Storey’s Introductory Guide to Theory and Popular Culture, the author introduces Dick Hebdige’s concept of “bricolage”, which is explained as:
“The process by which youth subcultures appropriate for their own purposes and meanings the commodities commercially provided. Products are combined or transformed in ways not intended by their producers; commodities are rearticulated to produce ‘oppositional’ meanings… Youth cultures, according to this model, always move from originality and opposition to commercial incorporation and ideological diffusion as the culture industries eventually succeed in marketing subcultural resistance for general consumption and profit.” (81)
For anyone who has ever wondered how and why Punk lost its teeth, this is as good an explanation as I’ve ever read. Subcultural movements are only subversive until they aren’t, if they ever were truly subversive in the first place. Where a disaffected young person finds meaning loses its meaning when it is absorbed back into mainstream popular culture… and so, as that person grows up, he or she is socially pressured to believe that he or she must choose between either becoming even more isolated and disaffected than ever before, or conforming and accepting the system as it is, for to remain disaffected and subversive into adulthood is to face extraordinary ridicule from one’s peers, and to expend an incredible amount of energy keeping up with what is currently actually subversive.
A similar thing can be said of the effectiveness of formulaic activism or political demonstration, as per Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony, in which he states:
“What the concept is meant to suggest is a society in which conflict is contained and channelled into ideologically safe harbors. That is, hegemony is maintained (and must be continually maintained: it is an ongoing process) by dominant groups and classes ‘negotiating’ with, and making concessions to, subordinate groups and classes.” (80)
If this is the case, then the common (popular), acceptable or legal formulas of social protest (such as strike, walk-out, march and rally) only serve to uphold the very oppressive system that they so often seek to change or end.
To protest in a way that breaks these rules is to not only risk one’s freedom (and possibly even one’s life), but also usually to alienate the bulk of society. In that case, what may be the most effective means of social protest may also be the most counter-intuitive to a person living in a society where the acceptable formula for protest requires the buy-in of a majority of the people, and focuses on winning the hearts and minds of either those in power, or of a large enough population base to then apply such pressure to those in power that they must concede or compromise so that order can be restored and the oppression of the people can continue as usual. According to Gramsci’s theory, those concessions and compromises only temporarily loosen the people’s bondage; they do not free us from it.