Capitalism has co-opted counter-culture and made all our anti into agreement – but don’t hate the players, hate the game…
Kill All Hipsters by Rhian E Jones
The death throes of the hipster have lasted a surprisingly long time. Critiqued and commodified in hipster-spotting handbooks as early as 2003, and subsequently skewered and parodied everywhere from the hipster-baiting grand guignol of Nathan Barley to the YouTube gold of ‘Being a Dickhead’s Cool’, the hipster, like the cockroach, has proved almost admirably resistant to attack. Surely we’ve now reached a point of peak hipster-bashing, as well as Peak Hipster?
The hipster has been adept at the adoption and commodification of the past. The objection often made to this aspect of hipsterism is that, unlike its subcultural predecessors, it makes little attempt to carve out a distinguishing niche through creation or innovation of its own, but instead appropriates and pastiches the signifiers of previous subcultures. To be fair, this reliance on recycling and the turbo-charged reviving of previous trends has tended to define contemporary popular culture in general, a tendency which Simon Reynolds usefully diagnosed as ‘retromania’. 00s popular entertainment seemed to concentrate on remakes, reboots and rebrandings of the already bankable, safe and commodified, glutting itself on reformed bands and jukebox musicals, and ending up retreating down a cultural cul-de-sac. But, where one might have expected those beyond the mainstream to construct their own version of the avant-garde, hipsters seemed to lack both inclination and ability to do so.
In addition, the adoption by hipster culture of previous trends seemed to involve stripping them of any subversive or oppositional political potential they might once have held, giving hipsterism the appearance of a radical alternative subculture while in reality it had only reactionary politics or political disengagement to offer. Some kind of countercultural renewal was clearly called for in a decade where political discourse continued to drift lazily rightwards while insisting on the existence of liberal harmony and contentment in the face of worsening material inequality – leaving society becalmed in deepening waters of unfocused resentment and dissatisfaction. Hipsterism, though, offered only a wilfully weak reanimation of the signifiers used in previous shows of resistance and opposition, effectively forming a counterculture without the ‘counter’.
To some extent, this disengagement merely reflected growing political alienation and estrangement in wider 00s society. Demoralisation took root, notably, through Blair’s dismissal of popular opposition to war on Iraq, despite its expression in some of the biggest mass demonstrations the world has ever seen. In ‘alternative’ as in mainstream culture, a remarkable spirit of apathy, disinterest and individualism prevailed; it grew increasingly nostalgic through immersion in vintage and retro and increasingly averse to taking an interest in politics, when events appeared to reinforce the idea of activism as futile and escapism as both an attractive and logical alternative. Political engagement came to be seen as resolutely uncool: dabbling, playfulness and pastiche was preferred to po-faced, earnest political commitment, and a rising tide of irony swamped everything.
As with so many cultural excrescences of late capitalism, the rot that has resulted in contemporary hipsterism seemed to settle in during the 1990s. The loss of political alternatives, as New Labour embraced a post-Thatcher economic consensus, and the switch from an alternative culture that rejected consumerism to one that celebrated market-driven consumption, both significantly damaged alternative culture’s capacity for political opposition – they reached their peak in the smugly noncommittal irony of the hipster. More insidiously, the opportunities offered by the 90s trends of Britpop, Cool Britannia and ‘new laddism’ for class tourism, for attempting to live like common people, set the tone for the stripping of political meaning and identity from working-class signifiers, while the existence of ‘working-class’ as a political identity was downplayed or dismissed. Over the next decade, the adoption of working-class drag by the comfortably trust-funded became so ubiquitous that it now seems to barely raise an eyebrow.
Retromania can be seen as a function of what Mark Fisher has defined as ‘capitalist realism’ – the denial of any possible future significantly different from the present, which stifles both artistic and political innovation. This has obvious resonances with Douglas Haddow’s 2008 broadside ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilisation’, which claimed that the appetite of US hipster culture for the ironic appropriation of previous subcultural signifiers had neutered its potential for radicalism and invention.In the UK, from second-wave Britpop’s attenuation of post-punk’s radicalism, to the compromised conservatism of nu-folk, retromania and hipsterism have overseen not merely the commodification of previously subversive or oppositional artistic movements – under capitalism, this process is both predictable and inevitable – but their co-option to the extent of preventing the emergence of anything new.
From this perspective, hipster culture’s derivative and appropriative nature, its inability to innovate, mirrors a wider lack of alternative political possibilities. The instability, uncertainty and introversion that has produced a loss of faith in political orthodoxies has also produced a culture at a loss as to how to define itself and, given the apparent imminence of disaster, unconvinced that it’s worthwhile bothering to do so. Have we fallen back on imitations or reproductions of what has gone before because creating or producing anything culturally distinctive currently seems as pressing and productive a task as arranging deck-chairs in a previously untried pattern on the Titanic? Half cynical disbelief in alternative possibilities, half comfort-seeking focus on past certainties and glories, this impasse illustrates the acceptance by both mainstream politics and pop culture of late capitalism’s ‘end of history’ propaganda.Hipsters are hardly the originators of this political and cultural malaise, even if they have arguably become its cheerleaders; there is less to be gained by hating the hipster itself and more by focusing on the underlying processes – of which hipsters are symptom, not cause.
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