Over the past 30 or so years, most people have chosen to pursue the rewards of conformity instead of the fruits of revolt. What they have been left with are ugly and stupid lives, ugly and stupid places and a planet pushed to the very edge of destruction by capitalism’s efforts to keep feeding them new promises of consumable happiness.
But the thought that one is wasting one’s life is not a cheerful one, and respectable citizens everywhere have gone to considerable lengths to avoid it. They have erected elaborate architectures of lies and self-deceptions in an attempt to persuade themselves and others that their work is not petty nonsense directed by contemptible bosses to idiotic ends, that their families are not desolate bunkers of mutual contempt and shared incarceration, that their leisure and friendships are not collections of inconsequential games and insubstantial interests, that their holidays are not banal tramps through despoliation, that the ways in which they think they avoid the common vulgarity are not entirely spurious, that their pleasures are not dreadfully small.
They cling to these illusions with ferocious desperation; but the whole house of lying ghosts and grim parodies is a fragile one, and it is threatened by the depredations of delinquency. To the extent that delinquency prevents respectable citizens from misperceiving themselves as happy and free people who are blessed with rich experiences and who continue to grow as individuals, it provokes their fury. It threatens to take away the very little they have, and to replace it with nothing. It threatens to bring them face to face with a poverty of everyday life that has been there in one form or another all along.
Since the Second World War, advanced capitalism – and the quest for contentment through consumption that it fosters – has generated a long series of consumable youth rebellions. This series has included the teds, mods, rockers, hippies, skinheads, punks, rave culture and the worlds of hip-hop and rap. Each of these has put forward its own particular array of clothes, music, drugs and cool behaviors as an authentic and ecstatic alternative to the misery of unskilled and semiskilled work and the ways of life that honest and conforming people pursue. Indeed where mainstream employment and commerce have more or less completely abandoned an area – as they have every ghetto in North America – cool culture and cool criminality may appear to be the only realistically available means to avoid poverty and obtain a sense of dignity. But none of these rebellions has marked the slightest departure from the global domination of the commodity and its logic. They have served only to assimilate young people into yet more external models of thought and action, into yet more waves of commodity production and consumption. The delinquents of today remain stuck in this pseudo-rebellious process. Consider, my friends, their sportswear, trainers, caps and jewellery; the ways in which they walk, talk, fight, fuck and get high; and their view of what makes up the good life. Do these not reveal the extent to which they are seeking to gain status and pleasure by acting out a small local variation on a few global gangster templates the dominant society has shown them?
“It probably had a little to do with the gangster films we saw. Like a gang had a lot of drugs or money. They did drugs, had the coolest cars and chicks, that kind of thing … Mostly we got it from films and those kind of things.”
—Swedish heroin user.
Consider, too, their unbroken, nervous concern for the visible approval of their friends. Does this not show how the individual is subordinated to a domineering collective? For all their defiance, the delinquents essentially live much as others do. Assimilating oneself into an external image of the good life – and submitting to a collectivity – is a perfectly ordinary form of alienated existence in the existing society. The delinquents are mistaken to associate this state of affairs with autonomy, excitement, shrewdness and freedom. They may purchase some fragile self-esteem, kicks and acceptance. They may even secure some precarious means of survival. But they pay for them with the usual currency of self-alienation.