Large preparations are under way in Britain for the 40th anniversary of the release of a single pop-music record. The record is the Sex Pistols' first single, Anarchy in the U.K., released in 1976. This date is being read as the symbolic beginning of British punk rock, and retrospective museum and gallery shows are springing up to mark that movement's official passing into ancient history. The Museum of London, the mayor of London, the British Fashion Council, the British Film Institute, the British Library and several other institutions are teaming up to sponsor a whole year of events and shows called Punk London.
This has led puzzled observers to wonder how Her Majesty's Government could ever endorse, indeed canonize, a group that once snarled that the Queen "ain't no human being." The BBC banned that song from its airwaves in 1977.
Indeed, the reconciliation began long ago: Vivienne Westwood, the store-owner and fashion designer who clothed and encouraged the Sex Pistols at their most insulting and seditious, was knighted by the Queen in 1992. She is now Dame Westwood. It's all water under the bridge.
The British media are having a fun time debating whether a rebellious movement should ever be institutionalized. All the old I-was-a-punk-before-you-were anti-snobbery is raging again, as commentators eager to prove their underground or working-class credentials fall over each other to scorn some aspect of official reminiscence. To those floating in nostalgia, nothing in contemporary culture could come close to honouring the true spirit of that golden age. A representative piece in The Guardian, by Sean O'Hagan, railed about "how a genuine moment of political and social rupture has been rendered meaningless by the deadening hand of the heritage industry."
And what exactly was that spirit? Even its disciples disagree. Take Vivienne Westwood's son, Joseph Corré, for example, someone whose own personal wealth originated with his mother's business success. He was born into fame. He is the co-founder of Agent Provocateur, the luxury lingerie line. He vehemently disdains the official punk celebrations, and has announced that he will protest them by burning his entire collection of punk memorabilia, said to be worth $9.4-million.
He has been witheringly mocked for this, of course: How can he claim, from his position of privilege, any punk bona fides? What exactly does he think he's protesting against here? People such as himself who turned punk bric-a-brac into a commodity worth millions of pounds? Agent Provocateur lingerie is hardly punk, now, is it?
Well, maybe it is. It does share some of the original Westwood aesthetic: From the beginning, her outfits for King's Road teenagers made reference to fetish-sex clothing. Agent Provocateur designs are always fantastical, stylish and impractical, full of useless bondagey straps. Punk – in Britain, at least – was always a movement of style.
What's interesting is not so much how to define a rebellious act in an age of instant commodification, but to question why such acts seem so highly noble to the media. Why are we looking so hard to identify genuine antisocial behaviour and to praise it? Why do we hold it as the highest value? I wonder how many journalists currently scorning non-punk conformism actually desire anarchy in the U.K., the "white riot" that the Clash hoped for? Once the pundits turn off the computer and sit down to supper with their kids, do they sell these values of insult and despair to them, or do they tell them to eat their vegetables? We want schoolteachers to teach our kids how to be responsible and polite, to socialize them, so that they will eventually take their places in a functioning economy. We don't, in our private lives, value heroin use and suicide. And should the British Museum choose to sponsor our own art show about the history of rebellion, we would all gladly accept the funding. Why, then, so fiercely take the side of chaos when given an audience?
Something recurs in much of the nostalgia about punk in Britain: the sense that class battle was simpler then, that there was an identifiable enemy. The enemy became Margaret Thatcher and surging neoliberalism: the deregulation of markets, the crushing of the labour unions. To many in the British intellectual classes, that was the last fight in which they had a role. That fight was definitively lost. The coal industry was shuttered in the 1980s, its unions irrelevant. Wealth exploded in the City, the European Union changed the insular nature of British industry; everyone's values became corporate values. To read the current bout of hand-wringing about the deadening of protest is to feel a pervasive sense of helplessness and isolation. The left is still outraged that the battle was lost and nobody cares. O'Hagan writes, "Punk, like socialism, no longer fits into our current narrative of ourselves as aspirational individuals with no need of collective reassurance save for the endless distractions of social media."
The jeremiads against Punk London usually end with exactly this glum, pious, graduate-cultural-studies expression of revulsion at capitalism generally, against the entire modern world, which has left us – according to the university-educated – with nothing but the society of the spectacle. It leaves us with nothing, one might say, but our yellowing French Marxist university texts, that everybody else still refuses to read.