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One of the few things more depressing than the explosion of the Hipster consumer culture is the collapse of the critical engagement with this culture. Instead of acknowledging our movement’s enormous influence on the mainstream hipster culture and using it as a springboard towards organizing, we have reverted to the same elitism that is so pervasive in the Hipster scene. Adbusters, have you forgotten that it was you that helped give birth to the Hipster culture? You have finally become popular but your response has been to toss away your opportunity to reach millions of youth because of your own subcultural snobbery. Who do you think made those bandannas so fucking hip? Who brought Che back from the garbage bin of history after the cultural wasteland of the 90’s, Nelly and popped collars? We did, it was our sweat, blood and tears, our bricks through their windows, our blackspot sneakers and our insistence on wearing only USA made, lifted shit and thrift store clothing. Our ideas have finally started to become mainstream and now you are demanding that we march back into our ivory towers of radicalism.
This isn’t a letter in support of the superficiality of the Hipster culture. Chicago is home to more hipsters than anywhere in the Midwest; they have overrun Milwaukee avenue with the trendy thrift stores, their clubs dot Wicker Park and Lincoln Park (and are making inroads into Humbolt Park, the South Loop and Pilsen) and their chic, yet totally confusing, band stickers are on every light pole and every abandoned store front up and down Division, Grand, North and Milwaukee for blocks in Wicker Park. Most hipsters in Chicago are refugees from the choking consumer culture of the suburbs, home to more people in Illinois than the rest of the state, who are mostly working and middle class white folks. Contrary to Adbusters’ demographers, Hipster culture is definitely not an exclusively white, upper class phenomenon. Many Hipsters are refugees from oppressive working class cultures. You’ll find that most born and raised Chicago hipsters are people of color trying to build their own identity from the stifling expectations of their parents and importantly, the church (And if you forgot, white people are a minority in Chicago). Chicago Hipster culture has taken from “radical” punk, emo, metal, hip-hop, Puerto Rican, Mexican and many more cultures.
From reading your essay it seems that the reason you judge Hipster culture as the “dead-end of Western Civilization” is because it lacks an ambiguous and undefined notion of “authenticity” and that it lacks an explicit challenge to authority. Hipster consumer culture does not challenge capitalism, but singling out people who wear skinny jeans, bug sunglasses, or shop at thrift stores over those who wear Cubs jerseys and fight after nights of drinking at Wrigelyfield bars seems unfair. Clothing, music taste, etc. seems pretty value neutral. My opinion is that your singling out of Hipsters is a Freudian projection our movement’s secret, collective shame at creating Hipster culture and our subsequent failure to mobilize it politically.
One could say that my own organization, Students for a Democratic Society, is largely an expression of those that helped define the current Hipster culture. Unlike the old SDS, which took flight in college towns in the 60’s, the new SDS has largely exploded in urban centers, from students who live in Hipster neighborhoods. You’ll find more SDSers at an art institute than at a state school; you’ll find more skinny jeans and bug sun glasses at our conventions than blue jeans or Adidas sportswear. SDS however, like the rest of America’s political left (including Adbusters), has largely failed to expand past our own cultural ghetto, and now we have adopted our own past time of jeering our cultural progeny, the Hipsters. But we haven’t asked why most of these people have chosen to opt out of “politics”.
First, we have to drop the double standard. Expecting more from one community over all the other communities we could have singled out is patently unfair. We should ask with the same conviction why sports fans, or why metal fans, or why most women have stayed away from politics. Blaming a lack of political commitment on an entire group’s superficiality is a sorry and dangerous rationalization, especially when Hipsters are becoming the dominant demographic of global youth. We need to break with our traditional excuses that have reinforced our own “radical” elitism. Political organization is a process of building relationships with people and then progressively leaning on those relationships to build a similar commitment towards liberation from those being organized.
Your article is part of our collective, though irrational, set of higher expectations made on Hipsters. Why should Hipsters be more disposed to join the merry-go-round of stale and pointless meetings, protests and police stompings? Building relationships starts with meeting new people, something that has been de-prioritized by our movement behind online debates on the meaning of “violence” and criticizing irrelevant Marxist wing-nuts. If the same energy was put towards throwing parties when most schools start on September 2nd, where we could meet a hundred new contacts at each SDS chapter, as will be put towards driving all our people to the DNC/RNC and subsequently paying their legal costs, SDS could expand ten-fold. People haven’t come to our protests in front of empty recruitment stations because they know it won’t make a difference. We need to be out in the neighborhoods where those going into recruitment centers live, organizing them to engage in power structures that affect them.
As a movement we need to reevaluate our targets. Sure multi-national corporations need to be toppled, but so do our corrupt local aldermen, who win Chicago elections in student wards (voting districts in the city) with a meager 3,500 votes. Our movement talks a big talk about direct democracy; why can’t we start holding neighborhood assemblies to talk about how to challenge the crooks in local office and local boardrooms? Empty lots in student wards can be used to grow food that can be stored and cooked at community meals at the lofts that Hipsters throw parties at. Hell, why don’t we get in with the best DJ’s in town and make a few jones off those Hipster parties we so despise? All politics are local, and local politics means encouraging people to vote early and often.
Adbusters, you are free to take me up on my suggestions and to call me on my own bullshit if I don’t live up to my own talk. But right now you are in the hot seat and I’m calling out your condescending bullshit. Hipsters are people too, and criticizing them without suggesting a strategy to transform and mobilize them makes you come off as pompous and arrogant as the Hipster connoisseurs of cheap plastic jewelry, thrift store fur jackets in July and obscure emo-core bands we all lament.