Once upon a time, I was a crusty. I lived in squats and on traveller sites, I hung from trees at road protests, I was very briefly tabloid fodder famous under the nom du guerre of “Animal”.
This part of my life lasted 10 years and for a lot of it, I was an unashamed lifestylist. I believed that my lifestyle not only reflected but also advanced my politics. Our more intellectual members held serious discussions about how society might be changed for the better by expanding our sub culture until it reached a tipping point where it might influence wider society. Even as the rest of us destroyed our bodies and minds with drugs.
In the early 2000’s “Crimeth-Ink” coined the slogan: “Homelessness, poverty- If you’re not enjoying it you’re not doing it right” and, although I could understand why others found this offensive, it chimed with me immediately. I was homeless. I was poor. And yet, I was having the time of my life. Materially, I was better off than I had been for much of my life. Squatting gave me spacious accommodation, Skip-diving gave me access to the middle market convenience foods I had always wanted to eat. I had a fantastic social life. I had sense of mission. It was a far better life than the best case alternative; a poky bedsit and a minimum wage job.
Outsiders unfairly characterised our scene as “middle class dropouts” and although that was true for some of us- it was far from universal. We had a strong underclass contingent. We had a lot of working class kids from small towns. We had a lot of ex-army guys. Our way of life was both an act of rebellion against a comfortable youth and a way of surviving an adverse one.
Through environmental politics, I mixed with people who weren’t lifestylists. In fact they had a strong critique of lifestylism. They said the word like an accusation. It was a risk to more useful political expression. If people acted like opposition new road required you to become a crusty- well then, we would only be able to mobilise crusties to oppose roads. And indeed as the anti-roads movement progressed, the proportion of crusties did increase with “straights” often sidelined as “local support” or patronised as “weekenders.”
One time, I was living on a traveller site just outside of Basingstoke. A bunch of us had found work through a local employment agency. The recruiter let slip that she had accidentally overfilled the order. We were to turn up at the warehouse and, if there were too many of us, one of us would be sent home. We decided immediately that, of course, we would all walk off the job rather than have someone sent home to site. I suggested we extend the same solidarity to any other agency workers who might show up, townie kids most likely. It would cost us nothing to do so. Someone said, with venom, “No way! They wouldn’t do that for us” and everyone nodded along.
At that moment, I saw how a subculture can be an inward looking thing. We set ourselves outside and against mainstream society. I had thought this was a progressive impulse because it demonstrated a critique. But the reality of our behaviour was reactionary.
Looking for a way to combine subcultural identification with a wider socialist politics, I joined the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) while still living in a squat. The IWCA was so keen to disassociate itself from any counter culture- even the subculture of the Trotskyist left that it almost adopted a pastiche of “traditional working class culture” as its own subcultural affiliation. We’d go door knocking in tower blocks wearing smart black jeans, clipboards and bomber jackets. We must have looked like bailiffs.
This is a picture of me from that period. I'm the one with the bleached hair pulled into a harsh pony tail. As you can see I'd begun to adopt the trademark IWCA "normcore" asthetic.
Honestly you would think some of our members had they never had a preference in clothes or music their entire life. I felt like shaking them and shouting “Oi Punks! You’re fucking Oi Punks! And there’s nothing wrong with that!”
Instead, I had to spend my time explaining squatting culture. How it was a cross-class culture. I laid out the attitude of myself and the many working class crusties I knew: “My life in mainstream society is shit. I’m never going back to that!”
I listened to comrades tell me that I “wouldn’t last five minutes” on estates like the one I grew up on. This was a particular head fuck as my family had, in fact, been targeted for some anti-social behaviour and I still hadn’t quite untangled why that had happened or what it meant.
At the same time, my squatter pals would ask me “Why is it a working class association? Why not do something that includes everybody” and I would think “Jesus- I’ve only spent the last 10 years working to sustain this scene and the one time I look to do something for my own people- look at the push-back I get!”
Then, one night we were scoping buildings for a fundraiser squat party. One possibility was a derelict community centre that I knew (through the IWCA) was the subject of a local campaign for reopening. I imagined that building after a couple of hundred ravers had been through it and my blood ran cold.
By that time, I was under no illusions that my chosen lifestyle offered a solution to working class people as a whole. Suddenly, I understood that in fact, it was parasitic upon working class communities. It felt more and more difficult to be both a squatter crusty and an IWCA activist.
In the end, I secured a job working for the CAB rented a room in a shared house. Around the same time, my IWCA branch was expelled- partly for the offence of including crusty anarchists such as myself.
From the outside you might think I saw the light and joined mainstream society. Except that I didn’t stop squatting until I had a job that brought in a lower middle class income. And I wouldn’t have qualified for that job if I hadn’t been able to put 18 months into the training while living rent free. I mourn the end of the squatting scene and the opportunities that it gave young people like myself.
There followed a period in my life which I can only describe as a romance with respectability. As a second generation hippy it was refreshing to re-evaluate things I had always looked down on. The value of holding down a job and contributing taxes. The pleasing lack of legal complications when you actually pay for water or electricity or train fares. My very favourite part of having a steady income is not having to bother with all those exhausting scams I used to need for survival.
I married and had kids and brought them up in a three bed maisonette at the respectable end of an estate. (All estates have a “respectable end” and tenants can always tell you where it is!) I even attempted (and then gave up) that staple of respectable working class womanhood, regular attention to housework!
Then one day a couple of friends came to visit. They are two of the nicest, funnest, most loyal people you could imagine, but they are also very loud and quite punky and possessed of obvious traveller accents. As they shouted up from the street to be buzzed in, I noticed a number of neighbours taking notice and bristling. And just like that, the affair was over. Respectability, in its way, is as exclusive an identity as any counter culture. It relies on having someone else to look down on.
Why am I thinking about all this right now? Well more and more of my online life is getting taken up with radical feminism and I’m coming across women who will very vociferously question my heterosexual marriage and my male child. And I’m thinking “Well, hello again lifestylism”
It turns out, a strand of feminism, I was particularly drawn to for its materialism also has its cultural wing. People who see their lifestyle as a political expression and not just a personal choice. I tell them that lifestylism is personally liberatory but that it doesn’t scale up to a political movement. It places you outside and against mainstream society. It distances you from people who would otherwise be your allies.
And yet, and yet…Hasn’t every movement attempted to build a counter culture as well as pursuing material change?
Even the IWCA, proudly drawing on a working class identity, were following a deliberately cultivated counter culture. Someone, long ago, had to say “no, we will not be referring to ourselves as “Lower Class” (once the accepted term). We will be defining ourselves by our positive contribution to society. We are the class that works”
A counter culture gives people something that material gains alone can’t do. And that is a way to understand themselves, which excuses them from the mainstream narrative. Because the mainstream narrative is brutal.
Especially these days when there seems to so much hatred and disgust of the poor. Reaching a pitch I genuinely don’t remember from my own poor childhood in the 80’s. And don’t even get me started on the hyper objectification of women, which also seems to have ramped up a notch. Imagine having to understand yourself through that lens alone.
I once read a study of the health effects of poverty and low income “bohemian” people had better outcomes than non-bohemians. And this wasn’t only true of middle class drop-outs but also of people who had adopted “bohemianism” as working class people. The difference was not material. It was access to a set of alternative values that lessened the stress of poverty.
A counter culture can be literally lifesaving for those in it. But can it be truly civic and collectivist? Under what conditions? As a second generation working class hippy, this is a question that has rippled down to me through the years, from the moment Abby Hoffman grew out his hair and, for better or worse, tied the new left to the counter culture.