Answer: None, because punk never changed anything. And today, courtesy of the Guardian, we have an amusing interview with an Indonesian punk that confirms the truth of this cute joke:

The first wave of Indonesian punk stretched from 1990 to 1995, and saw the arrival of groups called Submission, Antiseptic and the elegantly named Dickhead. It was sparked by records by such British punk groups as the Sex Pistols and the Exploited, a Scottish band whose take on punk could charitably be construed as somewhat reductive (older readers may remember their debut album, Punks [sic] Not Dead, and their only performance on Top of the Pops in 1981, much discussed in British schoolyards the following day).

A second Indonesian phase began in 1996, inspired by a US punk fanzine and record label called Profane Existence, and the British band Crass, who shared an essentially anarchist ideology. This development played into a sea change in Indonesian public opinion, as opposition to the Suharto regime – which fell in 1998 – hardened. With the regime on its last legs, says Karib, punks tended to be left alone. “We continued to play, without much attention from the authorities,” he says. “They were focused on the student movement, not music.”

Here the interviewee, a punk musician called Fathun Karib, confirms the long-held suspicion that the punk movement is not a serious threat to genuinely repressive regimes: the closer Suharto came to the crunch point in his leadership, the less police attention the punks attracted, because Suharto’s apparatus of state repression was concentrating its efforts on the genuinely dangerous movements in Indonesian society: the students, according to Fathun Karib, though I suspect that unions and general democratic movements (as well as the armed separatists in the territories) were getting a fair amount of attention too. Punk, apparently, wasn’t. Also note that punk didn’t bring any change in political consciousness to the people of Indonesia – it “played into a sea change in Indonesian public opinion.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I like me the odd bit of punk and as a cultural critique I think it has its merits: Crass‘s Reality Asylum remains a classic of anti-Christian polemic (“He hangs in glib delight upon his cross above my body, lowly me”), and the punk strains of metal bands like Sepultura and Suicidal Tendencies – especially the message of spiritual and personal independence beautifully displayed in songs like You Can’t Bring Me Down – is uplifting and energizing. But punk can also be nihilistic and destructive, and some of its messages can be enormously reactionary: the subtle link between women who shave their bodies, skinhead women, and wartime collaborators in Crass’s Shaved Women is an example of the toxic conservatism of the classic punk strain of feminist theory, basically a piece of slut-shaming via a very very nasty metaphor. Punk also had a strong trait of anti-everything that made it ultimately hard to find a coherent political program amongst its greatest representatives: fuck off and leave me alone may be a good approach to dealing with constraints on one’s personal freedom, but as a political manifesto it’s on about the same level of sophistication as “lower taxes” (and even less practically realizable). At their best, these bands (like Suicidal Tendencies) turn this individualism from nihilism into a code of personal behavior (“Are you feeling suicidal? Are you feeling suicidal!!?”), but this was never a strong achievement of punk itself. So it’s no wonder that it never turned into a solid political threat, given that its movement representatives couldn’t come up with a plan or a goal, and the only coherent political paradigm it connected with – anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism – was hopelessly backward and politically directionless. As cultural critique punk has some interesting things to say, but as political activism it was empty and meaningless.

Fathun Karib confirms what the British punk movement was too embarrassed to ever admit: that their nihilism and individualism made them incapable of providing a coherent opposition to even relatively middle-of-the-road Thatcherite authoritarianism, let alone the kind of out-and-out state repression that Suharto was willing to bring to bear on his political opponents. You don’t overthrow a man who climbed to power over half a million bodies by spiking your hair up and yelling insults.

So, thanks to Indonesian punk for telling it how it is!

As an aside, the article’s casual inclusion of modern Indonesia alongside Burma, Iraq and Russia as a “repressive state” really shits me. Indonesia is a functioning modern democracy and although it has its problems it is not in the same league as those countries, and one rather egregious instance of (by repressive standards, pretty low-key) violence in a semi-autonomous state does not qualify a nation of the size and diversity and dynamism of Indonesia as a “repressive state.” The fact that this happened in a state that the central government has granted semi-autonomy should be a clue as to just how wrong that inclusion is, and I think it’s another example of a British journalist writing on Asia out of complete ignorance of what really goes on in this part of the world. Problems of political repression in modern Indonesia should be treated the same way as they are in Australia, Britain or continental Europe: by talking about problems of police corruption, governance, policy failings and better forms of oversight, rather than equating them with the practices of a regime that the Indonesian people went to great lengths to overthrow. And it’s particularly rich coming from a newspaper writer in Britain, a country that has seen significant problems of repression since 2001: police murder innocent bystanders at demonstrations, murder foreign workers in cold blood in front of multiple witnesses and get away with it, infiltrate political movements and entrap their members while having relationships with the membership, and assist powerful media organizations in spying on at least one serving PM and a future head of state. Given this history of murder and spying, and the obviously corrupt and too-cozy relationships between the current British government, police and powerful media, I’d say an Indonesian journalist would have every right to lump Britain in with Russia – but no one does[1], because we discuss these issues in Britain in terms of the mundane problems of managing a powerful and politically important institution of state violence in a modern democracy. We should extend the same consideration to Indonesia, and not assume that because it has a large Muslim minority and is Asian that it must be a repressive state.

This particularly shits me about the western attitude towards Indonesia (and especially western leftists’ attitudes) because back when Indonesia was actually a repressive state, its political opposition was largely abandoned by the organized apparatus of western leftism (the unions, social democratic governments and democratic organizers of the western political establishment). When Indonesians decided they’d had enough of their backward state and wanted to move to a modern democracy, they did it themselves, without much help from the west at all, and they did a much, much better job of overthrowing tyranny than most western states have ever achieved (see, e.g., Russia or the USA for examples of how overthrow tyranny with maximum violence, and how to fuck up the ensuing peace while you’re at it). Now that they’re making a genuine and well-thought-out effort to build a modern democracy in a developing nation in Asia, infused with Asian (and yes, Muslim) values but genuinely politically representative, they have one little moment of police corruption against an opposition movement that is admitted to be ineffectual, and they get lumped in with Iraq? This is the thanks that Asia gets for trying to join the elite Western club of successfully functioning democracies – derided as a repressive state and chucked in with Iraq and Russia by a lefty journalist from a country whose police have been behaving like the paramilitary wing of a tin-pot dictatorship for the last, well, since at least the 70s. It’s particularly rich given that there is a clear skidmark of corruption a mile wide in British politics, it’s perfectly obvious from outside, but the Guardian has yet to manage to join the dots because they’re so sure of the political superiority of their own archaic form of democracy.

Or, to put it more simply, if your society’s best contribution to political struggle in 100 years is Johnny Rotten, you shouldn’t be criticizing a country of 100 million people that successfully overthrew a murderous dictatorship and became a democracy with, well, pretty much zero bloodshed. They probably already have you outsmarted in the political struggle stakes, even though they’re Asian and sometimes Muslim and much poorer than you.

fn1: Actually, punk activists would. Which tells you all you need to know about the political sophistication of such a tactic.

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