The counter-cultural fringes
From the point of view of a young person growing up in a modern industrialised society, the pattern of life that is presented to them as they become aware of their future prospects can appear to be highly pre-ordained with little room for manoeuvre.
A large part of their early years will be spent in a formal educational institute. Secondary schooling follows primary schooling. For some, a third level education comes next, but sooner or later a job awaits. In most cases, it will be a job that provides little outlet for creativity or self-expression. Then follows 40 or 50 years in which a large part of life is devoted to earning a wage, before retirement, decrepitude and death.
To a significant number of young people this appears as a rather unappealing prospect. They see their parents and other older people around them and perceive spirits that have been ground down by a life of regimentation, obedience and conformity. They observe the prevailing culture in which they have been brought up – a culture which assigns value to individuals according to their conformity to this pattern. They look at the world that awaits them and recoil.
Meanwhile, modern Western societies have become increasingly wealthy as industrial technologies have conjured up ever greater productive powers. Among other things, this has created more surplus, more waste and more under-utilisation of resources. Buildings and parcels of land lie vacant for years and decades; empty trains and buses run here and there over the earth according to pre-determined schedules; unsold food is thrown away and destroyed in vast quantities; consumer goods are purchased, become obsolete, are thrown away and replaced in rapid, ever decreasing cycles.
These two factors - alienation and surplus - combine to create counter-cultures: attempts by the disenchanted to construct an alternative culture in the margins of society. What marks out the counter-culture from the myriad of alternative sub-cultural forms that thrive in modern consumer society is that the counter-culture is not just an alternative to the mainstream, but is explicitly hostile to many of its core values. Most importantly, it rejects the predominant cultural norm which assigns value to people according to their participation in the world of work and their possession of material goods. It constructs an alternative value system which makes a virtue out of surviving on the left-over surpluses of modern industrial society.
Having set out to try to discover some real life anarchists, this was the world that I was stepping into. My entry point was Alan Toner – the only person who had a connection with anything resembling contemporary anarchism that I knew of. By quirk of fate, one of my close college friends, Simon McDonnell, was spending the year in Paris studying in the Sorbonne and he had moved into an apartment with Alan. Thus, as soon as the college term ended in early April 1995, I made my way to Paris to visit them with the intention of learning what I could about this new and exciting set of ideas that Noam Chomsky had introduced me to.
Rochechouart - the melting pot
Their apartment was situated on the third floor of a 19th century apartment building on the North side of the Boulevard Rochechouart. The building had seen better days – the apartments had been sub-divided at some stage in the distant past and were dark and awkwardly laid out. Their high ceilings and polished stone floors testified to grander days, but these had long since passed. To the East, the Boulevard Rochechouart was a thriving thoroughfare, bisected by an elevated Metro train line, propped up on thick, riveted steel girders. The street was populated by throngs of North African immigrants, bargain-basement clothes shops and cheap and tatty flea-markets. To the West, the Boulevard Clichy ran through the Pigalle area, full of ugly neon sex-shows and seedy bars habituated by prostitutes, pimps and gangsters. To the North was a warren of small streets, winding their way around the slopes of the hill of Montmartre, between higgledly piggledy rows of two-storey houses which had an almost rural simplicity in comparison to the tall buildings of the grand boulevards beneath. Southwards was the heart of the city - full of palaces, museums and tourists. It was a perfect setting for somebody who was searching for exotic and radical ideas
I spent three weeks in Paris that April, during which I discovered a new world on the fringes of society. Alan – or “Toner” as he has been been known since his school days – is somebody who needs little encouragement to talk about ideas. Stories about a huge variety of subjects poured forth enthusiastically – from the squatting movement in Berlin where he had recently spent time, to the autonomist workers’ movements of the 1970s in the factories of Northern Italy, to the repressive laws targeted at immigrants that the Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, was in the process of introducing in France. Simon, for his part, was working in an Irish bar in the heart of the city, near Chatalet les Halles and while he was working, I spent my time listening to Toner’s tales and reading as many of his books as I could get through. This was not a simple task as the apartment was overflowing with radical literature – the small bookshelves had long run out of space; the tables and chairs were laden down with precarious piles of books, pamphlets and hand-stapled bundles of photocopied sheets; the floors were strewn with leaflets and the debris of literature avalanches when some pile or other had collapsed at some unknown time in the past.
When Simon was not working, we travelled together through the hidden underground of the great city – visiting unlicensed drinking dens, political cafés and bookshops, squats and social centres. They were mostly located in the in the North Eastern quadrant of the city, in neighbourhoods that are mostly unknown to tourists. Even today, the names of those neighbourhoods are enough to stir feelings of excitement and adventure in me: Menilemontant, Belleville, Stalingrad, La Porte de Clignancourt, Les Buttes Chaumont. As I was new to this world and our travels were punctuated with alcoholic refreshments, I experienced these explorations as something of a blur. Now, 18 years later, I can scarcely remember much about exactly where we went, who we met and what we did. However, a few places stand out in my memory and became emblematic of the world that I was discovering.
Three emblamatic places
One of these places was an “infoshop” in Belleville. Toner was somehow connected with the people who ran it and spent a considerable amount of time there. Infoshops are a particular feature of the anarchist-influenced counter-culture and I would come across them frequently in the coming years. They are part-bookshop, part social space. They rarely stock many books by mainstream or commercial publishers. Newspapers of obscure left-wing groups are a staple, as are home-made DIY pamphlets. The walls and tables are normally covered with leaflets and posters advertising political and cultural events – everything from meetings of environmental campaigns to punk gigs. Sometimes they are part of squatted buildings, but normally they are situated in out-of-the way buildings with cheap rents. They do not, as a rule, make a profit, or at least I have never heard of one doing so. They rely almost exclusively on volunteer labour and normally require additional fund-raising efforts in order to pay for their stock, supplies and rent. They are the outreach programme of the counter-culture, where the underground peeks out and shows itself bashfully to the everyday world.
The second place that made enough of an impression on me to stick in my mind was quite different. Simon brought me there, late one evening. We emerged from a Metro station in the East of the city, walked for 10 minutes or so through a workaday neighbourhood, until we stopped in front of a non-descript building that betrayed no obvious signs of life, where Simon rapped on the metal door. The door was opened by two large men of West African origin and we entered a lobby area with walls of riveted metal sheets and descended a circular metal staircase, into the depths of the city. It was an abandoned train station that had been transformed into a bar, complete with huge mirrors and exotic potted plants – like a cyberpunk rendition of a Toulouse Lautrec painting. After a few hours enjoying some leisurely beverages and conversations we emerged back onto the street. Simon directed me across the street towards a large wooden gate set back from the road. There was a small crowd gathered outside this gate, apparently trying to gain entrance. We made our way through the crowd and Simon exchanged a few words with somebody on the other side, whereupon the gate opened slightly and we were able to squeeze in, into a courtyard surrounded by a large institutional looking building. I’m not sure what the building was originally designed for – perhaps a large secondary school – but whatever it was, it had been long abandoned. It was now a squat in which a large party was underway. I remember wandering in amazement through corridors and stairswells, coming upon rooms with DJs and dancers, others with live bands and mosh-pits and still others with experimental and outlandish art exhibitions.
The third and final place that stuck in my mind was Jussieu University, just South of the river Seine. It was mostly constructed in the 1960s in a harsh, modernist style, dominated by huge 6 storey blocks balanced upon cylindrical concrete struts. Each block was identical and identified only by a large number attached to the outside of the stairway cylinder. The numbers used a curious sci-fi font that gave the whole thing a futuristic post-apocalyptic air. It is just a few hundred metres from the Sorbonne, but with a quite different air: its proletarian brother. Jussieu itself is an interesting sight, mostly as a study in ugliness and architectural disaster. However, what was much more interesting to me was its cafeteria. For as well as serving food, it served as a thriving marijuana market. Young men would set themselves up at tables and a regular stream of customers would approach them whereupon they would produce a meat-cleaver and a large slab of hashish and proceed to chop chunks off, all the while engaging in ritualised haggling about the price, quality and size of the deal. All of this happened as students dined around them and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. Simon informed me that it was a result of a legal statute, which had been introduced in the aftermath of the 1968 student protests, preventing the police from intervening on university campuses.
These three places made a particular impression on me for a simple reason – they were entirely outside of the normal rules and regulations of society as I understood them, yet they were not clandestine and operated on a large scale, involving hundreds of people. The idea that a sub-culture could exist on such a scale and operate openly in contravention of the laws and cultural norms around it was not something that I had imagined would be possible. Furthermore, I realised that, had it not been for Simon and Toner, I never would have come across these places. Once again, I was struck by the disconcerting idea that I had been passing through a world without being aware of large parts of it, only seeing what I expected to see. My eyes were again opened to a whole new world of possibility.
The next installment of this story will appear on Monday - it looks at the ideas that were in circulation among the European counter-culture of the mid 1990s and follows my journey of discovery onwards to London, India and Italy