A Future Foretold, A Warning Ignored

Faith In Institutions by ICD10 / Bits And Pieces by Peace De Résistance / Colonized by Hellnation / Universal Paranoia by Raw Breed / Alternative Strategies, Autumn 2023 (clockwise)

Just before Christmas, the latest issue of Alternative Strategies was published and, as ever, it provides a thoroughly thought provoking read.  This edition includes a great interview with Tom Ellis looking back over the history of the Static Shock Weekend, which was of course held for the last time back in September after over a decade at the heart of London’s hardcore scene.  Check out Elegant Moshing, Ethereal Aggression and Optimistic Daisies And Gothic Lullabies for our take.

But, perhaps, the stand-out feature is a fascinating interview with Michael Molcher, author of I Am The Law: How Judge Dredd Predicted Our Future.  In an ambitious study that calls on the work of cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, Molcher blends comic book history with a wide-ranging deconstruction of the ‘law and order’ myth that has shaped policing for the past forty-years, most notably in the UK and US, and has seen the police militarise and prison populations soar.  Spanning themes of ‘zero tolerance’, protest suppression, and the surveillance state, Molcher succeeds in skilfully illustrating how the comic not only satirised contemporary politics, but also foresaw how the direction of travel would evolve.   I was only an occasional reader of the comic back in my early teens, but it is intriguing to see that intangible sense that the authors were exploring themes you couldn’t quite put your finger on, brought fully into view.

If I had to flag any critiques, I did feel that the book’s thinking in terms of the intersection of policing and class was less developed than other areas of Molcher’s analysis and his brief foray into the politics of urban planning was surprisingly superficial.  For a book that so astutely disassembles the fallacies of the ‘law and order’ agenda, it was unexpected to see it seemingly lulled into so readily accepting the myths of the ‘sink estate’, the story of the UK’s post-war social housing being much more positive and nuanced than Molcher’s short account allows.  Those modest gripes aside though, it is a thoroughly engaging read.

Policing and prisons have long formed a lyrical theme for many hardcore punk bands, and, if anything, this focus has intensified in recent years, with greater scrutiny of the authoritarian shift in policing and of the levels of police violence.  Lyrically, this examination can broadly be split into two broad categories – the penal system itself and the militarisation of the police.  My earliest recollection of a band tackling the inequity of the penal system was Exodus on the opening track, The Last Act Of Defiance, of their 1989 album, Fabulous Disaster (this track followed by the title track, and then Toxic Waltz is quite an opening salvo). Having opened with a quote from Jessica Mitford’s Kind And Usual Punishment: The Prison Business, the song takes the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary as its starting point, exploring the horrific conditions and overcrowding that culminated in one of the most violent prison riots in US history.

Agnostic Front’s Roger Miret wrote the lyrics to the band’s 1992 LP, One Voice, following his own incarceration, with songs tackling both the inherent inequities of the justice system (The Tombs) and the dehumanising experience of prison itself (New Jack, Force Feed) as well as reflecting on how he found himself there (Now & Then).  I have always felt this to be the stand-out release in Agnostic Front’s discography, so I’m glad to see that it has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in recent years as its reception at the time was very mixed – I remember catching the band touring the album at Edwards No 8 in Birmingham, where a good portion of the crowd greeted the older material with rabid enthusiasm only to stand absolutely stock still to the new songs.  A rather surreal evening!  A similarly personal perspective is brought to bear by Regional Justice Centre, a one-man project by Ian Shelton (also of Militarie Gun), on full-lengths World Of Inconvenience (2018) and Crime And Punishment (2021) through which he explores his experience of the judicial system following the imprisonment of his brother.

A more systematic perspective can be found on The Proletariat’s 2018 album, Move, where they explore the Incarceration Incentive, which is also addressed on ICD10’s excellent 2022 release, Faith In Institutions, which engages in a wide-ranging critique of neoliberal governance, including a fierce denunciation of the US industrial-prison complex on Carceral Cult: ‘Unbroken chain, the punishment that fills no need, we’re all found guilty by the carceral cult’.

World Of Inconvenience by Regional Justice Center / One Voice by Agnostic Front / Move by The Proletariat / I Am The Law by Michael Molcher (clockwise)

The ongoing militarisation of the police has been a similarly consistent theme.  Stephen Graham’s book, Cities Under Siege, explores how US and European cities have seen an insidious militarisation of public spaces and the rampant expansion of the surveillance state, the function of a ‘boomerang effect’ whereby security techniques refined in overseas wars are retrenched to domestic urban environments.  Intriguingly, this was a trend identified as early as the title track to Hellnation’s debut 1993 full-length, Colonized: ‘Police occupation, internal colonisation, inner cities are colonies’.  More latterly, Moses Brown’s debut solo album as Peace De Résistance, Bits And Pieces, opens with Boston Dynamics, which explores the continued deployment of military technology and techniques for domestic policing: ‘The police will like to call this policing, buying a robotic dog made for the Marine Corps, unless their budget start decreasing, they’ll blow it all on domestic war’.  The wider trends of police brutality and violence that are intrinsically linked to this militarisation have unsurprisingly proven an important theme for a wide range of bands in recent years from Savageheads (Line Of Duty) and Stress Positions (No Sympathy) to Dawn Ray’d (A Colony Of Fevers) and Enemy (Barricade Bridge).

At the root of these dual processes of disproportionate reliance on incarceration and police militarisation is the driving need of our current economic system for ever-amplifying socio-economic inequality and the need to exert social control on the inevitable marginalisation that this inflicts.  Sociologist Loïc Wacquant cogently argues that it is fuelled by an imperative to liberate the wealthy while catstigating the poor, in essence a criminalisation of poverty.  This is a theme viscerally explored by Raw Breed on Government In Grip, from their 2022 full-length Universal Paranoia: ‘Economic levels used as judgement tools, Protect the rich, death to the poor’.

And here in the UK, one of the most surveilled and disproportionally incarcerated populations in the world, perhaps, we should have paid a little more attention to the comic that saw it all coming.  As Molcher observes, ‘For Judge Dredd is – and always has been – a warning, not a manual’.

Check out www.anothersubculture.co.uk for the autumn issue of Alternative Strategies.