Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK

The song “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols gives us some alternative accounts of a couple of the main arguments that are made in Allegra McLeod’s article “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”. On the one hand, parts of the song’s lyrics are in line with certain arguments of the article, but on the other hand it also formulates some reservations about how McLeod envisions an abolitionist democracy.

McLeod defines the concept of abolition as abolishing the kind of society that could have institutions or practices such as prisons, police, or slavery. Abolition does not mean to eliminate anything, but to create a new kind of society. Justice in the context of abolition means taking effort to prevent violence, to intervene in violence, to achieve reparations, and to reconstruct the conditions that people live in. To achieve this, we need to expose the illegitimacy of many acts that have been criminalised and identify meaningful forms of accountability and prevention with which we can respond to violence and wrongdoing. While doing so, we can work to the abolishment of the current punitive institutions. The reconstruction of living conditions can be done by addressing the economic practices that perpetrate violent theft on a daily basis. We can prevent the unequal distribution of recourses and chances in life by democratising political and economic institutions. The abolitionist view of justice is, all in all, holistic: it involves an exhaustive alteration of our social, economic, and political lives. Achieving an abolitionist democracy means to dismantle current institutions of justice and working towards new ways of relating to each other and living together.[15]  

What the McLeod describes as ‘abolitionist democracy’ could also be seen as a form of anarchy, because in an abolitionist democracy there will be less of a central governing or government body that decides on the fate of ‘wrongdoers’. What the advocate of an abolitionist democracy essentially seems to want is an equitable and just society, and the way they want to achieve this is through what some will see as a form of anarchy. This corresponds with what seems to be an important message of the Sex Pistols’ song, for example in the lines, “How many ways to get what you want […]; I use anarchy”.[16]

What we can learn from the song is that sometimes it makes no sense to explain someone’s behaviour from their past, their upbringing or their context and place in society. The line at the end of the song, “I get pissed, destroy” tells us that people will still get drunk or have bad days, even in an equitable society and abolitionist democracy.[17] Not everyone will always be ready to deal in a constructive way with potentially violent situations, and this cannot always be explained from societal structures that individuals are situated in. Social behaviour cannot always be explained from the ‘habitus’, or from structuralist and situationist approaches. This is also probably why, as McLeod admits, not all interpersonal harm can be prevented in a system of abolitionist democracy, just like it cannot be prevented in the punitive systems we now live in.[18] As the song goes “Your future dream is a shopping scheme”, it reminds us of the possibility that some objectives in the holistic theory of abolitionist democrats may be unavailable.[19]

The song all in all seems to agree with abolitionist democracy as described by McLeod in the way that it suggests a change in the systems that we live in. The song also teaches us that not all social behaviour is necessarily subject to societal structures, and thus that some ambitions of abolitionist democracy might be unfeasible, at least for now.

Doortje Kok

[15] Allegra McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”, Harvard Law Review 132 (2019), pp. 1613-1649, pp. 1615-1619.
[16] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”, album: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977).
[17] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”.
[18] McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”, p. 1630.
[19] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”.

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